The Exercise Elixir
Article from EnligtenNext Magazine presents Peter Ragnar on Health
America was said to be the melting pot of the whole world, with so many different nationalities and cultures arriving at the same time. Many brought their love of physical culture, exercise, and feats of strength here, and my family was no exception. I can remember my grandfather lifting dumbbells on the roof of our apartment building between clotheslines adorned with drying clothes. Some immigrants even became famous for their fitness and strength. So you see, I got an early taste of the exercise elixir from some pretty powerful examples.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Joseph Greenstein lived on East 96th Street in Brooklyn. I lived on West 41st Street. New York in the 1940s seemed to be the center of the golden age of strongmen, and Greenstein seemed to be the best of them all. Better known as the Mighty Atom, he was billed as the world’s strongest man. Can you imagine that as the years passed, the Mighty Atom’s strength stayed? He was still performing feats of strength into his mid-eighties. Was exercise some type of elixir? Could exercise promote mind power that could turn ordinary humans into supernatural phenomena?
My grandfather worked on a construction project at Coney Island, so I got to visit the boardwalk a lot. There you’d find Warren Lincoln Travis, who was also billed as the strongest man in the world, as was Charles Atlas. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember those advertisements where a scrawny ninety-eight-pound weakling gets sand kicked in his face at the beach. I’m assuming the advertiser had Coney Island in mind. That was where the Mighty Atom and others competed with one another for titles and recognition.
Greenstein was called the Mighty Atom because he was only 5 feet 4½ inches and never weighed more than 145 pounds. Yet just imagine any of the other hulking strongmen of his time (or of today) curling and then pressing a barbell weighing 163 pounds with one hand, but—get this—by just gripping the weight with only the middle finger! Or how about this: holding back a 150-horsepower, single-engine airplane with his hair! He could also bite chains in half, bend horseshoes, roll bars of steel around his arm as if they were copper wire, and so much more.
Well, I was fascinated with how to mold my body from the proverbial ninety-eight-pound weakling into a fit, strong, healthy, and enduring fleshly entity. Didn’t I say enduring? Superman isn’t supposed to get old and die, yet even strongmen do. However, it certainly gives you a lot of confidence to think that a person can become this strong and maintain it into their eighties. Being a pre–baby boomer myself, I’ve followed the Mighty Atom’s example and performed various feats of strength. I can still bend horseshoes and steel spikes and roll a bar of steel around my arm into a bracelet, and I recently pinch gripped seven barbell plates on the smooth side that weighed a total of 160 pounds. I also did 2,000 parallel bar dips in eighty minutes. It sort of gives you the feeling that nothing is impossible for a person if only they put their mind to it. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m also an advocate of radical life extension. I believe we have yet to tap the limits of our life span. Is exercise an elixir that can add years to your life and life to your years?
A massive study was conducted at Harvard University to answer just such a question. Dr. Ralph Paffenbarger and his colleagues studied 17,000 male Harvard alumni to find out. Here are their conclusions: Those who burned only 500 calories a week on exercise had the highest death rate. Those who burned 1,000 calories per week—that’s like walking five to ten miles a week—had a twenty-two percent lower mortality risk. However, if you engaged in intense exercise, working out from five to ten hours a week and burning up to 3,500 calories, the research concluded that you had a whopping fifty-four percent improvement in longevity!
Perhaps, in part, this startling statistic is due to the fact that exercise burns up free fatty acids for eighty percent of the calories used in a workout. Exercise also increases your metabolic rate, so you don’t have to worry as much about your caloric intake. Exercise feels good because it releases stress and tension. In today’s concrete jungles, it’s socially unacceptable to physically attack your business adversaries, coworkers, or boss. However, there is nothing stopping you from attacking the weights in the gym or hitting the pavement and grinding out some miles. Exercise is the greatest alternative when the bells and whistles of your body signal fight-or-flight reactions to stressful stimuli.
This is because exercise normalizes brain chemistry and calms your nerves by releasing endorphins. And that means you don’t have to crack the cap on those medications so many people take to combat anxiety and depression. Do you want to sleep more soundly? Then exercise. Do you want to remove toxins and heavy metals from your body? Then exercise.
Did you know that the lactic acid that builds up with hard workouts actually binds to toxins and heavy metals, flushing them out of your body? It’s estimated that there are more than forty million adults in the United States who are otherwise healthy but are sitting around on their butts, thinking they don’t need a regular exercise program. However, health care statistics are increasingly showing this to be a falsity. It’s believed that over a quarter of a million people die each year because they lack a regular exercise program. If you don’t exercise, you are twice as likely to experience myocardial infarction or die from coronary heart disease as those who work out.
Some folks think that because their blood pressure is within normal range, they don’t need to exercise, but they’re mistaken. People who have high blood pressure yet are on a regular exercise program have a statistically higher life expectancy than those in the normal range who don’t exercise regularly. Both their systolic (that’s the high number) and diastolic pressures will drop with exercise—without taking any drugs for hypertension.
Either way, you’ll probably want to know that this isn’t just puffery or a sales job to get you into the gym. Exercise produces real, lasting biological benefits. The systolic blood pressure of yours truly hasn’t been over one hundred in years, and my resting pulse is forty-two. But I’ve got an advantage: I’ve got more than half a century of workouts under my belt, and I just now feel I’m hitting my stride. I plan on being in better shape than Jack Lalanne when I blow through ninety-two. How about you?
You see, it isn’t the hot dogs at Nathan’s I remember at Coney Island (haven’t had one—well, maybe one or two—since I was a kid), and it isn’t so much the beach. It is the amazing human potential displayed on the boardwalk in the golden age of strongmen that planted the seed in my young mind, a seed that sprouted and grew and inspired me to seek excellence in all areas of life. And if Superman for some ridiculous reason doesn’t live forever, at least I hope an indelible mark of one improved human unit will be left as a reminder. So, then, let us toast life with the exercise elixir and seek to steal the fire of the gods.