Lauren Kessler set out to turn back the clock on her own aging in her mid-50s, and she wasn't doing it for vanity but to learn how to live in a place of true health and vitality. She took a year, investigated the whole anti-aging movement, made herself the test subject and then wrote a book about the experience: "Counter Clockwise: My Year of Hormones, Dark Chocolate and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging."
Her goal at the end of the experiment was to reverse her biological age (very different from her chronological age) from the inside out. In a phone interview, she reports that she successfully maintained and continues to improve the key areas of her health, and in ways that affect her daily life.
"I feel super-energized, I have an enormous amount of energy, not the energy that we adults manufacture by caffeine or being stressed out, or in high gear. I know very well what those two kinds of energies feel like. I have an embodied sense of energy and power."
She gave an example of what she refers to as operating at another level that now just feels completely normal. She recently conducted a seminar on narrative journalism (she's a professor at the University of Oregon), then 24 hours later traveled to speak at a women's writing symposium. "It was fine and I had energy for it. People ask, 'Aren't you tired?' No, I am not tired in my head or in my body."
In her book, she reported that her percentage of body fat was reduced from 33 to 27 percent (now in the healthy range), her cholesterol levels and flexibility improved and she made great strides in her recovery from exercise. She started with clocking a mile-long fast walk at 13.4 minutes, with a pulse of 140 -- the low end of good for a 50- to 59-year-old woman. A year later, her fast walk is 12.58 minutes, her heart rate stays at 120 -- in the good range for a 40- to 49-year-old woman. In a strength test, she could only do 27 modified pushups; a year later, she could do 52.
As people are looking for the fountain of youth, Ms. Kessler thinks that they are totally missing the mark. "We spend a huge amount of time thinking of face creams -- you should obsess over your cortisol level and what you are doing to age yourself from the inside out."
Ms. Kessler said that one of the most alarming things she discovered in the research about chronic stress many people live with is how it affects the levels of cortisol, known as the stress hormone. That causes a host of disorders in those systems, triggers chronic inflammation and a laundry list of ailments frequently associated with aging but are more a result of the life that we choose to live. "It's astonishing." she said. "It has immediate and long-term biological consequences."
Women in particular are often so dragged out and tired. "You hear from cosmetic surgeons that these women come in saying, "I want to look as good as I feel." She says that they're fooling themselves if they are not taking care from the inside out.
Can she keep up the healthy habits she learned?
"I was just thinking about this. A half an hour ago, I was at the gym. In the same building is a crazy popular doughnut shop. They pump out that smell to the public, you are rowing and do all of this good stuff. Then get hit in the face with doughnut wonderfulness."
She laughs and says it's not as difficult to live in this junk food-saturated world as you think. "I eat many superfoods and those are delicious foods that ordinary people can buy. I enjoy those foods." Broccoli, salmon, blueberries, almonds, spinach and beans are some of her favorite superfoods. "I stray into substances that are full of sugar, but not as often as most people and not as I did before."
Here's some of the advice she compiled about trying to live healthier. There are some surprises:
1. How much control we have over our own aging process. "All of the credible sources point to the fact that aging is 70 percent biological choice and 30 percent genetic. The science is real and in my generation (50 and older) it empowered me personally in a way that I hadn't felt before."
2. We really are these two ages, chronological and biological. "After age 40 or 45, chronological age is one of the least accurate age indicators. Biomarkers -- how old your body systems are -- tell the real story."
3. The enormous toll over time that low-level chronic stress creates in the body.
4. The power of the mind-body connection. Lots of solid research points to the fact that if you think of yourself as old and sick, you are less likely to do anything to change your circumstance. Your attitude can change your body's biology.
5. Exercise and moving your body are key. "The best exercise to do is one that you'll stick with." Pointing out the importance of starting early, most studies show that it's never too late to start. Even more so for the very elderly and the very young.
When reflecting back on her life-changing journey, she realized that "What we do with and to our bodies is serious business. Eating is a pleasure and moving your body is a pleasure."
Rosa Colucci: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1661. First Published July 8, 2013 4:00 AM