Dr David Agus is well known in the United States, having treated Steve Jobs, Ted Kennedy and Neil Young. In his new book, A Short Guide to a Long Life, the oncologist encapsulates his philosophy that “listening to your body allows you to take charge”.
The book contains 65 simple things, which we can all do, that have been scientifically proven to increase your lifespan. I recently spoke to Dr Agus, who explained to me that “gardening is a very powerful way to fulfil many of the list”. I have cherry-picked 20 of his recommendations here.
1 Eat real food and don’t let the apple fall far from the tree. Growing your own or buying from local sources is important (and more tasty) because the minute the fruit or veg is picked it starts to change chemically and lose nutritional value.
2 Grow a garden. This, Dr Agus stresses, “should be mandatory for anyone with children”. It teaches you origin and seasonality. More importantly, it connects you with the land, gets you outside and encourages you to exercise and relax.
3 Maintain a dietary protocol that works for you. The modern processed-food culture contains many foods that have a 50:50 combination of fat and sugar (for example, ice cream, milk chocolate). This gives us a rush of dopamine, making it hard to resist eating more. Growing your own can give you a wide range of magical flavours, textures and freshness and your palate seems to become repelled by processed foods. His advice is to leave the table a tiny bit hungry. If you do need to snack, Dr Agus suggests you make the snack from scratch using real ingredients and have it at a daily regular snack time using portion control. My time is around noon, when I wander out for handfuls of parsley, salad burnet, the odd apple or tomato – depending on the time of year.
4 Maintain a healthy weight. Apparently a pound of weight lost equals a 4lb reduction in the load on your knees for every step you take. Hip joints suffer similarly. Use gardening in your weight-reduction plan; it is fabulous exercise. Three hours’ moderate gardening consumes the same calories as one full-on hour in the gym.
5 Get off your butt more. Prolonged time spent sitting, independent of how much other physical activity is done during the day, has been shown to have significant metabolic consequences, negatively affecting blood fats, blood pressure, appetite hormones and more. So get up regularly and stroll around your borders, pluck out the odd weed or mist cuttings.
6 Jack up your heart rate (50 per cent above your resting baseline) for 15 minutes a day. Turn your compost heap, axe some logs, dig out that old stump and turn the drive mechanism off your walk-behind mower and run with it!
7 Start a sensible caffeine habit. (It can also help you garden faster.) Caffeine, especially from traditional sources, may have protective anti-cancer properties. Get a Thermos cup and enjoy fresh coffee while tilling the soil.
8 Plan a one, five, 10 and 20-year health strategy. Dr Agus’s own plan includes “living into my ninth decade and to feel well, too”. He enjoys yoga and tennis. Part of my strategy is to maintain reasonable fitness and energy levels to match those of my father, who played squash and much more well into his eighties and had large reserves of energy.
9 Deal with sickness smartly. Vitamin supplements are frowned on by Dr Agus but if you feel a cold coming he recommends zinc lozenges (zinc acetate, 75mg a day), not chewed but sucked so they can be absorbed by your oral blood vessels, together with warm herbal teas with honey. Grow a wide range of herbs and make tasty infusions.
10 Pursue your passions. For many, gardening is perfect. It gets you hooked. It fulfils both your artistic and your physical sides, yet is productive. It also involves an appreciation of science and nature and the benefits of careful thought and consideration.
11 Strengthen your core and look after your posture.
12 Don’t forget your feet. Bunions and other podiatric torments can make walking difficult. I love gardening in my neoprene-lined wellies (Le Chameau, Country Neo Lady, £125,). Comfortable but not sweaty.
13 Find out what exercise or activity you’re bad at and focus on it. Apparently, new challenges can make us mentally sharper and physically fitter. So time for me to take up grafting, laying paving and computer-aided design (again).
14 Stretch. Do this daily when you have warmed your muscles after gardening. Your improvement in coordination, balance and general suppleness will take years off you.
15 Ask for help. Knowing your limitations in any field is important. In horticulture almost everybody is happy to help – it could change your life. You learn, find new friends and help others too.
16 Pick up a pooch. Or two, I would say. Dr Agus cites many reasons for this, (including developing routines and relieving stress) but my Jack Russells additionally control the rabbits and are great company when gardening.
17 Avoid risky behaviours and dangerous sports. Climbing unsafe ladders, using hedge cutters when not paying attention, mowers on steep banks. Take care and don’t get blasé.
18 Sunburn. A wide-brimmed hat and sunblock are important, even when it looks dull, to prevent overexposure to harmful rays while sowing the radishes.
19 Avoid insomnia. There has been an explosion in the sleep-aid industry. A regular great night’s sleep often makes many things seem better. Getting physically tired, happy, relaxed and satisfied from a good day’s gardening is my top cure for this.
20 Absence of downtime. No garden lets you fall prey to this one; it compels you to enjoy and tend it, and as I may have said before, it is one of the best ways to relax.