Healthy ageing isn’t only about diet and exercise. Just ask the Fab Five
For the past eight years, a group of Melbourne men — whose ages range from 68 to 91 — have met every day for a swim at their local pool.
“We were designated the Fab Five, but some people unkindly call us a Flab Five,” group member Angelo Natoli tells ABC RN’s Life Matters.
There’s a serious screening process to join them, he explains.
“It’s called breathing.”
This is a swimming group that laughs. A lot.
“We’re not out to break records … we’re out to get the exercise and a bit of companionship as well,” 73-year-old John Tait says.
The men, who were strangers before meeting at the pool, have become so close they have regular dinners and coffee catch-ups, too.
Geriatrician and internal medicine physician Kate Gregorevic says the Fab Five are a great example of a positive attitude towards ageing, and of how to counteract our “internal ageism”.
Ageing can bring challenges and “not all of life is in our control”, she says.
“But there’s a lot that we can do to try and make our lives better.”
And it’s worth putting the effort in. Dr Gregorevic says the way we think about our own ageing — that is, negatively or positively — can have a big impact on our mental and physical experience of it.
For 88-year-old Fab Five member Graham Polkinghorn, the group’s regular swims have been an important part of life.
“With me, it’s a matter of necessity because it becomes like having an appointment,” he says.
“That’s what keeps me alive, I think. Otherwise, I’d be probably staying in bed more often.”
There’s a growing body of research suggesting that feeling good about ageing and about ourselves can actually help us to live longer, says Tim Windsor, associate professor at Flinders University’s School of Psychology.
“We can form negative views of what it means to be older when we’re very young. And then as we age … we can begin to see ourselves in a negative light, if those beliefs about ageing already have a negative nature,” he says.
“Awareness of losses associated with ageing is related to poorer outcomes in terms of health and wellbeing.”
Undeniably, ageing brings a susceptibility to losses in health and functioning, but recognising that there are also positives is a powerful thing.
Just being aware that there are real gains to be made as we age means we are more likely to experience those positives, Dr Windsor says.
In older age, we might make better judgements based on our experience, have increased wisdom and be more adept at managing social relationships. We might be more aware of what’s important in our lives and be better at prioritising our goals to focus on those things.
Dr Windsor says these are benefits that can “help to offset some of those losses that can occur” with ageing.
“If we’re optimistic about the future and are aware of resources that we might have built up as a result of growing older, we might be more likely to mobilise those resources … that are going to help preserve well-being into the future.”
Don’t forget to have fun
Dr Gregorevic says there are lifestyle adjustments we can make to increase our chances of being healthy for longer.
“It’s not inevitable that people of a certain age will not be capable of doing things.”
For example, getting enough sleep and eating vegetables are known to increase longevity. She recommends making vegetables most of your main meal plate.
Exercise also increases longevity — but perhaps not the kind we always think of.
Routines should include a combination of cardiovascular exercise — things like swimming, fast walking, running — as well as strength training, says Dr Gregorevic, whose latest book is Staying Alive: The Science of Living Healthier, Happier and Longer.
“People don’t realise how important that is. But one of the things that happens as you get older — it’s particularly relevant for women — is that you lose muscle mass … and over time it can get to the point where it’s harder to do things like get out of a chair, and you become at risk of falls.
“So maintaining [strength] is really important for you to be able to do what you want in later life.
“And of course, maintaining your brain health is really important for enjoying life for all those long years hopefully ahead of us,” she says.
Despite common misconceptions, the brain and body do not operate separately, but are “inextricably linked”.
For that reason, Dr Gregorevic highlights the value of — alongside things like maintaining exercise routines and healthy diets — simply having fun.
“I think it’s really underrated how important it is to have fun in life,” she says.
The Fab Five’s Angelo Natoli says the social interaction that comes with his regular swim has a positive impact on his mental health.
“It feels good, very good. I feel fresh, ready for the day,” he says.
And like Dr Gregorevic, he advises others his age to engage in something similar.
“Do it. Do something, anyway. Don’t just sit around. Get in and do something, either swimming, walking or whatever — but not at this pool because it’ll get bloody crowded.”
Joy, fun and a bit of hedonism go a long way, Dr Gregorevic says.
“We all need that in life.
“The reality is there’s no 100 per cent guarantees of anything. And so you’ve got to find your bits of enjoyment, wherever you can, in the every day.”
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