As Old As You Feel

3rd January 2009

Phil Wall muses, as he often does, about the real age of his body.

The health sections of newspapers and national magazines often carry quizzes aiming to reveal your ‘true’ physiological age. I don’t know about you, but since I’ve had children I’ve become more aware of the ravages of time and I’m developing an almost unhealthy interest in how my body is doing… What are my chances of living longer than the average? Am I still in the physical shape of someone ten years younger, or am I just fooling myself?

The quizzes are usually fairly simple: Smoker? Add two years. Exercise more than three times a week? Deduct three years. Eat your five a day? Deduct a year. And so on. I’ve seen these quizzes in a number of different publications and on several websites too. I’ve tried them all, and as a non-smoking gym-goer who drinks little alcohol, rarely has red meat and eats lots of fruit, I usually do quite well and am judged a bit younger than my chronological age. But the simplicity of the questions means an inevitable lack of accuracy, so I’d always vaguely wondered about something more comprehensive.

Then, by accident, I came across a website called RealAge.com. This looked like the answer. The test that RealAge.com features is so comprehensive that it’s split into five sections: health, habits, relationships, diet and fitness. I dived straight in.

Fitness questions don’t worry me. I do a variety of exercise: some cardio, some weights, different sports. Based on my answers they calculated that I should be doing a little more cardio work, but I’m not sure where I’d find the time. Other than that, though, I got a thumbs-up.

I thought I’d be fine on Health too. I’m almost never ill, take no medication and have no ongoing ailments. But I’ve never had my cholesterol measured and they didn’t like the estimate of my blood pressure as at the high end of the normal range, so I was marked down. RealAge would also like me to be taking an aspirin every day, despite conflicting evidence as to the benefits of that strategy – and despite awarding me marks for not taking medication.

The Relationships section is not as lengthy as the others but is keen to reward you for being in a family that shuns divorce, so thumbs up again. Curiously, though, in this section I managed to give the scoring system the impression that I don’t set a healthy example for my children. I’m not sure how this happened; they eat well and their health is actually one of my main concerns.

Diet was another section where I expected the compliments to flow, but RealAge pointed out several things I’m doing ‘wrong’. They advise ingesting 1,200mg of Vitamin C a day (the Recommended Daily Allowance is just 60mg), plus 3,000mg of potassium and 700 micrograms of folic acid (RDA 200mcg). Vitamin C is water soluble and excess soon gets flushed from your system, but there’s little scientific evidence that large amounts are beneficial. For potassium, bananas are an excellent source, but you’d need seven a day to meet the target; broccoli is good for folic acid, but about two whole heads per day are required to get the amount RealAge recommend.

RealAge also advocate eating at least five different vegetables every day (just veg, not including fruit!) and six to eleven servings of whole grains. Six to eleven servings! That’s on top of all that fruit and veg… I’d be doing so much eating I wouldn’t have time to exercise.
Finally Habits. They judged me quite well here, though I’m baffled by many of the questions. It’s fair enough that they ask about smoking, but nearly all the other questions concern driving: How big is my car? Do I wear a seatbelt? Have I got an airbag? Do I stick to the speed limit? And so it went on.

I can’t be sure how much weight they give to these answers, but it seems they’re confusing things that might kill me – driving too fast without a seatbelt – with how old my body is now. Yes, I might crash my car, but an increased chance of my life being abruptly terminated has nothing to do with the current ‘age’ of my body. Driving unsafely doesn’t offset exercise (but if the worst does happen, exercise and good diet might mean I leave a younger looking corpse…).

I have to conclude that RealAge isn’t very accurate either, unfortunately. They include things that have no bearing on my body, and leave out others that do. Alongside the numerous questions about driving is just one about sunbathing (Have I ever been burnt enough to peel?) and they’re not bothered if I spend all my spare time on a sunbed!

Anyway, besides driving there are numerous other ways of being killed. They didn’t ask if I do dangerous sports, like free climbing, ultimate fighting or shark fishing from a rubber dinghy, any of which might also shorten my life dramatically. More tragically, I might be randomly stabbed or the tube I’m travelling on may be blown up. They don’t even care if I live in Berkhamsted, Brixton or the Bronx, or if I belong to the Rotary Club, the 2nd Parachute Regiment or the Yardies. When you consider all that, the obsession with driving seems a little misplaced.

There is good advice on the RealAge website, but when you dig into it you soon realise that, ultimately, they’re there to make money. They sell supplements, and if they can convince people that they’ll never get enough ‘essential’ vitamins and minerals in a normal diet, then they are easier to sell. I’m not sure that my diet is so poor that supplements will add years to my life. RealAge might tell me that I’m several years younger than my ‘real age’ but I take the whole thing with a pinch of salt – remembering to throw it over my shoulder, rather than consume more than 6g a day, of course.

Find Your Local