aging · fitness

What does 74 look like? And how much choice do we have really?


I’m not a big fan of David Avocado Wolfe. And since that’s who these images were being attributed to on Facebook, I was suspicious from the start. (Thanks to a member of our Facebook community for sharing with me the one below.)

What’s wrong with these images? Here’s three thoughts.

First, there are limits to choice. We don’t actually know that the woman in the wheelchair is there as a result of lifestyle choices. Not all diseases that result in one being in a wheelchair in one’s seventies can be prevented.

I watched my mother-in-law go from being a happy, healthy, vibrant woman who loved hiking, swimming, and cross country skiing to bring someone who needed help with basic day to day activities in just a couple of years. The cause? ALS. Its cause isn’t known. Random genetic mutation? Doesn’t matter. Eating right and moving lots won’t prevent it.

If you saw me pushing her in a wheelchair and thought she was there because she made bad choices, you’d be wrong.

Second, can we be so sure who has a good life? More controversially, we don’t actually know that the woman in the wheelchair has a worse life than than the seventy something body builder. All we see are their bodies and that’s just part of the story.

I know that for me, I love movement, sports, and physically activity. I want to be still doing this stuff in my senior years. I’m fascinated by elderly athletes challenging our stereotypes of senior citizens. In Is aging a lifestyle choice? I wondered how much control we do have over staying physically fit as we age.

Note though that not everyone likes physical activity when they’re young. Some people prefer art, films, books, conversation with friends and all sorts of things that aren’t exercise. If you don’t like it, the absence of physical activity in your life, isn’t making you worse off. You do you.

I choose activity because it makes me happy. But I know there are people who feel differently. And not everyone has a choice.

Third, and thanks to a commentator, see below, for pointing this out, not all people in wheelchairs are inactive or dislike physical activity. Many people feel excluded from physical activity because of stereotypes about people with disabilities.

We can celebrate activity in aging without treating seniors for whom it’s not possible as failures. Comparing is never a happy game at any age. And ableism is ableism at all decades of life.


19 thoughts on “What does 74 look like? And how much choice do we have really?

  1. Well, I actually read your post unlike ^^^. I agree with you. You never know what is behind a picture, non? As a fitness professional, I think you absolutely owe it to yourself to be as fit and healthy as possible, but sometimes a catastrophic incident can happen to you. I got cancer and I work out for a living! I think that living that healthy lifestyle and being as active as possible does give you some of the tools necessary to fight anything that may come your way, though. Really like your blog.

  2. ” If you don’t like it, the absence of physical activity in your life, isn’t making you worse off.” That would only be true if inactivity had no health consequences, but it does. As someone with a disability, I am keenly aware that the “I’m disabled and can’t exercise” cliche literally kills people. The acceptance of this belief is the kind of ableism I worry about.

    1. True. My point was that it can be rational to make the health trade off if you really hate exercise. You’re right though that the stereotypes about disabled people being inactive necessarily hurt too.

      1. It’s theoretically possible for someone to hate all forms of exercise so much that the trade-offs are worth it, but before accepting someone’s claim that this applies to them, I’d try to find out what’s behind their belief. Maybe they haven’t found an activity that doesn’t bore them yet. Maybe they feel like they don’t belong in a gym. Maybe they feel terrible after exercise and need to go easier and work their way up slowly. I used to have similar beliefs about math and now I do curriculum development in mathematical biology!

  3. At first, all I saw was the physical until I read the post. Very powerful and inspiring. The choice is not always yours to make.

  4. I watched the video on the female bodybuilder. Very inspiring but a routine not many people could do, like waking up at 4 in the morning to go running, eating a very limited diet, etc. I totally agree with you that anything can happen at any time. I also love exercising (and I am pretty old) but am aware that things can happen regardless of how good your lifestyle choices are. Thanks for an interesting post. N.

  5. I am one of those people you mention who doesn’t like exercise or physical activity very much. I would much rather read, or watch a movie, or write, or play music, or socialize. Almost anything really.

    That’s not completely true: I enjoy moderate exercise like walking, hiking, or gentle biking. I also seem to get enough doing that type of exercise because I’m not overweight and my cholesterol is good. I am 50. Middle-aged. Both of my grandmothers were pretty sedentary and lived into their late 80’s without ever needing a wheelchair. I think genetics plays a significant role in whether you end up wheelchair-bound, and you don’t choose your genetics.

    I liked your post on exercise non-responders a few months ago. I probably am one, or at least a low responder. I get something out of a moderate regime of doing push-ups, too, but it takes me a very long time to make progress.

    Anyway, thanks for this post, too. It’s a very refreshing change from what you see from most fitness bloggers.

  6. To say the same thing I said on a facebook post with this: these images really bother me. My grandmother in her 70s was not in good health. She had parkinson’s and alzheimers in addition to other health problems (including rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis). She was in her early 70s when the alzheimers stated getting bad after a fall, after a bit she started needing a walker and more and more often a wheelchair to get around. She looked much older than her age as well during this time.
    She was not a bodybuilder or otherwise a huge fitness buff but was relatively active walking regularly and doing water aerobics and swimming until her illness got bad. She didn’t cause he illnesses by lack of activity and would not have been able to cure them with it.
    A lot of this is genetics. While later onset alzheimers does not have as clear a genetic link as early onset alzheimers, on my grandmother’s side of the family almost everyone who has lived past their 60s has developed it, typically in their late 60s or early 70s. There are now a few exceptions, which gives me hope, but the life expectancy for that side of my family is not looking great.

