The InteractionAction Daily

Articles made by friends for friends.

26th May 2024

It really excist

Written by Johan Holm

Getting old isn’t much fun, and it was even less so back in the day when I was growing up in the 1960s. I recall with a certain amount of dread the large family dinners when someone in the extensive Holm family turned 50.

The jubilarian had a round belly, was slightly bent, and the unspoken truth at these gatherings was that their prime was now behind them. They had chosen their careers, worked, got married, had children who were now adults.

Speeches were given.

Speeches about the jubilarian’s life’s work, something to look back on with pride (implied – from the rocking chair). The person might have 15 years left until retirement, but nothing of great importance was expected to happen during that time, I understood that even as a 10-year-old.

It was even worse when the jubilarian retired at 65. Speeches were given then as well, and the gist of them, as I remember, was that it was now time to sit in the waiting room for death while feeding ducks. In 1965, the average life expectancy for men was 71, so you didn’t have to feed ducks for very long. We can also calculate that since there were quite a few 80-year-olds in 1965, there were quite a few guys who never made it to retirement age. They perished along the somewhat dull road between their 50th birthday and their retirement send-off.

I’m about to turn 64, and I’m not particularly eager for either retirement or duck-feeding duty. But times have changed. The media is filled with good news. Seventy is the new fifty. Those of us born in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s are living healthier lives than those in their 50s did 50 years ago.

The shorter life expectancy considered normal 60 years ago was due to various factors, including extensive smoking, difficulty in treating certain cancers, fairly monotonous diets, and the prevalence of overweight and abdominal obesity in 50-year-old men. And, of course, a lack of exercise. Adults didn’t exercise. At all. There was “gym” in school, maybe a few years of tennis or other sports as twenty-somethings. Then came children, smoking, alcohol, and seriousness.

Today, things are different. Many athletes (runners, hockey players, and others) have remained in the absolute world elite until the age of 40. It’s possible to keep the body in shape for a long time, as long as you train and don’t primarily live on cigarettes, coffee, and French fries. The years of raising young children can be tough. Time constraints make it difficult to make time for exercise. I remember being shocked at the swimming pool in Nyköping. I was there with my children and walked past a mirror, and there, alongside my children, was a pudgy old man. Frightening.

But as the children get older, we, born in the 1960s and ’70s, bounce back. We start exercising again. Intensely. We participate in extreme ski races, cycling events, and train for Ironman. And many become quite good.

I, myself, took up my old favorite activities: road cycling, mogul skiing, cross-country skiing. And at the age of 50, I completed my first Vasaloppet (in 8 hours and 12 minutes), and I realized that I was truly part of a movement. I was part of a new generation of men and women who weren’t aging like people did in the 1960s.

But there are problems. Even though we, born in the 1960s, don’t accelerate our own aging, we also can’t halt it.

Or wait, I think we can. The fountain of youth exists, in a way.

Let’s start from the beginning.

After the age of 50, the body slowly starts to give in. It varies for different individuals, but it’s difficult to find a 50-plus-year-old who doesn’t have some minor issue affecting their training. Recurring tennis elbow, shin splints, sciatic pain, protesting knees. You can’t train as you did 30 years ago. You have to be a bit more cautious. There’s a bit of Voltaren and doctor’s visits now and then. And your fitness level declines. Not quickly, but slowly, surely.

I was nearing 59 and definitely felt this. But then I got a job in Kenya, at the Swedish School in Nairobi. And there, I discovered something peculiar. My body stopped protesting. There was no pain anymore. So, I increased my training volume. I ventured deeper into Ngong Forest on my son’s old mountain bike. Then I started strength training. And after that, it was time to pick up tennis again. I quit my tennis club back in 1972. That was 50 years ago. But now, I grabbed the racket again and started training.

After a couple of years, I was up to over 2 hours of rigorous training per day. Not too shabby on the other side of 60. And nothing hurt. On the contrary, I became faster and stronger and regained a level of fitness I hadn’t had since my teenage years. Back in Sweden, I broke all my old cycling speed records.

So, what is this miracle, and where is the fountain of youth?

Naturally, I have no scientific explanation. I’m a historian, not a scientist. But I have a hypothesis. A visitor to the Nairobi National Museum (a fascinating place that combines the Academy of Fine Arts, the Natural History Museum, and the Historical Museum) quickly realizes they are near Ground Zero for the origin of the human race. The collections contain numerous skeletons and skulls of our close or distant ancestors. After all, this is where the cradle of humanity stood, in East Africa, and where nature tested all our forebears and their survival abilities.

This also means that the human body is created for the very conditions that prevail here. Eternal Swedish summer warmth. Dry climate. Just the right amount of rain. An amazing flora and fauna. Nearly the same length of day all year round. Then our ancestors became curious (or temporarily insane) and decided to colonize the rest of the planet, leaving behind the perfect environment to seek out places where we as a species were not adapted. Such as Sweden, with its long, dark winter and its damp and cold climate. Naturally, we fall victim to all sorts of ailments in our old age.

On the other hand, if you return to the cradle of humanity, eat sensibly, skip excessive drinking, and quit smoking, you get a genuine chance to shave off about 30 years of physical aging. But a young and strong body doesn’t come for free, even here in the cradle of humanity. If you want to become fast and strong, it requires intense training. Your starting conditions also play a role, of course. I was in reasonably good shape when I came here. Someone who is entirely out of shape, overweight, and starting from scratch probably experiences the miracle happening very slowly.

But living at 1,750 meters above sea level, in Nairobi, above “The Great Rift Valley,” is, for those who are healthy and exert themselves, like drinking from the fountain of youth… quite literally.