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We don’t have to die this way

   106   14 comments

A trip overseas shows aging in a new light

Essentia Health's Mary Thompson-Bode is exploring the world of wellness as part of Essentia Health's TakeCharge initiative. She'll also share your stories and expert advice from Essentia physicians and wellness experts.

I have just returned from a trip to Europe that included a seven-day hike through the German and Austrian Alps, a breathtaking area best appreciated after a day spent trekking several thousand feet up an alpine peak.

Every morning, I hoisted on my 20-pound pack and set out on a trail that would take me 1,500 to 3,000 feet higher than the day before. While some days left me feeling like an aging pack animal, I ended the hike in better shape than I started it – six pounds lighter, a couple of inches thinner around the waist and with a resting blood pressure that will make my doctor proud. I did all of this while eating enough cheese, butter, bread and sausage to last me a lifetime. When Germans hike, they eat. And they’re likely to end each day with a stein of beer or two.

Plenty of fresh air and exercise. Heart-stopping mountaintop views. Hearty meals shared with friends and filled with laughter. Now that you have my vision of paradise on earth, let me add one more thing.

My hiking companions were in their 60s and early 70s. In fact, of the hundreds of people I encountered on the mountains, more than half were in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s. And most of them appeared stronger and in better overall health than I am at 49.

Above: My German companions, all in their mid-60s and early 70s, easily out-hike me up the Alps. Below: Somebody's grandmother transporting fresh produce home from an Italian market.

When I look back at my trip to Europe – an anniversary dinner at a Paris bistro, boating the canals of Venice, sunsets over snow-capped mountains – my biggest takeaway remains the overall health of the people living in the countries I visited. It shows in how well they age. Great-grandmothers ride their bicycles to the market for groceries. Retired grandparents take their grandkids on ambitious, multi-day alpine hikes.

Here in the U.S., we’ve come to equate aging with disease and decay. We treat aging as if it were itself a disease. And we consider it an exception when anyone manages to age without succumbing to one or more “inevitable” age-related conditions, like diabetes, heart trouble, decreased flexibility, or loss of mobility.

What I saw with my own eyes in Europe proves that isn’t the case. While we are all certainly going to die one day, how we live until then is not pre-destined. Our daily choices play a big role in whether we’ll spend our last years hiking mountains or being pushed around in a wheelchair.

Before I left on vacation, Essentia Health Psychologist Dr. Joel Kirchner shared his concerns about the cultural challenges Americans face when it comes to achieving optimal health, particularly when it comes to our weight. He firmly believes communities, states and the nation as a whole need to shift away from a culture of complacency to one that reinforces healthy behaviors. Like riding your bike six blocks to the market instead of taking the car. Or charging $3 to $5 for a 12-ounce soda.

A growing body of research supports the idea that healthy cultures promote healthy individuals. One of the best known projects has been headed by Dan Buettner, founder and CEO of Blue Zones. If you haven’t heard of him, make time to check out his website. There you can learn more about the nine common traits of people who live long, healthy lives. Genetics plays a factor, but it is not the only one. People are starting to buy into this idea, even in places like Albert Lea, Minn., where residents took on a Blue Zone challenge and added an average of 3.1 years to their lives.

In the end, much of the change we need to see is simply common sense. Eat less junk. Move around more. Stay connected to friends and family. Connect with your spiritual life. We know what we need to do. We just need to support one another in doing it.

In many ways, this is what healthcare reform is all about. As an Accountable Care Organization, Essentia Health is responsible for helping people learn what’s needed to remain as healthy and active as possible through all seasons of life. It’s going to take some work in the beginning, but if we all make an effort to change how we think about our health, over time a new culture will develop to support us.

If you doubt the effort is worth it, consider this. For the first time in years, the U.S. witnessed a slight drop in childhood obesity. No one is certain exactly why this has happened, but many are postulating that education about nutrition and the health risks of junk food, like sugar-sweetened soda, are having an impact on behavior.

