Aging Self-Help Advice from an Astronaut

Written by Paul Wolf

The world's oldest astronaut bounced back from his shuttle flight just as quickly as his crewmates.

 He's weathered and bald, but he is also muscular and sinewy.

How to Feel Younger through Diet and Fitness
Follow John Glenn's fitness program: Regular exercise, weight training and a balanced diet.
Think of health and conditioning, not age, as the limiting factors for most physical challenges.
Believe John Glenn when he says we may now be able to expect more from the elderly.  

John Glenn's balanced diet, weight training and daily walking served him well in preparation for being the oldest astronaut in 1998, when he joined the shuttle Discovery crew at 77.

And the principal medical researcher for the mission says Glenn's lab results are great news about aging and human potential.

The former U.S. senator surpassed even high expectations for him to bounce right back from space flight. "People assumed he would have a delayed recovery," says Adrian LeBlanc, a Ph.D. in biophysics at Baylor College of Medicine.

Based on LeBlanc's experience with Glenn, he was willing to conclude about people in general: "The skeleton may be old, but it is capable of responding to the stimulus of weightlessness and then return to normal on the ground."

Glenn didn't respond to and recover from his eight full days in space in exactly the same way as the 12 younger astronauts. But in the most important regard, bone and muscle recovery, the results were virtually identical, according to LeBlanc.

Fitness more than age appears to be the key factor in regaining muscle mass and bone density, says LeBlanc, who has worked with NASA on a number of missions.

The message to everyone may be nothing more and nothing less than keeping fit from a young age. You can't change your genetics, but you can adopt a conditioning program. "This is further evidence that keeping fit is important as you grow older," he adds.

Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth at the age of 41 in 1962, and the others were monitored around the clock for heart rate, blood readings, sleep patterns and temperature.

Here are highlights of the tests:

  • Readings five days after landing showed Glenn had regained muscle mass and bone density as well as his cohorts, and his spine was in perfect shape.
  • Glenn ate more than the other astronauts, a fact that may not say a thing about aging.
  • His sleep was more interrupted than the others.
  • Glenn revealed calm in a moment of excitement, registering a heart rate of 95 beats per minute before landing, compared to an average of 115 for the others.
  • Post-flight problems for Glenn included an unusual degree of leg swelling after the flight.

LeBlanc suggests that was not necessarily good or bad.

After the results were announced, Glenn told NBC, "I hope this shows the elderly can do a lot more than most people think they can if they keep in shape."

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