Exercise And Longevity: Dan Buettner (Almost) Throws The Baby Out With The Bathwater

I’ve had this post in my “to be finished” list for some time now, mostly because I had a knee-jerk reaction and never revisited the article. I’m glad I didn’t shoot from the hip on this one.

Dan Buettner is a “longevity expert” by osmosis. There’s no degree in longevity or an industry requiring such a title (unless you make voodoo nutrition supplements). Mr. Buettner is the author of a book that I’ve referenced before called “Blue Zones” about some of the longest lived cultures in the world. He’s also the author of a book called “Thrive” about some of the happiest places in the world. I found this interview a while back in which an Australian newspaper gives him 10 questions. Here is the one that started this article:

Most us only want to live long lives if we can remain active and healthy. Does exercise really help stave off conditions like arthritis and osteoporosis?

Exercise, from a public health perspective, is an unmitigated failure. The world’s longest-lived people live in environments that nudge them into more movement. They don’t use power tools, they do their own yard work, they grow a garden. Walking is the only way proven to stave off cognitive decline – it works.

My first response is, “This guy is a fucking idiot to blind too see his own bias.” Eventually I also realized that I was a fucking idiot for letting my own bias miss the point of his statement.

An “over-the-counter” solution?

What Mr. Buettner is onto here, and I didn’t pay attention to at first, is the fact that he is referring to exercise from a public health perspective. While I am buried in my world of self-motivated, self-informed people who actually can, with some degree of success, design their own training programs to help them reach new levels of health and fitness, we are an extreme minority. To be frank, the ‘average’ person is lacking the required knowledge (anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, etc) to safely and effectively exercise without instruction. One needs only visit your nearest globogym to see my point firsthand. Most people would be well served to treat their exercise program like the medicine that it is; it should be prescribed, dosed and supervised by a qualified professional.

Self-directed preventative care does not have the ability to appropriately affect the widespread, long-term health problems of our population. If you say “I’ve done just fine without instruction!” then what about the other millions of people in this country? The sample size of people who have successfully maintained their health without instruction is exceedingly small compared to the population at large.  As long as exercise remains an over-the counter option or recreational intervention (“just for fun”),  this medicine will not be used in the safest, most effective and efficient manner.

The hard-on for walking

Mr. Buettner then goes on about, in a fairly typically past 30 years fashion, about how these special pockets of super geezers walk, as if that is what we’ve been missing all these years. Really, the medical establishment’s obsession with walking as some sort of magic treatment for all things that burden ye is stemmed mostly in keeping them out of the courtroom. As Doug McGuff effectively summarized in his article “Why Doctors Don’t Understand Exercise,” when it is your balls on the chopping block you’ll recommend the activity that is nearly lawsuit-proof: walking.

Don’t misunderstand me: walking can do a lot of good things. Walking is related to the preservation of both gray matter and hippocampus size in the brain. The observation is then that the people who can walk the longest are also the strongest. Of course this MUST mean that walking a lot made them really good walkers, which keeps their brain sharp.

The problem is the confusion of correlation and causation. These people walk well because they’re stronger than anyone else as a consequence of something other than walking. Truth be told, people tend to lose weight as they age (which is related to total mortality, actually), which means they’re losing resistance. This is why walking never solved anyone’s osteoporosis or sarcopenia: if you are tiny to start, you aren’t loading your bones or muscles with anything more than they’re already used to moving.

What is related to walking as we age is strength. Study after study after study has shown that walking gait improved with strength training and gait is the main indicator of the likelihood that an elderly individual with suffer a fall. Taking a 90 year old Sardinian man who has been hiking hills during his sheep herding duties (huge strength requirement) since he was a teenager and using that as “proof” that a couple laps around the subdivision is all you need to stay strong and vital is hugely inaccurate.


So I’m glad I didn’t just jump all over this with reckless abandon. Keith and I discussed how drastically muscle mass falls as we age, how Type II fibers become connective tissue without training (and cannot be turned back) and how to correct these problems with properly supervised and dosed strength training. You can watch that discussion here. Get some strength, change your diet, and if you’re lucky you’ll live to be a super geezer.

Speaking of talks, Keith was interviewed on Latest In Paleo. If you’re not our wives, you might be interested in the discussion so go check it out!