Over a decade ago, Thomas F. Rogers, a friend of mine and a former professor at Brigham Young University, wrote an essay about the benefits of being a Latter-day Saint.
“A nonbelieving former member tells me he still considers the church to have the ‘most comprehensive social benefit program’ he has ever encountered. I agree,” Rogers wrote in an essay published in the book “Why I Stay.”
“For instance,” he continued, “what contribution hasn’t the Word of Wisdom alone made to my personal well-being?”
This passage returned to my mind recently with the news that President Russell M. Nelson, the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is now the oldest prophet the church has ever had in its 192-year history.
He’ll be 98 in September.
I’ve never been one for hagiography, no matter the subject, but I can’t help pausing to admire President Nelson’s long life and good health. He’s not just 97 and then some. By all accounts, he’s in the office regularly. He’s delivering sermons. He’s active and full of enthusiasm for life.
Maybe it will become commonplace in the future to see nonagenarians who are not only healthy and loving their final years but who also seem to age in reverse. But, to date, this is still a rare phenomenon. And one worth learning from.
To what can we ascribe such longevity? Certainly, genetics must play a role. But, as I understand from President Nelson’s biographies and from anecdotal stories of fellow church employees (disclosure: I write for the church), healthy eating and regular exercise have been consistent parts of President Nelson’s life. The heart surgeon often tells church members to take “your vitamin pills. Get some rest,” because the future “is going to be exciting.”
President Nelson’s habits were no doubt influenced by the many patients (my maternal grandpa included) whose, shall we say, less than optimal health practices often brought them to his steady surgical hands. I can’t also help but see a place for revelation in aiding the prophet’s healthy lifestyle.
It’s well known that Latter-day Saints have a health code known as the Word of Wisdom, which derives from scripture revealed to Joseph Smith in 1833. This is the foundation for why practicing Latter-day Saints say no to alcohol, caffeinated tea, coffee, tobacco or any other addictive substance. And, when embraced properly, the Word of Wisdom is also why many Latter-day Saints say yes to the good things — fruits, vegetables and grains. And meat, the revelation states, should be consumed “sparingly.”
That’s not to say all or even most of us live up to this lofty standard (see, for example, the long lines outside Utah’s abundant “dirty soda” drive-thru shops).
With regard to exercise, the church’s health code was revealed in 1833 when the concept of “treadmills” or “ellipticals” might have elicited puzzled amusement. But the scripture nonetheless states that those who adhere to these principles “shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.” The Church of Jesus Christ is also built on the concept of ongoing revelation. Perhaps someday some statement will be canonized that includes details on the best weightlifting routine, but, in the meantime, common sense and the best science give us plenty of insight into the benefits of an active life.
Halfway into my missionary service in eastern Ukraine in 2004, the Church of Jesus Christ implemented a new program for missionaries that strongly encouraged daily morning exercise.
I was pathetic at following the guidance.
But the program planted a seed that began bearing real fruit four years ago. I was approaching my mid-30s, my metabolism was slowing, and I had begun “outgrowing” all of my pants. Thanks to the unexpected gift of a simple stair stepper from a colleague at work, I started exercising. This progressed to moderate jogging and lifting weights. I also adjusted my diet. I felt better.
Within six months I lost 25 pounds. I’ve kept up this routine and have learned much about the possibility of persistence and the refreshing rush of a completed workout.
There is also the practice of monthly fasting, during which time Latter-day Saints refrain from food for 24 hours, or two meals. Numerous studies have found that fasting helps reduce various risks associated with heart disease, but I’ve found that fasting also tends to build capacity for properly managing physical appetites beyond just the 24 hour period during which fasting occurs.
From a secular perspective, it’s easy to point to the two-decade-long UCLA study of Latter-day Saints which found practicing church-attending adherents had longer life spans (five years longer for women and a full decade for men) compared to other population groups studied. There are also findings about the benefits to heart health for 24-hour fasting practices from doctors at Intermountain Health.
But for believers the scriptural promises for taking care of one’s body are breathtaking.
“And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones; and shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures.” And, the scripture continues, “they shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint; and I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them.”
Granted, life doesn’t always afford a lifespan of 90 years. We all know someone who has lived well but became severely ill or died “too soon.” Genetics and disease eventually catch us all. We’ve also seen cigarette smokers who somehow evade the odds and live much longer than expected.
I was struck some years ago when a 109-year-old woman in Texas said her secret to a long life was eating bacon every day.
Sometimes rare exceptions stick in our mind since they are so unusual. But the general rule is in fact the “rule” for a reason: God expects us to take responsibility for our bodies, and there are benefits for doing so.
At 97, as the oldest church president in history, President Nelson has come to embody the Word of Wisdom. And with each passing year, he seems more and more like a pretty good example to follow.
Samuel B. Hislop is a writer in Utah.