"The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim
too high and falling short; but in setting our aim
too low, and achieving our mark."
In his beautiful song "Thinking Out Loud", Ed Sheeran makes a promise to love a girl until he's 70. When I was his age (a ripe old 25), I knew it would be careless of me to make that kind of commitment. And it wouldn't be due to lack of loving on my part; it would be due to lack of living. I simply didn't expect to live that long.
At the time, my prospects for longevity were quite humble. I hoped I would live long enough to celebrate my sixty fifth birthday. And if I was lucky, maybe, just maybe I would carry on until age 70.
And don't tell me I was setting my aim too low. You, dear reader, have no idea where I'm from. I was born in Moscow, Russia, in the year 1956. It was a remarkable year. Obviously, a great year for me since I was brought into the world. An even better year for Elvis Presley - the song "Heartbreak Hotel" became a number-one hit in the United States. But a lousy year for Hungarian people – the Soviet troops brutally crushed the anti-Communist uprisings in Hungary.
And if you are a history buff, you should know that Russia kicks ass. It's brought to heel so many ambitious men through the ages: Mamai Khan of the Golden Horde, Sigismund III of Poland, Charles XII of Sweden, Napoleon, Hitler, and Mission Impossible's one and only Ethan Hunt, to name a few. Damn you Ethan Hunt for blowing up the Kremlin!
Should you be stupid enough to attack Russia, you must at least prepare yourself by learning a thing or two about it. Here are three the most formidable Moscow's assets: heroic and selfless cannon fodder, dreadful diet, and murderous climate.
Muscovites in particular are notorious for deriding the crappy climate. Being highly educated folks, they're even apt to quote historical figures when they talk about the weather. "Nine months of winter, three months of no summer, and they call it a motherland," bitched Napoleon Bonaparte while freezing his ass off in Moscow in 1812. This is arguably the most comprehensive and most frequently quoted description of the Russian climate. And from a Frenchman no less.
In the dead of winter, warmed up by many generous shots of vodka, Russians like to sing an old folk song: "Oh, frost, oh, frost! Don't freeze me or my horse!" If you think the song alludes to Siberia, notorious the world over for its long cold spells, you're dead wrong. The poor horse in the song froze to death somewhere near Moscow. Luckily for the rider, he had enough vodka to survive and tell the story!
And how about the Russian diet? Don't get me started. I'd hate to expose you to a tedious and lengthy diatribe full of invectives. Rather, how about a nice little poem ...
Fat, fat, fat – all saturated.
Carbs, carbs, carbs – all refined.
Veggies? Mostly disintegrated.
Fruits? Nowhere to find.
But vodka, vodka, vodka galore.
Pour it on and on and on!
Vodka, makes us satiated -
Flows like the rivers of Babylon.
What a diet, huh? Exterminates bugs, creates skinny fat ruffians, and keeps Russian women happy. How can an atrocious diet make a woman happy, you ask? I'll elaborate on that later.
On another historical note, there's an interesting correlation between the Russian diet that had been cultivated by Soviet socialism up until 1991, and 'food deserts,' which are cultivated by American market capitalism.
‘Food deserts’ are areas in American cities where healthy food is simply not available. These areas were aptly named ‘food deserts’ because the only food you can buy there isn’t really food. Granted, you can eat it and survive for a while, but actually calling it food is a stretch. Real food, like apples, tomatoes, or even whole-wheat bread, requires travel to another, usually more affluent, part of the city.
When it came to ‘food deserts,’ the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had splendidly outdone the US in that regard. All of Soviet Russia was a ‘food desert.’ Can you imagine a huge piece of land, 1/6 of the earth's land surface, practically devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables? That was communism, comrade.
The main reason for that scarcity is usually attributed to Soviet-style management and policies. The Kremlin ideologues did everything in their power to keep the Iron Curtain impenetrable to alien ideas, and the abundance of fruits and vegetables seemed like a very dangerous idea for the masses to be exposed to.
