In last week’s blog post on how achieving health is boring, I used my Grandfather as an example of how doing some basic stuff will get you pretty far when it comes to health.
I mentioned in that post that my Grandfather’s favorite form of physical activity was golf. However golf brought with it a bunch of other benefits related to health, he was outside in nature, he was exposed to sunlight, it allowed him to be socially engaged, and all that probably brought with it a lot of stress relief.
Once he was no longer able to play golf, it should be no surprise how his health declined quickly.
I honestly believe that my grandfathers lack of physical activity is the #1 reason for his decline in health.
Ironically as I was writing last week’s blog post I read an article about something called the active grandparent hypothesis (Rice & Galbraith, 2008).
What is the active grandparent hypothesis? To describe it, let’s first think about grandparents from an evolutionary perspective.
Nature generally removed things that are costly and provide no value from an organisms #1 goal…passing on its DNA.
At a certain point, elderly humans can no longer pass on their DNA, so why has nature decided to “keep them around”?
Well actually grandparents do serve a purpose in making sure our DNA gets passed on.
For one, grandparents possess a lot of knowledge. They have managed to survive several decades and over the course of those decades they have learned a lot that has managed to keep them alive up until this point. Unfortunately they cannot just download this knowledge into their children and grandchildren, it has to be taught, and that might take quite a long time. This knowledge is crucial to making sure their DNA continues to be passed along.
Second, since their children are now of childbearing age, the grandparent can shoulder some of the hard work that would otherwise be costly from an energy perspective allowing the children to put more energy into reproduction. So instead of the children having to go off and hunt and forge, which is probably the most costly activity from an ancestral point of view, the grandparents can do the hunting and foraging (or at least participate) allowing their children to conserve energy for reproduction.
According to the active grandparent hypothesis, elderly individuals should be getting more active as they age!
Contrast that with how we treat elderly individuals in modern society where we encourage them to do as little as possible.
And actually we can see this when we look at the activity of elderly in modern hunter gatherer tribes compared to their Western counterparts.
The active grandparent hypothesis also goes on to explain why doing less physical activity as we age is detrimental to our health.
When we are younger a large portion of the energy we expend each day goes into our growth and development, it takes a large amount of calories to feed the growing brain and body!
During reproductive years, after the body has mostly finished growing, the goal of a human is to produce as many offspring as possible as to increase the odds their DNA will be passed on. In order to make sure they can do that they need to not expend too much energy. We know that once we expend more energy than we can consume through food, hormones related to reproduction get downregulated in both males and females decreasing the odds of reproduction and in some cases making it impossible to reproduce.
In this phase of life it is actually more beneficial to move less, than move more, especially for females.
But once our reproductive years are behind us and we are no longer growing we need to find some way to burn off the energy that used to go to growth, development, and reproduction or else our health can suffer.
Unfortunately the result of consuming too much energy is not only visible in modern day elderly individuals but it’s visible across all age groups as the prevalence of overweight and obesity becomes more and more widespread.
Once we are overweight and obese our chances of developing chronic medical conditions goes way up!
Our elderly ancestors faced this same problem: Excess energy goes from growth and reproduction into fueling these chronic conditions instead!
However evolution developed an ingenious solution to this problem. It biased the elderly individuals who were more physically active because it solved the problem of excess energy in older age!
The act of physically moving your body not only burns energy but the act of being physically active also causes the body to burn more energy even after the physical activity is over. This is because the body needs to grow and repair from the physical activity to grow stronger. It’s almost like you can simulate the growth phase of the early stages of human life once you are elderly just by being physically active!
This ingenious solution to dealing with excess energy in older age staves off chronic disease, keeping the grandparent alive to pass on their invaluable knowledge and also help provide for their offspring that are in reproductive age!
This is why I think my grandfather’s health rapidly declined once he was no longer able to be physically active. Confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home could not compensate for the excess energy and so the excess energy went into fueling chronic health conditions causing his health to decline rapidly until he passed away a few years later.
If you want to be an active grandparent, if you want to be there to pass on the knowledge you have accumulated to your children and grandchildren, if you want to continue to provide for your family and community, you need to start developing the healthy habits to get you there now!
With the abundance of food, lack of physical activity, disruption of our sleep and wake cycles, and stress and pressure of modern day life, you have an uphill battle to fight in today’s modern society. If you can manage to keep your health in check during your younger years and set yourself up with the right habits NOW you can get the most out of your life well into your 70s and 80s as my grandfather has demonstrated.
If you are 50+ is old hope lost?
It is never too late to improve your health. no matter what your age you can become an “active grandparent” and it will help stave off chronic disease.
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Rice, D., & Galbraith, M. (2008, November 16). The active grandparent hypothesis: Physical activity and the evolution of extended human healthspans and lifespans. PNAS. Retrieved April 5, 202, from https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2107621118