How to Age Well, Superhero-Style

5 minute read

It’s not easy being a superhero: They have enemies. They have monumental tasks to accomplish. They’re constantly battered. Beyond those dangers, however, they also practice several healthy behaviors that could carry them well into old age.

That’s what a team of Australian researchers recently discovered, as published in the light-hearted Christmas 2021 issue of the journal The BMJ. During pandemic lockdowns, the researchers immersed themselves in the world of Marvel superheroes. Their goal was to discover what these champions are or are not doing well when it comes to keeping their minds and bodies healthy as they advance toward their senior years—information that we regular mortals can incorporate into our New Year’s resolutions and apply to our own lives, too.

Lead researcher Ruth Hubbard, a professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Queensland, started watching the movies with her children, and then realized she could have fun analyzing the superheroes’ behaviors while gleaning information for her specialty: “Working out why some people experience declines in their health status,” she says, “and others remain robust and independent.”

Hubbard watched 24 Marvel movies released between 2008 (Iron Man) and 2021 (Black Widow). Her team paid particular attention to five characters: Iron Man, the Hulk, Black Widow, Black Panther and Spiderman.

Here are the top tips:

Exercise regularly

“The superheroes exhibit many positive behaviors, particularly their engagement in exercise and high levels of physical activity,” Hubbard says. They also often log bursts of high-intensity interval training during their fights. While it’s best to avoid fighting, Hubbard recommends doing regular exercise that challenges your muscles, balance and heart.

Keep moving

Even when meeting to discuss how to deal with hostile extraterrestrials—ala the first Avengers movie—the superheroes stand up and walk around. “Sitting for long periods can be negative for your health status,” Hubbard says, and boosting the number of steps you take per day can increase the length of your life.

Connect with others

“Loneliness and social isolation can be very negative for the aging trajectory,” Hubbard says, so her team was pleased to see that the superheroes rely on each other when needed. “They have disagreements, but they have a shared purpose and they come together and unite as a group.” Spiderman, for example, has positive male role models, plus a loving relationship with his aunt.

Work your brain

As Hubbard notes, 40% of dementia cases are “potentially preventable or modifiable,” so it’s great that a superhero like Iron Man uses his intelligence frequently. Several of the superheroes “had very high levels of educational attainment, which is very protective, as you increase your cognitive reserves and reduce your risk of developing dementia.”

Watch what you ingest

Apart from Iron Man and Thor, who binge-drink alcohol, the superheroes steer clear of heavy drinking. They also don’t smoke, and they maintain healthy weights. (The Hulk is an exception—his body mass index is “well above the recommended range,” Hubbard says.) Not only do these factors keep them physically healthy, but, as with education, they help stave off dementia. And although Black Panther benefited from consuming the herb that gave him his superpowers, “Performance-enhancing drugs are generally not a positive,” Hubbard says, and should be avoided. On the plus side, Black Panther is vegetarian, which can reduce obesity and the risk of issues like heart attacks and strokes.

Stay away from loud noises

The superheroes’ “exposure to planets colliding and explosions would be a risk for hearing loss,” Hubbard says. “Particularly for older men, having hearing loss and not addressing it through wearing hearing aids is associated with an increased risk of dementia.” Therefore, wear hearing aids if necessary.

Dodge dangerous activities

“The fighting itself was potentially negative for them,” Hubbard says. Consider Black Panther: after multiple thumps to the ground, hits to the face and a spear in the chest, he gets flung over a waterfall and ends up in a coma. Head injuries could increase the risk of dementia, or the superheroes might endure life-changing physical disabilities. Also, Spiderman’s crime-fighting mostly takes place at night, so he’s probably not getting enough sleep. This could lead to obesity, worse mental health, higher levels of pain and greater risk of injury.

In total, “It’s all common sense,” Hubbard says. And the takeaways could go on—from managing your anger, unlike the Hulk, to living in a privileged country if possible, like Black Panther in Wakanda, which is associated with healthy aging and longevity.

Hubbard herself started running after analyzing these characters. “I’ve realized that cardiovascular fitness is so important,” she says. “It’s about time I practice what I preach.” When, of course, she’s not busy enjoying movies.

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