Children around the world look to Santa Claus as a model of good behavior. But can this sleigh-riding bearer of goodies also be a model good health habits for adults?
"Because Santa is probably more than 550 years old, a lot of people would say that growing older hasn't been a problem for him,'" said Dr. Thomas Cavalieri, dean of the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. "But aging successfully means more than adding years to your life. Successful aging means you are adding life to your years."
Cavalieri is a geriatrician and the founder of the medical school's nationally acclaimed New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging. Although he has never personally examined Santa, his expertise allows him to draw the following remarkably specific conclusions about the "jolly old elf" and his naughty and nice health habits:
Naughty: The 1823 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, describes Santa as "chubby and plump" and, 190 years later, he still looks like he could lose a few pounds. Skipping some of those sugary snacks that children leave for him would help Santa avoid the weight gain that could lead to conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Statistics show that half of adults older than 65 has diabetes or prediabetes.
Nice, but used to be naughty: Santa used to be seen with the "stump of a pipe…held tight in his teeth" while the smoke "encircled his head like a wreath." Fortunately, he appears to have given up this habit. No matter how old you are, quitting smoking immediately improves your health.
Mostly Nice: While late-night snacks can cause heartburn, the milk Santa drinks is a good source of bone-building vitamin D and calcium. Santa should stick to low- or non-fat milk, and combine it with vitamin fortified foods and weight bearing exercises to keep his bones strong and limit his risk of osteoporosis.
Nice: Despite his size and age, Santa probably sticks to a regular exercise program throughout the year. Otherwise, he wouldn't be able to remain so "lively and quick" while delivering gifts around the world. Carrying a sack full of toys strengthens his muscles, which improves balance and helps prevent falls. Climbing up and down chimneys -- while not recommended -- is likely good cardiovascular exercise, similar to the kind of workout you get with a brisk walk, a bike ride or walking up and down steps.
Probably Nice: Santa is "…making a list and checking it twice." This may be a sign of some age-related difficulties with memory, but making lists is an excellent way to compensate for this sometimes vexing problem. Keeping active -- by making toys with the elves year round -- will help, too. Regular exercise improves heart health and a healthy heart means a healthy brain.
Nice: Santa keeps a herd of reindeer. Though not for everyone, caring for a pet can yield several health benefits. Pet ownership can help lower blood pressure, ease anxiety, reduce social isolation and even boost the immune system. Having a pet can also provide opportunities for exercise.
Nice: Santa and Mrs. Claus have been married for a long time and marriage appears to be strongly related to successful aging. Newly published research shows that married people were more likely than others to survive cancer. Marriage also provides psychological benefits. The social connections that are part of married life go a long way toward helping limit the effects of depression and stress.
"When you add it all together, Santa's health habits definitely put him on a successful aging path that others can follow," Cavalieri said. "He appears to be in pretty good shape and should be able to continue filling Christmas wishes for many years to come."
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