By Laurel-Lea Shannon
Olga Kotelko is one of a handful of nonagenarians who still competes in master’s track events. And wins. The 95-year-old has a horde of gold medals stored in a closet at home, and holds 26 world records. How she defies age and continues to run, high-jump, and hammer throw is a question many scientists, and one journalist, set out to answer in a book titled What Makes Olga Run.
When author Bruce Grierson first met Olga he was on a fast skid towards early aging. Along with his stamina, the once-fit runner had lost his get-up-and-go, fitness and hair—all by the age of 47. Grierson’s interest in the nonagenarian track star involved more than just finding a good story; he was on a quest to learn how Olga cheats old age while most of us succumb to it, not only much earlier, but, like him, often with alarming speed. Together they agreed to study Olga to find out how she’s slowing down the normal aging trajectory, while maintaining the vitality of a fifty-year-old.
What they found
Although genetics is a piece of the puzzle, it only accounts for 25 to 30% of longevity. And the one gene associated with longevity Olga doesn’t have. Could it be her diet? Olga has a healthy appetite and eats red meat, dairy, and fermented foods such as yogurt and sauerkraut. The vegetables she eats are from her own organic garden. She doesn’t eat processed foods. She’s into water and drinks copious amounts of it. While her diet is healthy, there’s nothing extraordinary about it that explains her resilience. Could it be supplements? She doesn’t take them. And no, she doesn’t take performance-enhancing drugs.
In fact, the various scientific studies she’s undergone didn’t come up with one specific thing that gives Olga her super-anti-aging advantage. Instead, there are a number of small daily things—more, Olga being Olga—that give her that leverage. At the end of his book Grierson summarizes these findings in nine rules. The author is careful to point out that Olga is special. While most of us cannot become an Olga, we can, by making lifestyle changes now, become more “Olga-like.”
Rule One: Keep Moving
As well as doing her workouts, Olga moves continuously. Think crossfit. The more ways you find to move, the better. Walk, garden, ride a bike, swim, jump, throw a ball. Multiple activities and movement are better than a single sport. Having regular workouts alone won’t protect you from the ravages of an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. Being sedentary throughout the day, as many of us are, is associated with several diseases, and premature aging. Everything works better with movement, including our brains. Activity makes us more alert, we process information better, and we remember more. It even helps us to sleep more deeply, and for longer.
Rule Two: Create Routines (But sometimes break them)
Routines help us accomplish more in life, leading to successfully completing the goals we set. And they develop discipline—to exercise, to learn, and to keep socially engaged. That’s especially important as we age. But too much of a good thing can be bad. So don’t get in a rut. To adapt and grow, we need to have new experiences and break out of our routine from time to time.
Rule Three: Be Opportunistic
Don’t be an energizer bunny. Stay focused on what’s important to you, and spend your energy wisely. Tune into your body and learn when it’s good to be active and when it’s best to lie low and conserve your energy.
Rule Four: Be a Mensch
Thinking of others and finding ways to express kindness and gratitude are not just good for us but benefit everyone we come in contact with. Quality friendships are important too. People with an abundance of good friends tend to thrive more.
Rule Five: Believe in Something
It doesn’t really matter what beliefs you hold as long as they provide you with the courage to embrace life’s challenges and to help you see that the really hard bits, the steep slopes, are a necessary part of the journey.
Rule Six: Lighten Up
Managing stress is a crucial component for health. Our genes may predispose us towards certain diseases and conditions, but often choices in lifestyle, including how we manage stress, determine how these genes are expressed. While exercise is one way to reduce stress, learning how our minds create it is equally important. Meditation and yoga can help with that. Getting a proper perspective is also important. When we zoom out and take the long perspective, we can see that most of the things we stress about are really quite trivial. Grierson suggests replacing grumbling with gratitude, and to actively acknowledge the power of grace operating in our lives.
Rule Seven: Cultivate a Sense of Progress
Organize your life for “small wins.” Find ways to improve at the things you already do. Or start new activities to stretch your capacity to learn. We thrive when we feel that we are progressing. Don’t wait for the big stuff. Celebrate small victories.
Rule Eight: Don’t Do It If You Don’t Love It
When it comes to exercise, it’s got to be fun. Whatever “it” is for you—it may be hard, it may make you sweat, it may create some mild pain afterwards—if it’s not fun you won’t do it. Get rid of “should.” Go for “play.”
Rule Nine: Begin Now
Olga took up track and field at 77, an age when most athletes have long before hung up their sneakers for good. If there’s an activity you want to try and haven’t, take small steps towards doing it now. It doesn’t matter how old you are. There’s never been a better time than now.
A New Perspective On Aging
Grierson’s book throws our standard assumptions about growing old out the window. Citing current scientific studies and anecdotes about his travels with Olga, he creates a new perspective on healthy aging. Through the book we get a glimpse of how a few special people, like Olga, have resisted the normal downward end-of-life spiral. What Makes Olga Run is an inspiring story of how one 95-year-old woman continues to blossom and thrive as she tumbles towards 100, and includes useful life-enhancing tips for how we too can age with greater resilience and grace.
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