The Myth of Aging

This image is no longer available

Can a simple stretching program erase pain or even reverse aging? In her new book Miranda Esmonde-White talks about how her fitness program can literally turn back the clock.

Here, some top myths about the aging process and how a simple exercise program can have a big impact.

The following is excerpted from Aging Backwards: 10 Years Younger and 10 Years Lighter in 30 Minutes a Day.  Copyright © 2014 Miranda Esmonde-White.  Published by Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Every day, no matter what our age or current health status, we have a very clear choice: We can grow older or we can grow younger.

I mean this quite literally.

Some people might not see aging as a choice — they see it as something they have no control over, just like the passage of time. But with the information I share in this book, I hope to convince you that you absolutely do have a choice in the age of your bones, your muscles, your internal organs, and your skin.

You can decide if you want to spend your days feeling vital, energetic, and healthy, and joyfully use your body to exercise, travel, and play with your children (or grandchildren) — or if you want to be confined to a life of joint and back pain, limited mobility, and a lack of physical strength that keep you sitting on a bench and watching others do the things you once did.

The difference between these two extremes is a matter of 30 minutes a day-that’s all.You already possess the power to determine your body’s true age. The choice is yours: Passively allow the aging process to take over, or actively counter the aging process in a mere half hour a day.

Me, I like that kind of deal. I plan on staying young forever (or as close to it as I can manage!). And I hope you do, too. I can show you how.

Until very recently, medical researchers believed that many of the negative effects of aging were inevitable. As we grow old, conventional wisdom has told us, our skin sags, our muscles waste away, we gain weight, and we eventually develop a chronic disease, such as heart disease or cancer, which will kill us. (Is it any wonder we are such a youth- obsessed culture?)

But in the past few years, scientists have made tremendous discoveries that offer a different picture of what it looks like to get older.

Consider these common myths about aging that have recently been disproved:

Myth: Our brains grow only until we’re in our twenties— and then they start to die.

Truth: Neuroscientists have proved that, as long as we stay mentally active, our brains can actually keep growing and adding brain cells well into our twilight years, through the miracle of “brain plasticity.” (And the most powerful booster of brain plasticity? Exercise.)

Myth: Our metabolism slows down when we hit 40.

Truth: If we do absolutely no exercise, yes, our metabolism will start to take a hit at 40. But study after study over the last 25 years has proved that people who consistently exercise three times a week can completely avoid age-related metabolic slowdown and actually retain the same metabolism as people almost 40 years younger.

Myth: Our skin will inevitably age and wrinkle—our only defense is good genes.

Truth: We know now that many, many factors have an impact on the health of our skin. And, luckily, the amount of sun exposure can be countered with sunscreen. The amount of free radical activity can be countered with a fruit- and vegetable-rich diet packed with free radical–fighting antioxidants. The impact of gravity on the skin’s elasticity and firmness can be lessened with plenty of fresh water, enough deep sleep, and—you guessed it—exercise. (Recent research found just 3 months of exercising twice a week can restore the skin of 60-year-old sedentary folks to the same state as that of a 20- to 40-year-old!)

Myth: Our muscles inevitably fade away with each passing decade.

Truth: If we don’t use it, we will lose it. But if we do use it—meaning, if we engage our muscles—we don’t need to lose a single ounce of muscle. One University of Pitts- burgh study looked at a cross section of 40 recreational athletes aged 40 to 81 who exer- cised four or five times a week. They underwent MRI scans, body composition testing, and quadriceps strength testing; the researchers measured their muscle mass and the amount of fat under their skin and between their muscles. The researchers found that, with exercise, the athletes could retain exactly the same levels of lean muscle mass from their forties into their eighties—in fact, some of the older exercisers had even more lean muscle tissue than the younger athletes.

Myth: Our joints are destined to fail.

Truth: Our joints fail not from age but from mismanagement. If we learn how to pro- tect our body from intense impact (by learning to walk gently), pay attention to range of motion in our training, and learn the proper ways to support our joints with flexible muscles, our original joints—the ones we are born with!—should remain healthy until our very last days.

Myth: Everyone gets cancer/diabetes/heart disease eventually.

Truth: Up to 34 percent of cancer risk is directly attributable to lifestyle choices.6 Every kilogram of weight loss lowers your risk of type 2 diabetes by 16 percent—so losing just 10 pounds could reduce your diabetes risk by over 60 percent.7 A study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that 82 percent of heart disease and heart attacks in women can be attributed to factors such as smoking, not exercising, being overweight, or eating a high-glycemic-index diet.

