While the Japanese are the undisputed kings of longevity, Dr Shigeaki Hinohara may be their greatest example. Fortunately, he was keen to share his secrets.
Dr Shigeaki Hinohara was a Japanese physician who worked until a few months before his death at 105. As a physician, he gained much insight into his favourite question: what makes people live longer? His wisdom for a long, healthy life is comprised of some intuitive points and others that might be of news to you.
Carry your own shopping, take the stairs
Regular physical activity should come as no surprise here, playing one of the most important roles in our health no matter what age. Your muscles follow a ‘use them or lose them’ protocol, as do your brain cells.
We evolved as hunter-gatherers who walked up to 19 kilometres a day. Our physiology adapted to be healthiest from regular exercise, not sitting at a desk for 8 hours daily.
Dr Hinohara stressed the importance of moderate everyday physical activity, whether you’re eighteen or eighty. When you retire, the temptation of taking it really easy is there, but it does the body no favours. When our bodies are sedentary for too long fat starts building up and both our muscles and brain cells wither for their lack of use. Little bits of activity like using the stairs and carrying your own groceries will keep your muscles active (therefore working) and help create new brain cells (therefore keeping your wits about you) and fight ageing.
There’s a reason that gluttony is one of the cardinal sins. Hinohara warned against over-eating as carrying needless bodyweight will do you no favours. Excessive and frequent overeating can lead to obesity and the extra fat stores can increase your general risk of disease. It also puts a strain on your digestive system and causes a disruption in your circadian rhythm.
Fun is the best painkiller
Those around Hinohara were not subjected to his complaints of aches or pains. He looked to the wisdom of children when it came to dealing with pain—who often forget their pain or discomfort through the distraction of play. Fun has physical benefits too. Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases the flow of immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies.
Don’t opt for surgery
In spite of being a medical practitioner himself, Dr Hinohara advised against always listening to your doctor, and instead encouraged people to research and try less intrusive methods first (such as laughter or music therapy). He was a proponent of the belief that many things can be cured without opting for immediate surgery, which is common wisdom in eastern philosophy.
Don’t place too much importance on material possessions
Often the best memories we have come from experiences. We derive more happiness through experience than we do from owning material goods, it’s been shown. Especially when those experiences are shared with loved ones.
A purpose is the most important
Dr Hinohara observed that when people retire, many tend to just ‘stop’. Their schedules go from being full to almost empty and many are prone to staying idle until death.
Hinohara had a full schedule his entire life, even past the age of 100. He continued to work until 3 months shy of his death and supplemented his days at his hospital with speaking engagements and social calls.
When a person stops planning, they tend to stop living as fully as they once did. This does not mean that life should be devoid of spontaneity, nor should flexibility be thrown to the wayside, but we are encouraged by the Dr to stay active by planning work and hobbies—a major key to longevity.
Shigeaki noted that the retirement age of 65 was set when the average life expectancy was 68. Nowadays, you can expect to live past 80 in western countries. Retiring in years past meant winding down for a few years before passing. These days, retiring at 65 affords the retiree a whole other lifetime to fill after finishing work.
Those who continue working into their older years tend to live longer and have more fulfilling lives. However, those who tend to do this enjoy what they do. Working into your twilight years at a job or in a career that is unfulfilling is likely to shorten your life, not extend it.
Hence, purpose is arguably the most important thing we should cultivate. Purpose is a reason to get up in the morning and keep going, especially when it is interwoven with responsibility and other people.
If you’re yearning for retirement, then perhaps volunteering is an alternative. Your mind will continue to be stimulated and quite possibly you will be exposed to physical activity and social contact, without the psychological and physical stressors that accompany a career.
Simply put, to live longer, give yourself a reason to live.