The list of long-disputed paths to the fountain of youth includes the Mediterranean diet, the fish-based diet of Japan and miscellaneous factors such as happiness and sense of accomplishment. What is not disputed are the positive effects of exercise on general well-being and, by exercise, I mean a life-long habit of being active in the great outdoors.
My personal, study-of-one theory is that living in the mountains might help you live a longer and healthier life. Studies show that living at altitude reduces the risk of cardiovascular death but increases the risk of death from pulmonary complications. In other words, it might help you live longer but, if you do get sick, high altitude might not be your best friend (1).
Besides the scientific evidence, there is empirical evidence. Mountain towns, in Europe and in the US, are full of older folks climbing up the slopes like mountain goats. I remember a farmer in the Alps heading up to the malga- a high altitude Alpine farm – with a huge rucksack on his back, unfazed by the heat and steep slope, a mechanical cadence in his step. In his eighties, this was just another day for him.
On another day, after a 5-hour run from the town to Merano to the top of the finger, the tallest peak in the area, I reached the summit spent. Overheated and mesmerized by the view, a shepherd greeted me at the summit. Also in his eighties, he watched over his small flock. We said hello, a mutual understanding of the unbelievable view.
Then there’s the town of Breckenridge, where every year I’m put to shame by seniors on skis and snowboards. This season, I was on the lift heading up to Peak 8. Next to me was a girl, or so I thought, on her snowboard. When their faces are concealed by googles and face masks, you can always distinguish the youngest from the oldest by their clothing and posture. She glided off the lift and stopped on the side to tighten her bindings. As I stopped beside her, she took off her googles and face mask, revealing the face not of a girl, but of a woman over seventy years old. After readjusting her face mask and googles, she launched down the slope, a girl once again.
Summit County has the longest life expectancy in the USA (2). Whether that’s because healthier, older people move to Summit County to take advantage of the lifestyle or because they become healthier once they move to Summit County is not clear, although I suspect the former. The fact remains, simply living in Summit County, or close to the mountains, is a call to action to get outside. Hiking, mountain biking, running, kayaking, just walking up the slopes: it’s impossible to live near the mountains and not heed their call.
And heeding the call of the mountains means living a healthier life, day in and day out.