If these truths seem hard to believe, I’m not surprised.The dogma has long held that we are powerless against the march of time. After all, research had long found that, between the ages of 40 and 50, adults lose up to 8 percent of our muscle mass, with the loss accel- erating to over 15 percent per decade after we hit 75.9 The assumption has always been that this muscle loss was simply an inevitable consequence of aging.

But just in the last five years, the field of aging research has exploded with new clin- ical findings.Those scientists from the University of Pittsburgh and other well-respected medical centers have been proving just how wrong the assumption that age equals muscle loss has been. They’ve found that aging is far more a consequence of lifestyle choices than of calendar years. In fact, many of the symptoms we associate with aging are actually the result of not just the wear and tear on our bodies from years of use but also the negative effects of disuse. In our muscles are the keys to our longevity—the mystical wellspring of youth, called the mitochondria—the powerhouses of the cells. If we can keep these mitochondrial fires burning, our muscles—not to mention our bones, hearts, lungs, skin—can all enjoy the vitality and energy of youth, right up until our final days.

The secret to keeping these powerhouses well fed and burning strong may surprise you. You don’t have to run marathons. (Unless you want to.) You don’t have to spend hours grunting in the gym. (Unless you’re into that kind of thing.) All you have to do is something that takes just a few minutes every day and makes your body feel lighter, leaner, smoother, more graceful, and relaxed. All you need to do is stretch.

NEXT: Lose 10 Pounds and 10 Years in 10 Minutes

Lose 10 pounds and 10 years in 10 minutes

Now, I’m not talking about the kind of stretching you do as you get out of bed and yawn in the morning.

When I say stretching, I’m referring to a very specific kind of stretching, the essentrics model of toning and strengthening, which I will share with you in this book.

Throughout my 30+ years of creating, developing, and teaching this approach, I have seen how it helps people instantly improve their appearance and very quickly improve many aspects of their health and fitness. I’ve been amazed at how the essentrics model can radically change the lives of busy people who thought their fittest years were behind them. And I love to see the looks on people’s faces when they realize how quickly good posture can radically change their appearance. (As I like to say, by using the essentrics model, you can “lose 10 pounds and 10 years in 10 minutes”— simply by changing the way you carry your body, you will look a decade younger.)

In working with thousands of people on every continent in the world, I have seen how the essentrics model:

  • improves core strength
  • lengthens and tones all muscles (for a “dancer’s body”)
  • increases energy, balance, and flexibility
  • speeds lymphatic drainage and circulation
  • improves circulation and cardiovascular tone
  • decreases the need for prescription drugs
  • relieves back, knee, shoulder, hip, and foot pain
  • re-balances joints; alleviates and reverses arthritis and osteoporosis
  • heals acute and chronic injuries
  • decreases falls, sprains, and other injuries that can lead to inactivity and lack of mobility

and, most delightfully for many,

  • helps speed weight loss—without extra effort

All of these remarkable benefits can be yours for just the slightest investment of time every day. If one drug could offer all of these benefits, we’d be beating down our doctors’ doors for prescriptions, and the pharmaceutical companies would be rich beyond their dreams.We all have access to these benefits—and many more—every day. Give yourself just 30 minutes, and very soon, you will be leading a better, richer, longer, healthier, and happier life. Not a bad trade!

I have taught this method to Olympic athletes, arthritic retirees, busy working parents, aspiring actors and dancers—and even professional hockey players.All these diverse groups of people have been surprised by how pleasurable, simple, and quick exercises can make such a profound difference in their lives.This simple approach has been a life-changer for thousands of people—but the very first life it changed was my own.

NEXT: The Dance of Life

The Dance of Life

The idea of the essentrics model was born when I was just a girl, studying at the National Ballet School of Canada, and then in my work as a professional ballerina with the National Ballet Company. There I developed a combination of discipline and creativity (not to mention an intimate knowledge of form and physique) that sparked my imagination for research and exploration, but I wouldn’t develop the techniques until much later. I had to understand the need first.

After dancing in one too many Nutcracker performances, I left the company and started my own company, then was lured into the corporate world. I enjoyed the glamorous but grueling travel schedule, which had me leaving my 5-year-old daughter with relatives two weeks a month. Leaving that job was the best decision I ever made, though at the time it seemed like the most irresponsible. I had no job, and had no inkling as to how I was going to support my little Sahra as a single mom.

I started teaching fitness classes at a local church to make ends meet. With strong word of mouth, my aerobics classes rapidly gained popularity, and before I knew it, I was teaching almost five classes a day in the basement of a church. I was outgrowing the space, and decided to dream big and open my own fitness center. As I began to discuss my work with more and more people both within and outside the fitness community, I came to realize that most people really didn’t love to exercise.The members of my studio enjoyed my classes, sure—but I gradually became aware of this huge number of people who weren’t walking in my door and didn’t do any exercise, at any time.

