This was the first time I interviewed an author while she was hiking. To clarify, I was sitting and typing; Lauren Kessler was climbing in Snow Canyon State Park in southern Utah and we were speaking by phone. She had started the climb at 6:30 that morning, and had to put the phone down just once, while on a steep pass.
I was drawn to her new book by its title and premise, “Counter Clockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging” (Rodale). Kessler is a likeable guide, a latter-day George Plimpton of youthfulness, as she explores the frontier of anti-aging, trying to turn back the clock. She meets researchers and physicians, gets a muscle biopsy to learn about her metabolism, tries intense calorie restriction and other diets, goes for a detox cleanse and takes every calculate-your-own-biological-age test she can find.
Her aim is more than looking younger — she’s looking for ways to create stores of energy, resilience and vibrant health.
Kessler’s a mid-lifer but won’t tell her age (although she admits that she’s been lying about it since she was 12 and wanted to appear older).
“Chronological age is meaningless,” she says. “We all know people who are one chronological age who act and talk much older or younger.” She explains that after age 40 or 50, people age at entirely different rates, in part due to choices they have made and are making.
“You’re not your birthdays, you are the age of your body and your mind,” she says.
Another reason she’s holding back on her own age is that people make assumptions when they hear numbers. “I want to stay outside of anyone’s stereotypes.”
The numbers she likes to mention are 70/30 — she says that experts think that lifestyle accounts for as much as 70 percent of how we age and how quickly, and the remaining 30 percent is hereditary. The larger percent is the result of everything that we make choices about, every day.
Over the course of her year as a guinea pig for all sorts of therapies and approaches, she has become more and more convinced that fitness is the key: “It seems to come down to the basics of being in shape: aerobic fitness, recovery time, strength and flexibility.”
While she doesn’t have a formula for the amount of exercise time that’s necessary every day, she does know that her own previous approach — going to the gym for an hour or so every day and being sedentary after that — is not enough. Now, rather than meeting a friend for a sit-down lunch, she’ll try to take a walk with that person. Rather than inviting people over for dinner, she’ll suggest something physical, because “exercise has such enormous, widespread effect on our mind and our body.”
During the course of researching the book, which included a boot camp to help jumpstart her fitness regimen, she was in excellent shape. “But then I spent a year sitting and writing, so now I’m trying to get back. It’s so easy to lose it — you have to be vigilant. I wasn’t while writing.”
Kessler writes as investigative reporter, cultural anthropologist and research scientist without portfolio. Her method is to tell stories. In attitude, she’s upbeat, candid and funny. Her subject is also very timely. According to a census report, 441 people are turning 60 every hour during the year of 2013. The field of anti-aging has become the most rapidly growing medical specialty today.
Citing her chapter, “Thinking Young,” she cites research showing there’s “a mental aspect, that’s not pie in the sky or rose-colored glasses, but is about understanding your own power to make something better, having a creative spirit. That’s what separates people who age well from those who don’t hold onto their vitality.”
While she believes strongly that what you eat makes a difference, she says there are no super foods, “no exotic berries; it’s really the same stuff you’ve been hearing about: mostly plants, darkly colored vegetables, lean proteins.”
But she does single out blueberries as the best of all fruit, the closest thing to a super food. Her own daily breakfast — and the meal she would choose if she had to have only one meal for the rest of her life — is non-fat Greek yogurt with blueberries and chopped almonds.
Kessler, who grew up in Wantagh, on Long Island, now lives in Eugene, Ore., and directs the graduate program in narrative journalism at the University of Oregon in Portland. She has also written other books of narrative journalism where she’s part of the story, including, most recently, “My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, A Daughter, a Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescence.”
In the final chapter of “Counter Clockwise,” “Beat the Clock,” she writes of going back to Long Island for a high school reunion while working on the book. For her, it’s the perfect place to confirm that people age differently, as she’s in an enclosed space where everyone is the same chronological age. If someone walked into the room, she figures, they’d guess that the people were between the ages of 35 and 75, based on looks, posture, movement, attitude, energy and conversation subject matter.
Ultimately, Kessler doesn’t come up with the seven secrets of eternal youth, just the usual advise: eat lots of fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, don’t smoke, maintain healthy weight and don’t drink too much. Nothing news-making here, yet it’s surprising to hear how few people adhere to these well-known maxims.
Kessler admits that she might sound like “a cut-rate Zen master and a cheesy bumpy sticker,” but she offers her realization that “youthfulness is not the destination, but the path.”
The good news is that you can take some dark chocolate along, too.