As it happens, every desert has an oasis, a tiny piece of paradise. The same for the ‘food desert’ that was the USSR. Indeed, there was a place where fruits and veggies, even the exotic ones, were available year-round. This oasis was populated by a very special breed of people, namely, the small-minded, hypocritical, and corrupt old farts of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CC of the CPSU). In Soviet Russia, the longer the name, the crappier the contents.
The sole task of the CC of the CPSU was to protect the 10 Commandments of Communism from ‘rotten’ capitalistic ideology, yet the undying aspiration of its members was to guard their hold on power and privileges. Those privileges, by the way, included access to imported fruits and vegetables produced and supplied by none other than … ‘rotten’ capitalism.
The rest of the Soviet populace, on the other hand, was left with rotten potatoes. OK, OK it wasn’t that bad - they were half-rotten. However, with deft slight of hand, Russian women were capable of turning them into something quite edible. In fact, they made the most delicious french fries a la Russe by deep-frying potatoes in melted inferno-hot lard. Just thinking about it today makes my mouth water, and my arteries constrict in terror.
Speaking of Russian women, let’s get back to the subject of their happiness. In spite of the circumstances, Russian women were very content because, unlike their Western counterparts, Russian men didn’t burden them with loaded questions.
Take this example from the UK’s Fab Four: ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?’ What kind of question is that? Are they implying that women can just dump their men when the poor sods reach old age? Are they saying that people can live together for 20, 30, even 40 years, and then all of a sudden, ‘Piss off!’?
Russian women would never have done that. They respected their men, drunk or not. And Russian men held their women in even higher esteem. They valued them so much that they just ... dropped dead when they were 64. Respect!
Jokes aside, the life expectancy of Russian men is incidentally exactly 64 years. Yet I’ve always been perplexed by the desire of Russian men to be older than they really are: to look older, act older, and think older. Russia’s young men want to mature so fast that they want to addressed not just by their first and last names (e.g. Vladimir Putin), but by their patronymic as well (Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin). Now that’s veneration!
And when it comes to Russia’s great leader, don’t be fooled by his bare-chested physique. Yes, he is in great shape for a 63-year-old Russki, but only because he is an extraordinary human specimen, an aberration. I attribute his good health to his two consuming passions: judo, and restoring the former glory of the Russian Empire by any means possible. These tasks require a strong, agile body, and a sharp, versatile mind. He has both, and, in spite of his small stature, his poise is indisputably regal. Some politicians in Russia even want to declare him a new Russian emperor.
Putin might be an exemplary athlete, but, on the whole, Russian society seems adverse to following a healthy, youthful lifestyle. Being a Russki myself, I was doomed by jus soli, the proverbial right of the soil. I was destined to perish at the age of 64, and I found that to be utterly ridiculous.
In the USA, the perception is that true life enjoyment really only begins at retirement. The kids are settled, the debts are paid … Nothing is preventing you from doing what you’ve always wanted to do all those years slaving away for house and home. Retirement has finally given you the time to travel, fish, and play golf. An old cliché, of course, but one worth fighting for.
Myself, I never actually planned to retire. Many physicians like me just can’t give up on their mission. And I wasn’t your typical fatalistic Russki muzhik. I refused to accept that destiny. Life is too precious, too exciting to just cut it so short. I knew there was a way to circumvent the end-of-life-at-64 statistic. I needed to devise a strategy for extending my lifespan.
They say that the best ideas in Russia come while lying on a huge Russian wood-burning stove - a perfect place for indolent musing. I attribute that creativity to the birch fumes, along with a dash of carbon monoxide.
I spent many nights in my country house lying on the stove and thinking about my future. Whoops, did I say on the stove? I stand corrected. I didn’t sleep on the Russian stove, I slept near the Swedish stove. The Swedish version, FYI, is much smaller, but otherwise pretty much the same, warts and all.
The plan I devised was simple, pragmatic, but unconventional and with serious Western influence: I decided to run the streets of Moscow in the morning and night. Rain, shine … or snow.