This fascinated me—why did they not enjoy something that gave me so much plea- sure and satisfaction? I surveyed many non-exercisers to find out, and what was revealed to me was the fact that people actually did want to exercise—they just didn’t like what was being offered.While aerobics had taken the fitness world by storm, we heard plenty of complaints about it, too. For many, the loud pounding music, high-impact move- ments, and copious sweating, and the bulky muscle tone they seemed to develop, were all strong deterrents. I kept hearing from my members, especially the women: I would like a workout with smooth movements that stretches me out instead of bulking me up. I want to have a long, lean, slender body. In other words, a dancer’s body.

Well, I could certainly help with that! I set out to create an “anti-aerobic” workout.With thorough research and the invaluable mentorship of the director of Oncology and Surgery at Montreal’s RoyalVictoria Hospital, Dr. Shibata, and a retired sports physiotherapist, Fiona Gilmore, I dived deep into the subjects of anatomy, physiology, and basic kinesiology. As the owner of the center, I had the ability to offer trial classes to a select group of students who guided me into designing a program that was fun, was healing, and, most important, slimmed them down and toned their bodies in the ways that they hoped exercise would.

What came out of these classes was the foundation of the essentrics approach, a method I called the Esmonde Technique, which forms the basis for this book and for all the other fitness programs I have ever developed. All of these classes were aimed at keeping participants young and healthy, from cradle to grave.

I named my first class Classical Stretch because the workouts stretched the muscles with long, simple, elegant lines that reminded me of classical architecture.When I opened Classical Stretch classes to the public at my fitness center, they were an instant hit.They became so popular that, to fill the demand, I had to train new instructors to teach my technique.

Having to train others forced me to get my method out of my head and onto paper, to make it teachable to others. I had to dissect the technique and figure out what it was before I could train anyone else. I spent much of that time with my nose in any medical, anatomical, and physiological manuals I could get my hands on.This marked the begin- ning of a 10-year process of writing my own manuals, testing them, and starting again. I went through that process three times before completing a series of four manuals, levels one to four, which are the basis of our teacher-training program.

After experiencing surprisingly huge growth in the program, in 1999, I worked up my courage and approached PBS with the faint hope that it might be interested in airing my fitness program on its network. Well, the rest is history. Fifteen years later, Classical Stretch is still viewable daily in millions of U.S. households. Thousands of Americans wake up to do the program daily.

Over the years, we’ve worked to create better descriptions for this powerful method, so we can do a better job of training people. Many have said they think of essentrics as a flexibility program, with a bit of tai chi, some elements of physiotherapy stretching, and a lengthening of the muscles similar to that of ballet.When we named our program Classical Stretch, we were confident that it was a flexibility program, since everyone who did it gained flexibility.

But here’s the thing: We kept receiving testimonials from viewers of the TV show and from our own clients telling us about the dramatic changes in their strength, weight, and body shape. If they stuck with it, people found essentrics would elongate their legs, hips, and stomach, not to mention their arms, neck, and shoulders; improve their posture; slenderize their shoulders; lengthen the pectorals and upper back; open the chest and elongate the neckline; reduce love handles; and eliminate underarm flab. After a few weeks of intense essentrics, they weren’t the only ones noticing these changes—they found a measuring tape and a camera helped them see startling changes in the length and shape of their muscles. Many lost a pants size, or more.

We were baffled. We didn’t think it made sense that stretching was causing these changes in strength, weight, and body shape. Even though we knew that people were losing weight while doing the program, we couldn’t figure out why. In our search to identify what Classical Stretch was, we ended up finding the answer in the science of movement and muscle anatomy.We had our epiphany.

According to sports science, you can strengthen your muscles in one of two ways: eccentrically or concentrically. Concentric exercises strengthen the muscle by shortening it; eccentric exercise strengthens the muscle by lengthening it.

Most other fitness programs focus on concentric strengthening.You see concentric strengthening every day in the gym, when people tense up and shorten their quadriceps muscles as they attempt to straighten a leg on the leg extension machine, for example, or pull a hand weight toward a shoulder in a biceps curl, or “crunch” their abdominal muscles during a sit-up. That concentric motion is typically where we focus all of our workout attention—we don’t give as much attention to lengthening our muscles.

But by ignoring this, we’re giving short shrift to a very critical aspect of the development of healthy, strong muscles—eccentric exercise. Eccentric exercise simultaneously lengthens and strengthens, and is just as critical as concentric exercise, but is often overlooked as “wasted” time. In fact, your body is actually doing eccentric exercises as you reach into a high cupboard or get out of a car: You bend a knee and stretch out your quadriceps while these are still bearing the full weight of your body as you stand up.You are strengthening while lengthening.