So where is all this leading? For me, it means I’m back on American soil and ready to lead a charge for better health among our employees and patients. And I’m hoping there are hundreds, even thousands of others out there ready to join me in bringing our mission of making a healthy difference in people’s lives to life.  

Catherine Neva (Nurse)

Mary: Your article piqued my interest as I just returned from Scotland where hiking was at the top of the agenda. The Scots like to call themselves hill climbers and that is exactly what they do. The trails can be steep and rugged but you are absolutley right about the ages you see on the trail. Although all ages are out, it seems the greatest numbers are in the 60-80 group and they are having a great time. The other thing I like was no golf carts. They walk the course and they bring their dogs everywhere. Even on the St. Andrews Old Course, we saw dogs strolling down the fairway with their golfing masters. Of course, doggie bags were encouraged.

Essentia Health Moderator

Rhonda Nickel (RN)

Inspirational story, thanks so much for telling it. Other things that we should take into account: European food sources are more local, less corporate junk food transported thousands of miles. These farmers of fresh produce are much more supported by their governments than in U.S. European governments and employers generally give their workers MUCH more vacation time than here in U.S. Most European countries have universal ,affordable health care, not related to your employment. The mechanism may be different from country to country, but they do not have to worry about backruptcy due to medical bills. Much less stressful socially and on citizens' health.

Essentia Health Moderator

Emily Norton (Application Development)

Another great article Mary!!! Thank you!

Essentia Health Moderator

Thanks for reading, Emily! Have a great and healthy week!

Debbie Crandall (Clerk - Patient Services)

Thanks for the great story! It really is a mind set that needs to change ... When we turn 60 or above, it does not mean we should no longer actively pursue challenging activities.

Essentia Health Moderator

Debbie Crandall (Clerk - Patient Services)

Thanks for the great story! It really is a mind set that needs to change...When we turn 60 or above it does not mean we should no longer actively pursue challenging activities.

Essentia Health Moderator

You're absolutely right, Debbie. In fact, that's a time of our lives where we have more time to do the things we enjoy.

Mary TB

Susan Teske (RN Crisis Nurse)

Very inspiring story. Thanks, Sue

Essentia Health Moderator

Gina Kinzler (RN - Schedule A - Recovery (PACU))

Thank you so much for sharing your expericence and encouraging us to get on board with this mindset toward healthy lifestyles. I saw this same sort of thing living on the west coast where people don't seem to associate aging with and inevitable decrease in fitness and activity. We do need to hear more life stories like this in our neck of the woods. Gina RN, Essentia Health Fargo

Essentia Health Moderator

You're right, Gina, we do have examples of healthy living right here in the U.S. The U.S. West Coast and states like Colorado are filled with people and communities that have made health a top priority. I know it's a little easier there given the climate, but if we get creative there are things we can do here too.

Mary TB

Jennifer Peterson (RN)

I love this story. Thanks Mary.

Essentia Health Moderator

Thank you for taking the time to read it, Jen. I consider it a true privilege to be able to write this blog.

Patrick Twomey (Chief Medical Officer/Chief Medical Quality Officer)

Bravo Mary. What a way to vacation. We should all be in training for the great event we call life. I rode my bike to work today. I invite anyone interested to join my 5 mile uphill route back.

Essentia Health Moderator

Dr. Twomey --

Consider it training for a bike trip up the Alps. They have gorgeous biking trails.

Good for you for biking to work -- and for biking up the hill. Five miles is a looong way up on two wheels. Thanks for setting a healthy example for us all.

Mary TB


What would encourage you to commute by alternate means (bus, bike, walk)?

262 votes

A. Know where bike racks are at my workplace33.21% 87 Votes
B. Know bus routes and tips for riding the bus27.1% 71 Votes
C. Know how to use park-and-ride lots17.94% 47 Votes
D. Know tips for walking to/from work safely21.76% 57 Votes

Notes to the Editor:
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