    Genetics plays such a huge role in all of this. If you have good genetics allowing you or your family members to be active and healthy in old age be very thankful for that, but it doesn’t make/them better people than those who were not so lucky.

    Of course on the note of genetics, while my grandmother on my mom’s side of my family died at 76, and my grandfather 11 weeks before her at age 78 due in large part to neglecting his own health taking care of her, on the other side of my family my grandmother survived breast cancer and is still alive and kicking (metaphorically, she is not very physically active), her husband, my grandfather, has survived cancer 3 times (different cancers too), was years back on oxygen and seemed near death with emphysema and then somehow just got better and doesn’t need it anymore, oh and smoked until he got lung cancer, and I don’t think he’s very active either, but is still alive living it up in Florida. So while my maternal grandparents are my role models of how to act in life, I’m crossing my fingers I got some of those death defying genes from my dads side of the family.

    But all in all, point being- when it comes to health and aging, what we have control over is a tiny, tiny sliver compared to what we do not have control over.

    1. The research I’ve read about says otherwise, except for extreme longevity. Apparently, only about 20-30% of the variation in people’s lifespans is accounted for by genetic differences.

      1. Here’s a paragraph from a paper titled, “The quest for genetic determinants of human longevity: challenges and insights” (

        “Twin studies have consistently found that for cohorts born around 100 years ago, approximately 25% of the variation in lifespan is caused by genetic differences (FIG. 3a). Recent combined analyses of ~20,000 twins born in Nordic countries between 1870 and 1910 confirm this, but they also show that the genetic influences on lifespan are minimal before the age of 60 and only increase after that age.”

        There’s a graph showing relationships between the survival of identical (“monozygotic”) and fraternal (“dizygotic”) twins. The big jump in correlations between twin survival takes place after 80.

        The abstract of another paper, “Genetics of healthy aging” (, says, “The heritability of age at death in adulthood is approximately 25%. Studies of exceptionally long-lived individuals show that heritability is greatest at the oldest ages”. It also says that the specific genes that have been found to have a significant impact on lifespan are one that affects cholesterol metabolism (APOE4) and one that apparently affects cancer susceptibility (FOXO3A).

      2. My original comment was “when it comes to health and aging, what we have control over is a tiny, tiny sliver compared to what we do not have control over.” This does not at all dispute that. Rather it supports it. 25% overall of variation in lifespan is attributed to inherited genetic difference according to this study, with that increasing with age. It’s less for younger individuals than older individuals due to other causes of death, like as a result of violence, being more common among younger individuals (according to that study). This actually means the role genes have in one living to be over 80, and especially active and healthy over 80, are quite greater. Genes are not a factor in how long one lives if one suffers an accident or violent death prior to when genes related to aging would be relevant, but that does not mean those genes did not exist for those individuals.

        Genes also are not the end all be all of what we do not have control over.
        This gives no answer at all to what we have control over in our lives, particularly what we could control in terms of diet and physical activity (as suggested by the memes in this post). I would be shocked if you could show me a study that shows diet and physical activity have a larger impact on longevity (living well past 80).
        Other factors we have no or little control over that lead to death: accidents of all sorts, being victims of violent crimes, gender, race, and for many environmental factors and socio-economic factors also fall into that. All of those go along with genetics in the category of things that impact the ability to be healthy and active in ones late 70s or 80s. Diet and exercise can help, but it most certainly plays a smaller role than all those other factors combined.

  7. thx :Sam, for the example of your mother in law. Great example.

    A close friend of mine, her mother fell in a transit bus that suddenly swerved. She broker her neck..and now on long road to recover..including wheelchair. She is 79 yrs.

    But until 5 months ago, her mother was going to exercise gym classes daily for 1-2 hrs. In fact, my friend told me that some friends of hers, saw this elderly fit woman in their class and assumed she was single.
    My friend’s mother had 7 children, with the eldest now 58 yrs. old! She is a grandmother of also 7 younger ones. My friend now realizes her mother is not immortal, will most likely not recover 100% (she also has a torn rotator cuff, etc.). (Friend bought her mother a folding bike a few yrs. ago…this the level of fitness of her mother and how she was perceived by her own adult children.)

    I think the reality is: a large % of us fit and healthy now in our mid-life, will most likely end up in a wheelchair in the last few years of life. It doesn’t mean we become resigned but just realistic how much time we want to devote each day to physical activity. The reality is that if one lives a long life beyond 80 yrs., most likely we will simply…..wear out. Become weak. By the way, incapable of driving a car by that time. (I had to say this just to shake our future realities.)

  8. I guess I’m just trying to say how to remain healthy, but also age gracefully and positively. My father who died was great example. He never engaged in structured exercise. He merely had a physical job as a fulltime cook and did occasionally walk (well, he had when we didn’t have a car when I was a child). In his final year, he was shuffling in the hospital weakly. But this is the same man 3 yrs. earlier who played table tennis with a grandson @82 yrs.

    It is incredibly too easy and wrongful to see a bunch of listing frail elderly that they didn’t have active lives.

Comments are closed.