This month we feature a book that emphasizes the role of diet and exercise in maintaining senior fitness.
The Diet and Exercise Program
For Maximum Health and Longevity
By Ruth E. Heidrich, PhD
Lantern Books, 2005
The proverb "You can't judge a book by its cover" may not be apropos when it comes to evaluating Senior Fitness with a cover that displays a picture of an elderly woman jogging at Machu Pichu. Where most people huff and puff and have considerable difficulty even walking at this altitude of nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, Ruth Heidrich, pictured on the cover, casually adds this activity to her many other running and ironman feats.
Heidrich, who has spent almost 40 years of her life in marathon running and ironman events that involve running, cycling, and swimming, has written this volume to motivate seniors to become physically fit and healthy. Her formula is rather simple and involves two components: diet and exercise. She places this information into the following equation:
Right Diet + Right Exercise = Senior Fitness
In the introduction to the book, Heidrich tells the story of her battle with breast cancer. At the age of 47 a tumor the size of a golf ball was detected in her breast. She was dumbfounded that this could happen to her because she paid attention to her health. She faithfully did her own monthly breast examinations and had mammograms regularly.
Her personal fitness program had included running daily and not eating red meat. Her diet featured chicken and fish and skim milk "for my bones." None of these tactics was enough to ward off cancer.
Heidrich had a double mastectomy to remove the cancer in her breasts. Following the surgery, visits to five oncologists did not yield satisfactory answers to her number one question: how could she strengthen her immune system to fight cancer?
She refused chemotherapy and radiation because her own research revealed no evidence that either would extend her life, but both treatments could cause permanent damage to her immune system.
Heidrich's persistent research led her to Dr. John McDougall who told her, "If you want to save your life, change your diet." By this time a bone scan revealed the cancer had spread to her bones and one lung. Her cholesterol was so high she was in danger of a heart attack or stroke. The next day she started her vegan diet and has been cancer-free for over 22 years. She revealed much of this information in her first book, A Race for Life.
Two years after her cancer diagnosis this remarkable woman completed her first Ironman Triathlon. In her sixties she was named among the Top Ten Fittest Women in North America by Living Fit magazine. The other nine honorees were under 35 years old. Her blood pressure now averages 90/60 while her bone density exceeds that of a thirty-year-old woman at peak bone density.
The program outlined by Heidrich is not designed to turn seniors into ironmen but to make those golden years enjoyable by helping them avoid many degenerative diseases resulting from poor diet and lack of exercise.
Throughout the book she places a heavy emphasis on exercise. Her definition of effective exercise is summed up in the acronym FIT that includes Frequency, Intensity, and Time.
"First, your exercise routine has to be intensive enough to raise your heart rate, make you breathe hard, and make you sweat," she advises. "Then, it has to be long enough in duration to get the body into the fat-burning mode. There's a lot of leeway here, but estimates range from twenty minutes three times a week to an hour a day."
In the chapter Why Diet Matters, Heidrich guides seniors through the nutrition maze with discussions of topics like proteins, calcium, carbohydrates, fats, phytonutrients, and cholesterol. The bottom line she emphasizes is that plant foods are good for you and animal foods are not.
Individual chapters are devoted to preventing and reversing chronic health conditions such as heart disease, strokes, hypertension, DVT's (deep vein thrombosis), arthritis, cancer, and diabetes.
In Sexy Seniors she becomes "the other Dr. Ruth" by offering a frank discussion devoted to advice on menopause, prostate problems, Viagra, hormone replacement therapy, overactive bladder, and incontinence. Heidrich says, "Exercise is important for every part of the body, and the genitalia are no exception."
Heidrich points out that the drug firms have allied themselves with bone-density measuring companies to convince people there is an osteoporosis crisis. These two groups have also been joined by the medical profession and the dairy industry. Because of this unholy alliance, more and more people are convinced they need drugs and dairy products to avoid bone fractures.
"Aging doesn't mean automatic bone loss," says Heidrich. "The evidence suggests we don't have to lose bone mass as we age. With a whole-food, high-leafy-green vegan diet and lots of effective exercise, we can maintain or even increase bone density."
Her bone density at age 50 was an impressive 447 mg/cm2. At age 60 it increased to an amazing 466. The average female reaches her peak bone mass of 411 at age 30.
Early in the book Ruth Heidrich admits that she is neither a doctor nor a nutritionist and that her doctorate is in health education, but "I have lived my experiment." Now in her seventies, she has survived accidents and illness that would have crippled or killed others, and yet like the Energizer bunny she keeps going and going.
As the average age of the population of this country continues to rise and more and more baby boomers become senior citizens, the information in Senior Fitness will become must reading for an aging population. In chapter after chapter Ruth Heidrich outlines a lifestyle that will reduce the risk that seniors will face disabling degenerative diseases. The book is packed with nutritional and health information that is supported by voluminous research noted with extensive references.
Ruth Heidrich is truly an inspiration to all seniors, and a role model for young people as well. Her strength and resolve is evident through this narrative. Her readers may not choose to emulate her impressive regimen, but even if they follow her formula combining a vegan diet with vigorous exercise, they will reap the benefits in their senior years. She is living proof that her program works.
Reviewed July 2005