You might think I’m pulling your leg. But trust me, I’m not. Let me explain.
In the 1970s, there was a running boom in the US. The streets were crowded with joggers in short shorts and T-shirts. It seemed everyone, including President Jimmy Carter himself, was doing it.
Russia, on the other hand, was a conservative country with strict patriarchal rules and traditions, ironically reinforced by communist ideology. Every activity had its time and place, and ultimately required a stamp of approval by the Party.
If you’d been living there at the time like I was, you knew you couldn’t just start running out of the blue. You needed an official reason, with proper decorum maintained at all times. The Party-approved equation was something like this:
Athlete + Uniform + Stadium + Running = Ideologically Proper
If you did take the chance and decided to go out for a jog, it’s not that you would’ve been immediately arrested or anything. Rest assured, however, that Soviet police would probably have stopped you for questioning just to make sure you weren’t out-there or up to something. They’d then try to rummage through every nook and cranny in your brain for proof of dissent - stop-&-frisk, Soviet style.
That’s one big reason why I always preferred running to jogging. I would’ve been screwed by jogging since it would’ve given Soviet cops enough time to put 2 & 2 together: Semi-Naked Dude + Streets + Jogging = Not Cool. Running, on the other hand, gave me enough time to execute a simple evasive maneuver. By the time the cops sounded their alarms, I was already half a mile away.
In any case, was there anybody running in ‘70s-era Moscow at all? Not so much. When I did it, everyone gawked at me like I’d just landed from Mars. Some people eyeballed me with fascination, some with curiosity, but most just stared at me with either astonishment or condemnation.
I was arguably the only semi-naked Russian dude running on the streets of the Soviet capital. The only other guy, whom I bumped into from time to time, was journalist Vladimir Pozner. He is probably best known for his groundbreaking television work with Phil Donahue on improving Soviet-American relations.
Pozner dropped a bombshell during the mid-1980s by introducing the concept of sex to a wider Russian audience. Finally, the Russkis were informed that what they had been doing in the bedrooms and haystacks was called ‘sex.’ On the other hand, does something strictly missionary, with closed eyes, for procreation only, and lasting under a minute, qualify as sex? I don’t know. Mr. Pozner wouldn’t dare elaborate on that - the Party was watching.
I should emphasize that Pozner was a foreign transplant of Jewish-French-American origin. For him, having great sex, or jogging in London, New York, Paris, or Moscow was something quite trivial, just the conventional activities of the man-of-the-world that he was.
I, on the other hand, was straight Russian, brought up by conservative Russian parents, and I’d lived all my life in Moscow, Russia. I’d spent five years studying mandatory Marxist-Leninist philosophy, for God’s sake! Running on the streets of the world capital of communism was no small feat for me by any measure.
Anyway, I was focused on my health, not on politics, so I didn’t really pay much attention to people’s reactions. I aimed to achieve a very important goal: live longer. Every extra mile added a few days, while every ten chin-ups added a few hours to my lifespan.
I knew, intuitively, that just getting fit through exhaustive cardio routines wouldn’t be enough. I had to improve my diet as well. Consequently, I did my best to replace sausages and deep-fried potatoes with bowls of buckwheat or oats as much as possible.
Fortunately, the American dietary guidelines on fat introduced in the 1970s failed to influence the Russian medical community. According to Russian doctors and scientists, fat was good. That’s why I often started my day by eating two cups of delightfully smooth and fulfilling 30% fat sour cream, and often ended my day in a similar manner. That love for fat reduced my refined carbs consumption by roughly half.
Nowadays, I am absolutely certain that vigorous daily exercise can offset a bad diet. Look at me, I’m still alive and kicking at age 60, and I eat whatever I want.
But when I say vigorous, I actually mean high intensity. Exhaustive. To compare, the Harvard School of Public Health defines hiking as a vigorous exercise (and it doesn’t even include a 100-pound backpack), along with jogging at 6 MPH.
