3 Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging
Do cleanses, skin treatments and intense exercise really make a difference? This author decided to find out
Lauren Kessler, an award-winning immersion reporter, is the author of Counterclockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging. On her blog, she writes more about the hope and hype of the anti-aging industry.
I am in the commercial crosshairs of the $88 billion "anti-aging" industry. And so are you. We health-conscious baby boomers are walking around with targets on our backs. From physicians to Big Pharma to internet scammers, everyone wants a piece of us. They want us to get thousand-dollar tests, take youth-boosting hormones and buy exotic anti-aging concoctions. They want us to go under the knife and have $300 snake venom facials and drink harmonically balanced water.
They know we want to remain active and involved as we age. And because many of us are media sponges, we know that "anti-aging" is more than just a catch phrase for a flood of products backed by wild promises of forever youth. It's an intriguing and evolving scientific study of why and how people age and the extent to which we can control that process.
As both a personal and a journalistic endeavor, I investigated the hope and hype of the anti-aging movement. I looked at the best research and the worst scams, went to conferences and clinics, spent time in cutting-edge labs and visited high-promising websites. I asked questions and used myself – within reason – as a guinea pig to try to root out the truth (or at least the promise) of anti-aging. I wrote about this eye-opening journey in my book. Following are three of the lesser-known strategies I discovered, all of which worked for me.
Light Trumps Surgery?
For many people, anti-aging means looking young, and that means surgery or paralyzing injections. But paying a plastic surgeon to create a young face makes no sense if the body underneath (heart, arteries, brain, muscles) is tick-tocking its way to senescence.
Still, there is something to looking in the mirror and seeing a more youthful face; it could inspire you to take action to feel as good as you now look. Conversely, if you've been working on inner youth through diet, exercise and positive thinking, why not rejuvenate your outside so you look as good as you feel?
I explored the world of plastic surgery and endured the harrowing experience of having one of the country's top doctors stare at and evaluate every line, wrinkle, fold, crevice and spot on my face. You can thank me later. The facial rejuvenation treatment I finally decided to try is called IPL (intense pulsed light), a non-invasive series of laser-zapping treatments to address "hyper-pigmentation" – aka, age spots – and to diminish sun damage, tiny veins and uneven skin tone. I had the treatment three times — and it worked. No more spots. Really. The before-and-after photos taken at the medical spa clearly show a more even-toned, brighter, healthier-looking face.
(MORE: Secrets to Firm, Glowing, Youthful Skin)
But here's another thing about IPL: It hurt. The literature reads, "When the pulse of light is delivered, patients will experience a mild pinching or stinging sensation." How about an electric zap that raises the hair on the back of your neck? How about a sharp, hot sting like being jabbed by a super-heated needle? That would be more accurate. On the other hand, after all the zapping, suddenly everyone was asking me if I just came back from vacation.
Joining the Detox Frenzy
Do we live in a world full of preservatives, additives, pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, lead, mercury, PCBs, saturated fats, trans fats and the latest big bad, high-fructose corn syrup? We sure do. Are some or all of these harmful to our health and well-being? Absolutely. So if these substances contribute to ill health and our "environmental" aging, isn't it logical that ridding our bodies of them would help turn back our biological clocks?
Our bodies are designed to be self-cleaning machines. With our protective layers of skin, air-filtering lungs, and magnificent blood-purifying livers, we're built to handle toxins, but some believe we are now overloading the system. We're creating more work than our livers can handle, which is stressing and aging this premier cleansing organ and, by extension, our entire body. This concept made sense to me, so after much research into the booming cottage industry that is detox, I consulted a nutritionist who put me on a two-week, four-phase systemwide cleanse.
My personal cleanse was a relatively sane progressive "elimination" regimen meant to give the liver a breather and help the body take a little vacation from internal overwork. These were my four phases, each lasting three or four days:
- Eliminate caffeine, alcohol, anything with refined sugar and all "flesh foods."
- Add dairy products and eggs to the excluded list. (Beginning in the second phase, I began drinking a rice protein shake, at first just once a day, but by the end of the final phase, four times a day.)
- Add grains, nuts and seeds to the excluded list.
- Eat only cruciferous vegetables (raw, juiced or steamed), raw greens, fresh apples or pears.
How did I feel after all this elimination? Better than I thought I would: Clear-eyed, rosy-cheeked, high-energy. Youthful. This is, as they say in the lab, an "anecdotal report." But having lived it, I will tell you it was a very nice anecdote – except for the random doughnut cravings.
The Sweaty Truth
If there is one key to reversing the biological clock, one proven, nonnegotiable anti-aging strategy, it is exercise. Concerted physical activity has astonishing, far-reaching, scientifically validated, disease-preventing, age-blasting effects.
But what is the best anti-aging exercise? I asked fitness experts, exercise physiologists, medical researchers and dozens of trainers. I read everything – studies in top research journals and perky articles in mainstream health magazines. And I personally tried just about every form of exercise I could imagine doing and some I couldn't, but attempted anyway.
My conclusion? Some form of high-intensity interval training appears to be the best way to enhance fitness, rev metabolism and turn back the clock. The regimen involves short bursts of all-out effort interrupted by very short rest periods. You can do this in a variety of ways – running, walking, cycling, swimming, rowing – but it's hard to force yourself to do any of them with the intensity required for maximum effect. (At least, I found it hard.) Then I discovered Tabata, a relatively obscure form of high-intensity interval training devised by Japanese physiologist Izumi Tabata, who was seeking to increase the aerobic fitness of his country's Olympic speed skaters.
(MORE: 3 Minutes of Exercise and Two Fasts a Week: Is This the Future of Fitness?)
The standard Tabata protocol consists of 20 seconds of all-out effort – uncomfortable, panting, sweating effort – followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated 8 times. That's one set. When it's finished, another one begins. Then another. And another. The program incorporates elements of old-school calisthenics – burpees, squats, pushups, sit-ups and the up-and-back sprints gym teachers used to call "suicides." The 20-second bursts seem endless. The 10-second rests are over before they begin. It is, in a word, brutal. It is also effective — you cannot buy more impressive bragging rights.
What's Right for You?
Whether or not any of these particular strategies appeal to you, there are two important things to remember: First, within the wide world of anti-aging, there will always be both hope and hype. Amid all the forever-young scams there are some energy-boosting, disease-blasting, anti-aging strategies that can really benefit you. Second, and it is extraordinarily important to keep this in mind: Some aging researchers believe that up to 70 percent of how healthily and how quickly we age is within our control. So when you find an approach that works for you, follow through on it.