Meet the Experts on Aging Well: Dr. Ruth Heidrich
Our Meet the Experts on Aging Well series celebrates the life’s work of our nation’s leading experts on aging.
At 80 years young, Ruth Heidrich, Ph.D., is a seasoned raw vegan Ironman (or as she likes to say, “IronLADY”) Triathlete. She is the winner of more than 900 trophies, 6 Ironman Triathlons, 8 Gold Medals in the U.S. Senior Olympics, and 67 marathons including Boston, New York, & Moscow. Named One of the Ten Fittest Women in North America, she is also a breast cancer survivor and author of A Race for Life, Senior Fitness, The CHEF Cook/Rawbook, and her most recent book, Lifelong Running: How to Overcome the 11 Myths of Running & Live a Healthier Life. Sitting down with her isn’t easy, she’s a positive force in constant motion! When we did catch up with her, we asked her 6 questions on everyone’s mind.
What was your motivation for your interest in health and fitness?
I grew up wanting to be a doctor, but back in the 1940’s and 50’s as a female, it seemed an impossibility for me. As a straight-A student, I was only encouraged to go into nursing. I did gobble up courses in Anatomy, Physiology, Microbiology, and Nutrition in college. When in 1968, Dr. Kenneth Cooper published his landmark book Aerobics, it made so much sense to me that I put the book down, ran my first mile, launching my 47-year running career. So in 1982, I’d been running for 14 years and was even a marathoner — the fittest, healthiest person I knew. When I was then diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, I was stunned and shocked! That’s about when Dr. John McDougall was doing clinical research into the role diet plays in breast cancer. I thought, having studied nutrition, that I had the best diet, I was going to show that it was my diet of no red meat, just chicken, fish, and low-fat dairy plus a smattering of fruits and veggies. Then he showed me the epidemiological studies and animal research showing that eating any animal products played a significant role in both the initiation and promotion of cancer. Leaving his office two hours later, I was a low-fat vegan, and within days saw amazing changes that convinced me that this was the diet that I would stay on forever. Besides all the cancer signs reversing, my high cholesterol, arthritis, constipation, acne and dandruff all disappeared. This all was proof to me that while both diet and exercise are important, diet is the more critical.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
In terms of the greatest challenge in my life, it was going from a Stage 4 breast cancer patient to triumphantly crossing the finish line of the Kona Ironman Triathlon just two years later. It took going against mainstream medicine and my oncologist by not having chemo, radiation or hormone blockers, in making a radical, basically unsupported dietary change, risking a “deficiency in protein and calcium,” and undertaking an exercise program considered “extreme” by most any standard! It certainly was the most major challenge I had ever undertaken in my lifetime.
What advice do you have for those who feel it’s too late in life to embark on a nutritional and fitness lifestyle?
Research has shown that our bodies have this remarkable ability to heal itself even in your 80s, 90s, and beyond. So regardless of the damage that has been done, in almost every case, regardless of age, you can reverse many of the degenerative diseases we are prone to, become more fit, and, very importantly, keep a healthy, active brain.
If one is not ready for 100% vegan or raw vegan, what things can/should one be doing nutritionally?
Like much in life and medicine, it does not have to be “all or nothing.” If you are basically healthy, you can start by just cutting back on meat, or eliminate all dairy, or, say, go vegan five days a week. Try some veggies raw that have traditionally been cooked such as broccoli, beets, and one of my favorites, raw corn on the cob.
What are some alternates to running or beginning an exercise program?
You can start by starting a taking a daily walk, enrolling in a dance class, or following along an exercise DVD. There is also swimming, bicycling, weight training – almost any sport that you enjoy. The intensity and frequency should depend on your present fitness level and increase as your ability improves. One thing to remember that relates to both diet and exercise: Small change; small result. Big change, big result! I always went for “Big”!
Any advice for those tempted to put off exercise for a myriad of reasons or ones who reach for unhealthy food choices in times of stress?
I have found that if for some reason I don’t feel like a run, I tell myself, “OK, just go for a walk.” After a block or two, it never fails, and I start running often because I feel walking is too slow or I want to make a green light at the next traffic intersection. So the key here is to take the first “baby” step. Most of the time that’ll be enough to get you going! As for unhealthy food choices, don’t even have them in your kitchen. Stock the pantry and fridge with fruit such as apples and oranges, dried fruit such as dates and prunes, or healthy vegan cookies or whatever are your favorite foods. (Lots of easy, healthy recipes in my ebook CHEF.) You’ll eat what’s available – whether that’s healthy food or not so healthy. This holds true as well for when you are not at home. Carry your healthy stash with you wherever you go so there’s no temptation to stop at a fast food joint. This really works and gets easier as you go along, and the benefits are amazing!
To learn more about Dr. Heindrich’s approach to aging well using diet and exercise as tools to fight disease, or to sign up for her FREE newsletter, please visit her website. You can also look for her story “How I Went from Cancer Patient to Ironman Triathlete” in the critically acclaimed documentary “Forks Over Knives” or visit her author page to learn more about her publications.