One of inspiring aging-related messages at Rancho La Puerta

 I haven’t had a lot of examples of healthy aging in my personal life; sadly, both of my parents died at relatively young ages. So I find myself constantly on the watch for role models to learn from; I’m hungry for the example of others as well as the knowledge they can share.

I found the ultimate role model for healthy aging when I visited Rancho La Puerta, the original wellness retreat, last week. Founder Deborah Szekely arrived at the ranch as an 18-year-old bride, and 70 years later, at 88, she’s still helming the ranch, an extended family, and and an astonishing variety of charity and community projects. “I just don’t feel old yet,” she told us in an intimate conversation about aging one night at the Ranch. “I keep waiting, but it hasn’t happened.” Two years shy of 90, she knew the line would get a laugh – but she was also completely serious, and it felt completely true. And after 70 years spent developing the ultimate approach to healthy living, she’s also uniquely positioned to speak on the subject. What additional nuggets of wisdom did Deborah have to offer? In a free-ranging conversation, she shared a lifetime of insight and experience about what keeps us young, no matter the number of years we’ve officially tallied.

Deborah Szekely, 18, at the ranch

• Wake with a wiggle. This sounds terrifically corny, and yet – said as it was with Deborah’s characteristic twinkle and sincerity — it was one of my favorite insights of the evening. “Think about dogs and cats; how they never get up without a deep, luxurious stretch, and then they roll around, and stretch some more. There’s a reason they do that.” No matter how busy and pressed for time you feel, Deborah says, take a few minutes as your eyes open to greet the day with a few deep stretches and an enthusiastic “wiggle” of the spirit. Ask yourself, what surprises might this day hold? As an official morning grump, one who tends to wake with a backache and a sense of overwhelm and panic, I’m the perfect candidate to try to put this advice into practice. And I gotta tell you, it’s working for me.

Deborah Szekely with yours truly

• Have a reason to be here. Call it passion, raison d’être, zest for life, but whatever you call it, it’s key to staying young at heart, Szekely says.  “You have to have a reason you want to live a longer life, or it’s not going to happen,” Szekely says with characteristic candor. “Me, I can’t stop making plans– I’m always thinking `I want to get this done.‘ And I’m so curious; I want to see what happens in the next five years. We haven’t done very well with our world, but I’m optimistic and hopeful that these young people today will do better, and I want to be here to see it.”

• Enjoy getting physical. “I do pilates three times a week; it would be four, except the teacher I like isn’t available more often,” Szekely told us, laughing along with us at the image of octogenarian as eager beaver athlete. Then there’s the Navy Seal trainer who comes to her home gym three days a week to lead her in a regimen of strength training. And on Sundays she hikes for several hours with a group of friends, followed by a stop at the farmer’s market and a picnic. Add it together and you’ll see that’s seven days out of a possible seven. But exercise, according to the Rancho La Puerta model, has nothing to do with grunting and calisthenics – it’s about finding the joy of moving. Like to dance? Learn to salsa. Or try hula hooping, or yoga, or start your day with a sunrise peak climb, like we did every day at the ranch. Whatever makes you feel an appreciation for your body and all it can do. “To me, the word exercise is the word oxygen,” Szekely says. “It’s not, `I hate to exercise,’ it’s `I love to breathe, and breathe deeply.'”

• Eat from the garden. Rancho La Puerta is credited with originating the concept of “spa food,” but the truth is, that phrase doesn’t do the Ranch’s approach to food justice, or give Deborah and husband  Edmond “The Professor” Bordeaux Szekely credit for originating a philosophy about diet, nutrition and overall health that’s still forward-thinking today. What they taught was simple, yet supremely revolutionary – and they taught it long before anyone had ever heard of Michael Pollan. Eat from the garden – grow your own if you can, or visit local farms and farmer’s markets. Eat seasonally, eat fresh, eat as little meat as possible. (The ranch is “pescaterian,” meaning dishes feature fish, eggs, and some cheese, but no poultry or meat.) Avoid sugar, white flour, and skip wheat entirely if you’re sensitive to it. Eat slowly and mindfully, and you’ll be satisfied with smaller portions. And forget any preconceived notion of feeling deprived — eating like this can be utterly delicious, as evidenced by the recipes I took home in Cooking with the Seasons, the Rancho La Puerta cookbook.

 • Narrow your focus to avoid stress. There are good things about growing older, Szekely says, and one of these is self-knowledge. “By the time you turn 60, you know your capacity; you know what’s life-enhancing, and what isn’t. You know how to choose your thinking. Someone tries to bring you down or distract you and you can say, `I don’t have to fiddle with that.’ You’re old enough to feel comfortable making choices.” Part of this process of choice, Szekely says, is to think of your health as an investment. Yes, there will always be other demands on your time and energy, and it’s all too easy to set your own needs aside. But if you want to be here — still moving, shaking, laughing, wiggling, and doing — 20 years from now, there are choices to be made. And you’re old enough to know how to make them.