Improving your healthspan is just as – if not more – important than a long lifespan. Here’s why…
We all want to live a long and healthy life, but those things don’t need to be mutually exclusive. For many people, the final few weeks, months or years of their lives are marred by pain or illness. That’s the difference between lifespan – the years you live – and healthspan: the years you remain healthy.
“Over the last few decades, average healthspan has grown at a slower rate than average lifespan,” says Dr Manpreet Bains, GP and head of clinical operations at Thriva. “This means that more years are being spent in poorer health.”
In fact, government statistics show that the average female born today can expect to live 24% of their life in poor health. That’s between 16 and 20 years spent suffering the effects of physical or mental illness.
It wasn’t meant to be that way. While you might assume that living until old age is just due to the fact that we developed ways to prevent deaths (medicine, sanitation, etc), there is actually an evolutionary purpose to getting old. That’s what researchers at Harvard have dubbed the “active grandparent hypothesis”. In a paper published by PNAS, they look at longevity from an evolutionary perspective – and crucially link physical activity with increasing the healthspan.
“We lack an ultimate, evolutionary explanation for why lifelong physical activity, particularly during middle and older age, promotes health,” researchers explain. They write that living past reproductive years has been shown to be critical – and unique – in humans. It all comes down to the importance of grandparental support for families “not just by imparting knowledge but also by being physically active foragers who gather and hunt for food surpluses that they provide to their children and grandchildren.”
Nowadays, the hunting and the gathering may not be so crucial. But the ability to move in that way is – regardless of whether or not you have or want children and grandchildren of your own.
“We have all seen the negative impact of ill health on those around us, particularly in old age – limiting our lives and making us reliant on healthcare and social networks. Reducing the number of years we’re living in good health impacts on individuals feeling healthy, happy and well,” adds Dr Bains. “The lifestyle choices we make and environments we live in today have a direct impact on our future health.”
That is not to say sickness is ever anyone’s fault – there are many conditions that won’t be avoided regardless of good habits, and there are also many reasons that preventative habits aren’t accessible to everyone. But Dr Bains references a famous 1996 study of twins that established only about 20% of how long the average person lives is dictated by genes, whereas the other 80% is dictated by lifestyle.
In that sense, waiting until we’re starting to notice a decline in our health to do anything about it is wrong. “We can all start addressing healthspan now,” Dr Bains says.
Why does exercise improve healthspan?
The authors of the 2021 paper write that it is the damage caused to our tissue through exercising that encourages our body to be good at physical repairs – a skill it can take into fighting off diseases. That includes the ability to use and refuel energy, produce antioxidants, reduce inflammation, clear waste products and turn down the nervous systems automatic responses. “The stresses of physical activity stimulate investments in healthspan preserving somatic repair and maintenance processes that are activated less in the absence of physical activity,” they write. That’s alongside the obvious impact of a stronger body that allows greater freedom of movement.
Yet, this damage doesn’t need to be induced with heavily loaded squats. That’s not what primates were doing. Instead, it’s about regular movement at a moderate intensity exertion that will help you stay healthy in the long term.
“Critically, our health and how we perceive our health throughout our lives is not linear,” says Dr Bains. That means we may get sick and then recover, rather than our health being a constant downward trajectory. “But even for those living with long-term conditions, it is possible to live a fulfilling life in which we perceive ourselves to be ‘healthy’,” she adds.
“Increasing healthspan doesn’t require giant leaps in medical science. Many of the habits will be linked to those which we are engaging with to keep ourselves healthier in the short-term,” says Dr Bains. That might go against what we think we know about maintaining health – but it really could be as simple as moving enough right now.
Are you feeling less tempted to skip your lunchtime walk now?
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).