Just as in the physics maxim, “The longer the lever, the heavier the load,” eccentric exercise allows your “lever” (muscle) to easily bear more resistance while in its length- ened position.The result: simultaneously lengthened and strengthened muscles.

Once we realized eccentric exercise was the principle at work in Classical Stretch, suddenly we understood why people were losing weight while following our program.

Muscle cells burn more calories, so when you increase the difficulty of the load on the longer muscle, you increase the mass of your muscle, you increase your body’s metabolic rate, you burn more calories, and you lose weight. At this point, we didn’t realize something even more amazing about eccentric exercise—something that wouldn’t be revealed for years, something that helped us to understand what it is about essentrics that makes it such a powerful antiaging program.

As the scientific community began to shed new light on how our DNA ages, we learned that eccentric exercise specifically, directly, and powerfully communicates with our cells to reduce oxidative stress on a cellular level—in other words, to directly combat aging. And this powerful weight loss and antiaging component, eccentric exercise, was in virtually every minute of every Classical Stretch routine.

Even after we solved the mystery, our ideas took a while to catch on. Instructors had never come across a workout based on eccentric strengthening, and the results people were finding in our program flew in the face of many theories they had been taught to believe. In fitness circles, the idea that flexibility could increase strength and help in weight loss seemed absurd. But as skeptical as our colleagues in the fitness industry were, we continued to receive an overwhelming number of weight loss testimonials from view- ers and students around the world. Classical Stretch—now known as e sse ntrics—was clearly a very powerful technique for both weight loss and strengthening.

In addition to fitness-seekers’ stunning weight loss, we have continued to see good results in many other groups of people as well, everyone from new mothers to baby boomers to retirees, giving us endless proof that the essentrics method increases flexibility; rebalances joints; relieves back, knee, shoulder, hip, and foot pain; and does much more for a wide spectrum of people. We see it heal injuries and alleviate and reverse arthritis and osteoporosis.We see it straighten out severely rounded backs and give par- ticipants wonderful posture.We are thrilled when it helps athletes win Olympic medals and championships. All along this journey, we have seen countless people following Classical Stretch or doing essentrics who easily lost weight and shed inches in their so-called problem areas, making their body shape longer and leaner—all of this from a method that can be done in as little as 30 minutes a day. This is the kind of full-body transformation that I would like to share with you.

Next: Age backwards starting today

Age backwards starting today

I know you are busy, juggling a full schedule of competing responsibilities in your work and in your life.The essentrics method helps you maximize your exercise time investment by helping you achieve all of your strength, flexibility, balance, agility, and weight loss goals simultaneously. In this book, I will explain exactly how and why the essentrics approach is so powerful and how you can use it to slow down and reverse your own aging process.

About the book

In Part I, “How and Why We Age,” we’ll talk about the startling physical changes that can pop up around our forties, some of which can suddenly make us feel “old,” and how we can respond to fight them. I’ll reveal how mitochondria of our cells hold the keys to many facets of our health, and how dozens of recent studies suggest we need to change the way we look at aging. In Part II, “How We Stay Young and Healthy,” I’ll discuss all the benefits of the essentrics approach and how it works to keep us young, limber, and disease-free. In Part III, “The Eight Age-Reversing Workouts,” I’ll share easy-to-follow 30-minute workouts for specific conditions and goals, including losing weight, relieving pain, increasing balance, and reversing osteoporosis and arthritis.

In each of the workouts, you’ll see me; my daughter, Sahra; and James Gadon, an essentrics instructor, in step-by-step photos with clear descriptions that explain the finer points of each exercise. I will explain how the essentrics technique not only reconnects you with your body’s innate strength and grace on a daily basis but also reconnects you with the joyful pleasure of movement in every aspect of your life, increasing your energy, smooth- ing and firming your skin, and bringing a sparkle back into your eyes.

I’m in my sixties—over forty years have passed since I danced Swan Lake—but I still feel great! I am pain-free, energetic, and strong. I have a spring in my step and I look forward to every new day with happy enthusiasm. When I get sick, I recover rapidly. I really value being full of energy and leading a pain-free life. I know how I have achieved this gift, and I want to share how you, too, can easily achieve it.

Whether you are a 40-year-old working parent needing a quick home-based work- out, a 50-year-old executive who needs to de-stress and rebalance between meetings, or a 65-year-old who is looking for new ways to stay fit and vital, I hope that Aging Backwards provides you with the inspiration and understanding to feel and look stronger, healthier, and happier—for many years to come.

 Excerpted from Aging Backwards: 10 Years Younger and 10 Years Lighter in 30 Minutes a Day.  Copyright © 2014 Miranda Esmonde-White.  Published by Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.