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Education is key when it comes to taking power over your own health and wellness. I look at the role movement can play in your health, wellness and recovery to full and optimal function. The articles are not meant to take the place of medical advice and should not be used as such.

Life Span vs Health Span: What's the Difference?

May 13, 2024 |

Active agers maintain mobility throughout their golden years. How can you restore and maintain movement skills and become a dynamic ager?

Yesterday was All Saints Day. My family was Catholic until I came along, I was the first baby not to be baptised, so I don’t put too much meaning into the day, except for the fact that it is also my mother’s birthday, and she would have been 100 on November 1st 2023.

Mom died suddenly in 2005. When I look at my parent’s and grand parent's deaths, there is a similar pattern. They are well for a long time and then there is a precipitous drop off. Sometimes that drop off is a year long, sometimes a day. In the case of my paternal grandmother who died in her 106th year, she was living alone in an apartment at Yonge/Eglinton until she was 104 and then she spent her last year in hospital. My father who died last December at 93, lived and died in his suburban house, making his own meals and taking care of his wife (ten years his junior and not ambulatory) until his last week, bedridden with pancreatic cancer.

This pattern - a long period of health, followed by a relatively short period of disease is called your “health span" - you are old but still function well. We would consider ourselves lucky to have a long health span and that’s something that I purposefully work towards.

Some people have a long life span (the number of years you're here) but are not healthy for a large part of it. This is not their fault. I’ve known people who do “everything right” and still have the misfortune of a short health span and a long life span. Sometimes you play the cards you're dealt.

But we should try, now, to establish some habits that could improve our odds.

I was talking about this recently as I walked with a younger friend, whose tale of the older people in her life and their reluctance to try movement as a “therapy” for what ails them reminded me so much of some of my friends and relatives who are dealing with substantial health concerns now that could have been less of an issue had they taken some self-control decades ago.

My dad wanted to turn the clock back so badly! He said he didn’t feel his age, and I think many of us can relate. I believe you can turn the clock back, but you can only restore function a percentage. Think of it this way:

You notice some niggling difference and chalk it up to “aging” and tolerate it, because there’s nothing you can do about your number right? And two years goes by, five years, and that thing becomes more of a thing, and the rest of your body is forced to compensate around it, and then you start having other issues, that don’t necessarily seem related to the first thing. The following decade involves a cascade of issues as the snowball gathers speed. So if you had tried to navigate the first issue, you might have avoided all the others, but now you can only improve from the state you are in, which is more complex. You go to the Doctor and they say “what do you expect for your age?” insinuating that it’s normal to suffer, and prescribe pain meds. Or they see each item on your list as a separate thing to treat, and you never seem to get to the bottom of your woes.

Sound familiar?

I had a friendly argument recently with a colleague who likes to say “movement is medicine.” My stance on that is that medicine is something you take when you are ill or diseased. Movement is like food (where Nutritious Movement™ got their name) in the sense that it provides the nutrients you need for thriving and is a necessary input for optimal health. In our culture we often do use exercise as medicine. I wish I had a dollar for every time I get the question “what exercises should I do every day” or “just tell me the three things I need to do, and how often to do them.” This is the mindset that we can improve our health with the least amount of hassle. Movement needs to be a bigger input than it is currently. Movement helps the same way eating a good diet keeps you from illness. If you are missing a nutrient, there will eventually be a consequence to your health. You are prescribed a supplement to help, but even though it heals you, the supplement is not medicine; it’s just what was missing from your diet in the first place.

We supplement with movement (I call it Restorative Exercise) but the movements should have been a normal part of your diet all along. We are turning back the clock a little, by finding the parts of your body that aren’t moving and the parts that are compensating, and then moving and sparing them.

The danger of using movement as medicine is that we might “stop taking it” when we feel better. But a good movement diet has to become our status quo.