x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Lessons of youth

The key to feeling good is feeling youthful but it could be time to take another look at exactly what "youthful" means.

This month, a number of science studies relating to health and fitness have focused on aspects of youth and how to retain a sense of youthfulness. One explains why a calorie-restricted diet increases lifespan in worms and mice; another shows that aerobic activity keeps the brains of elderly people young; another says that unfit youths are on a path towards diabetes in or before middle age. It's enough to make one stop and reflect on the meaning of youth while changing into gym clothes. Is all of this working out really going to pay off?

I hang out with quite a few young people. Most of them are younger than a year old. Some of them can crawl; others totter around clumsily bumping their heads and tripping over slight irregularities on the ground. It seems that babies want to get as chubby as possible, calling for constant feeds, playing with toys in between naps, as long as their favourite person is always in sight. We can all learn from them, and have a lot to teach. There's an interesting book called How to Teach Your Baby to be Physically Superb, which includes exercises with props for swinging and climbing. According to one book reviewer: "If you want your child to be the next huge baseball, football, soccer or Olympic star, then this is the book for you."

I suppose I shouldn't rule out Olympian as a career track for my daughter. Youth is generally defined as the period between puberty and early adulthood, so perhaps I should look beyond babyhood in a meditation about youth. In Urdu, the word for youth is jawani. Jawan, or young person, is also the word for soldier. Soldiers are the most fit segment of a country's population. The study on the elderly and aerobic activity, from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, used non-invasive magnetic resonance angiography to examine the shape of blood vessels in the brains of seven men and seven women aged between 60 and 80. They were divided into two groups. The high activity group was composed of participants who had done at least three hours of aerobic activity per week for the past 10 years. They had more small-diameter vessels with less twisting than the less active group. Apparently, the brain's blood vessels naturally narrow and become more tortuous with advancing age.

If not for post-traumatic stress, which may have less benign effects on the brain, soldiers must be the most youthful of a country's elderly population. And the least likely to have diabetes.