Churchill aka Mr Healthy? Surely not!

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patient qi Sir-Winston-Churchill

Overweight with a cigar in one hand and a whisky glass in the other, Winston Churchill doesn’t strike you as a fitness model worthy of rivalling 80s exercise gurus such as Jane Fonda. However, the rotund British bulldog lived to the age of 90 with barely a day’s illness in his life and steady blood pressure of 140/80, while Ms. Fonda already has a new hip and knee, while her peer, Jim Fixx, dropped dead on his daily job at the tender age of 52.
Was Churchill merely lucky? Was he a man blessed with massively robust genes that could withstand any amount of abuse?
Undoubtedly genetics play a substantial part in an individual’s abilities to avoid or succumb to various medical conditions, but when it comes to donning florescent lycra leggings and leotards – remember those! – there may be other factors that are of much greater importance to your health.
A little of what you fancy …
Churchill enjoyed his devil-may-care persona and took pains to embellish it, yet despite the omnipresent whisky glass he was never drunk. This was because the tumbler was full of what his daughter called “Papa’s cocktail”: a mere splash of Johnnie Walker covering the bottom and then filled to the brim with water and sipped throughout an entire morning. He was known to drink wine during meals, but drinking while eating has always been a lesser health evil.
The trademark cigars were a further fashion prop, and although the great man made his way through 3000 of Havana’s best every year, they were mostly chewed rather than smoked. They rarely went below the first third before going out, leaving the PM chomping on them while he wrote before discarding the leafy mush in favour of a fresh one. Churchill detested cigarettes. At a time when Players claimed smoking was healthful, Sir Winston quipped: “Too many of those will kill you!”
Churchill’s early medical woes were mainly caused by accidents: He fought in the Boer war, was almost pushed under a train by a whip-wielding suffragette before crashing an aeroplane in the First World War; then he fell off a camel in 1921 and had his appendix removed in 1922. He suffered a knee-injury while steeple-chasing and was run over by a car in 1931 when he looked the wrong way while crossing a New York street.
His passions, apart from politics, were painting and building brick walls – one calming cerebral activity and the other an outdoor pursuit requiring strength, patience and precision. At Chartwell, his family home, he single-handedly constructed a dam, a swimming pool, walled gardens and re-tiled a cottage roof. He was also a prolific writer and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.
Although his wife once famously threw a dish of spinach at him, theirs was a long and happy marriage of equals. A 2009 study by the University of Chicago discovered that such a partnership was one of the most important secret health boosts you can have. Divorced and widowed people, even if they subsequently remarry were proven to be 22% more likely to suffer chronic health problems like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Researchers were surprised to find that these physical consequences from ruptured relationships lasted far longer than mental ones and could weaken the immune system over a significant period of time.
Everything in moderation …
Contrary to the photographic evidence of cigars and alcohol, Churchill was a moderate man. He enjoyed his cigars, food and wine but also valued active leisure pursuits and a rich family life. Even in the turmoil of war, he balanced work stress with the tranquillity of painting and was known to set up his easel anywhere that afforded him a little R&R in the midst of worldwide madness.
When he became Prime Minister he was already over 65. He survived the intensity of the war years with only a minor heart attack at the White House just after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour was announced.
Churchill’s moderate approach to life probably served his health better than if he had lived a few decades later when the exercise phenomenon swept America and much of the Western world. A recent study at the University of Western Australia showed that too much exercise leads to a drop in the level of glutamine, the hydrophilic amino acid which is a constituent of most proteins which boost our body’s immune system.
Even without the restrictive diets that frequently accompany intensive exercise regimes, health can become damaged and resulting stomach problems and recurrent injuries act as the body’s red flags that it can no longer cope with the stress put upon it.
While it has been comprehensively demonstrated that exercise reduces incidents of Alzheimer’s and depression, all studies have shown that this need not be excessive and that moderate exercise gives as much health benefit as strenuous workouts, without placing the body under persistent stress.
Although few people would covet Sir Winston’s physique, we could do worse than the look at his lifestyle and learn from it. Balance between physical and mental activity, stress and periods of calm, stable personal relationships and a lack of guilt over truly enjoying a little of what you fancy, are recipes that lead to a long, healthy life … with the help of some good genes too!

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