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Dance trumps gym

15 April 2016

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STAND upright, but with your legs crossed. Now squat down, using your arms for balance but not support, until you reach the ground, without falling over. Now stand upright, using only your leg muscles and no other support. How well you perform this simple test apparently gives a fairly accurate indication of how many more years you have to live.

A complex scientific analysis can determine how your chronological age compares with your physical age in terms of how your health relates to the average: our two young athletic presenters were shocked to discover that they were, in effect, at least five years older than their birthdays told them.

Super-fit Angela Rippon, a keen tennis player and the picture of how good a 71-year-old can look, undertook a full MRI scan, and was taken aback by the revelation that her heart and liver were surrounded by unhealthy layers of internal fat. All in all, How To Stay Young (BBC1, Thursday of last week) was one of the scariest programmes I have ever watched.

It is now clear that our propensity to life-shortening syndromes is only 25 per cent genetic; the other 75 per cent is the result of lifestyle. In a vindication of the old truth that those who hold to the most questionable doxa exhibit the most admirable praxis, a Seventh-Day Adventist town in the United States, because of its teetotal, vegetarian, tobacco-eschewing regime, retains rude health into extreme old age.

There are some grains of hope: we can, if we choose, change a lifetime’s pattern of eating, drinking, and inactivity. A German experiment shows that, for the elderly, three half-hour dance sessions a week are far more effective than three half-hours in the gym.

Workers or Shirkers? Ian Hislop’s Victorian Benefits (BBC, Thursday of last week) explored society’s attitude to the poor and destitute. We saw how the reformers of 1832 sought to make the workhouse as uncomfortable as possible, to encourage work and thrift and discourage scroungers. Down the ages, people have tried to distinguish the deserving from the undeserving poor.

Hislop discovered (through the unscientific experiment of rattling collecting buckets outside the Royal Exchange) that more people than might be expected appreciated that the distinction might be very hard indeed to draw, choosing to put money in both buckets.

Is poverty the fault of the poor, or, as 19th-century Socialists such as Beatrice Webb believed, the fault of society or economics? This had more bite than Hislop’s previous excellent historical forays, reflecting better that, as editor of Private Eye, he should be the nation’s guardian of our long tradition of political satire — by setting each Victorian attitude against our contemporary agonisings.

Does generous provision for the poor encourage them in their indolence? Or is it possible that they are in fact merely us, having hit a patch of bad luck? If no one is responsible for his or her accident of birth, how can anyone be punished for the generations of economic, educational, and social failure into which some of us are born?

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