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!

7 thoughts on “Exercise And Longevity: Dan Buettner (Almost) Throws The Baby Out With The Bathwater

  1. Very good points and very timely.

    I am also interested in the whole neuroplasticity issue, with respect to brain function as we age. I am totally with you on the role of strength training but other movement that challenges the brain also has a role.

    Walking particularly in nature has stimulating effects beyond the muscles and into the brain. Of course strength is that which allows walking to happen so it is a pre requisite. There is no either or. Strength training is essential. But not sufficient for every benefit that we are seeking.

    1. I agree. If you look at the “10 Biomarkers of Aging” set forth by Evans and Rosenberg, it becomes clear that “Brain Density” (for lack of a better term) is absent and should be number 11. It is the only one that strength training is not or at least has not yet shown in research, able to affect.

  2. Great article, Skyler.
    Based on what I’ve read & thought about, ‘exercise’ seems to be a construct of the Industrial Revolution period, possibly early Victorian era. Analysis usually takes the position that with displacement of hard human effort by machines, possibly with a growing middle class, folks hungered for ‘exercise.’ Such analysis doesn’t seem to consider how the Industrial Revolution served to create ‘exercise’ as a newly emerging first stage ‘fitness industry.’ Industrial development paved the way for high volume mass production. Of those new industries, book publication took off as never before while a new type of mass market publication appeared in the form of magazines and newspapers. Not only were new means of producing new products abundant, but so was another new development – distribution systems in which steam and coal burning locomotives provided cheap and easy railroad distribution. Somewhere in that time, electricity further contributed. So in that regard, exercise didn’t emerge so much as an innate need in a society marked by growing leisure time and physical labor saving machinery so much as an early fitness industry coupled with never before known mass marketing. Exercise as a construction was born. Earlier times, of course, had versions of exercise and fitness, yet never to the mass market basis of the Industrial Revolution. We’re witnessing and participating in the Information Age version of it.

    Evans & Rosenberg published bio-markers effectively 20 years ago. The book has had close to zero impact on primary health care providers, our physicians. Last week, Nov 3rd, I gave an invited lecture at UT Branch Medical in Galveston. To my amazement, students didn’t even know the term sarcopenia or how sarcopenia is distinguished from atrophy. They also didn’t seem to know what type II skeletal muscle fibers are. Hopefully they understood those concepts & their relationship to genomic needs and the etiology of degenerative disease constituting the 35 major diseases plaguing civilization as a collective pandemic.

    Thanks for sharing Doug McGuff’s insight about physician recommended walking in relation to liability suits! Hadn’t thought of that. Equally close to the point is the simple fact that medical education does not include our two favorite topics: nutrition and physical activity. With more than 50 years in the field, as I’ve grown in years physicians have become more comfortable in admitting that deficit not only in their education and consulting role with patients, but far closer to home with regard to themselves and their loved ones. My most recent blog article addresses the lack of health/fitness education in American education, strongly calling for a transformation of the role of ‘trainer’ in the paradigm of Physical Culture 2.0 as ‘fitness educator’ awakening/instructing for fitness fluency among clients/patients/students pursuant to a grassroots revolution in fitness education empowering autonomous, preventative self-care. Pssstttt. don’t let Big Pharma know.

    If we succeed in that crucial mission, life insurance underwriters will go bonkers as will health insurers. Once a person’s diagnostics indicate type II diabetes (hg A1C), elevated lipids, hypertensive, osteoporosis, that alledgedly private information is shared across databases, elevating premiums. With successful dietary/exercise interventions restoring healthy metabolism, the insurance parasites prefer to overtly ignore restoration of health to maintain highly elevated premiums. A new health care advocacy role and new business opportunity growing out of work to down regulate premiums for the class of parasites preying upon unnecessary disease.

    About a year ago the NY Times carried an article on muscle wasting, citing an orthopedist who noted ‘muscle wasting is a normal condition of aging.’ Precisely what Evans & Rosenberg set out to investigate, and precisely what they proved is untrue. Medical orthodoxy seems content to keep falsehoods alive moving with the momentum of mediocrity. Type II fiber loss violates the genetic code due to inactivity; when less than genomicly expressed mid 20 year olds settle down, sarcopenic loss ensues quietly yet surely in the background – half a pound a year from 25-50 divided by 365 days in a year is hardly measurable. Annual health checkups look for secondary and tertiary downstream degenerative markers, assuming normal health devoid of diagnostics for earlier symptom on set. Absence of secondary and tertiary conditions is absence of disease or health. In evo med, such normal is abnormal.

    Walking ain’t going to cut it. now resistance. fitness education – start with both contractile hypertrophy (HIT’s good for that) and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (trad body building, multiple sets of 12 reps, shorter rest times) in a mix that’s client-centered. Give them a five year master plan of living life insurance (not death insurance benefits) to gain mastery of their lives in the best sense of transformational discipline mastery – the Tao/Dao of Life.

    1. Ken,

      These are all great ideas. I think you’ll appreciate the next series of articles I’m going to work on as my studies wind down for the semester. I look forward to your feedback.

  3. Love your site. It’s really about freeagency! A freeagent isn’t just about things related to professional sports stars looking for the best “contract.” We can all be free agents. It means untimately learning that we work for ourselves. Freeagents are always focuysed on being the best person possible – whatever that means – but especially in terms of health, wellness, exercise, and diet. Thanks for giving me more to think about and enjoy.

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