In my opinion, jogging is the opposite of vigorous. Jogging is lazy running. Jogging is designed for relaxation. When you come home from work exhausted and stressed out and you need to unwind, you go for a jog.
I would have died from heart attack or stroke if I had tried to stave off the effects of the typical Russian diet with that kind of vigor. How can I be so sure of that? Because I had witnessed firsthand the disaster that was the jogging-takes-on-Russian-diet experiment.
Back in my medical school days, I knew a cardiac surgeon named Alexander. Along with operating on patients, he also enjoyed hiking, camping, and singing patriotic Russian songs - a well-rounded, reliable Soviet kinda guy. Although he was a bit on the heavy side, he could perform non-stop 6-hour long surgeries as easily as a chef butters bread.
He was undoubtedly a brilliant surgeon, also serving as the head of the cardiac department of one of the USSR’s leading surgical institutions. And all of this at the ripe old age of 36.
With his reputation, Alexander was one of the few Russians the government actually allowed to go abroad. So when he got an invitation to present at an academic symposium in San Francisco, California, not only was he grateful and excited for the opportunity, but he sensed it his duty to his countrymen to go.
After just one week in the Golden State, he got swept up in the running boom that was engulfing the US at the time (mid to late 1970s). Streets nationwide were crowded with joggers, and the energy was contagious. He was mesmerized, and got hooked on the stuff.
Back in Moscow, he tried to rub some of that energy off onto others, but to no avail. Unfortunately for him, the administration of the venerable institution where he worked - and where I was studying medicine at the time - was adamant about keeping foreign influences at bay.
Then, one day, out of nowhere, we all got the news that Alexander had died, from an acute myocardial infarction, no less. I was a 3rd-year medical student at the time, so he wasn’t even that much older than me.
I was truly shocked. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that a 36-year-old cardiac surgeon had died from a heart attack. Alexander was not only an expert, he was a grandmaster of the human heart. We all thought he’d be the last to go from anything heart-related.
For yours truly, Alexander’s death was especially scary because it hit close to home. My diet and lifestyle hadn’t been that different from his: We both liked fatty foods, sweets, and the not-so-occasional libation.
The only substantive difference in our lifestyles was our workouts. He jogged once a day; I jogged twice. He jogged 3-4 miles a day; I ran 3-4 miles in the morning, and then 4-5 miles in the afternoon.
I’d been pretty smug about my chances of having any sort of cardiovascular problem before Alexander’s passing. My heart rate averaged below 50 beats per minute. My left ventricle even grew to slightly larger than average, much like an endurance athlete, which I happily wore as a badge of honor.
After Alexander passed, however, I didn’t feel quite so sure anymore. One thing I was certain about, however, was that hiking, camping, and singing patriotic songs around a campfire were all wastes of time. I had no desire to be a good (Soviet) sport; I wanted to live a long and healthy life.
I made it a point to devise a more comprehensive longevity plan, looking for every possible opportunity to help me live longer as the days passed. And believe me, as I’ve mentioned a few pages before, this wasn’t easy under Soviet communism.
But I did what I could, and made the most of it considering the circumstances. I joined the university swim team, started playing tennis, and became a member of an underground martial arts club.
I also made some improvements to my diet. For one, I had to say bye-bye to binge drinking. This wasn’t an easy decision to stick to in Soviet Russia, where abstinence from alcohol was viewed with as much suspicion as yelling at imaginary birds in public.
To prevent any sort of eyebrow-raising from my countrymen, I invented a number of stories that allowed me to avoid the ever-present bacchanalias that were a fact of life in Soviet Russia, a decision I do not regret in the slightest to this day.
On top of all this, I also endeavored to get a hold of as many vegetables as I could. I relentlessly dug for every last vegetable in every market I came across. Literally. In Soviet Russia, it was custom for food vendors to bury vegetables in large containers with dirt and whatever else they had lying around. Washing and proper packaging was so ‘First World.’
Regrettably, however, refined sugar remained in my diet. This was primarily due to its still being seen as a valuable nutrient at the time, a reputation it enjoyed not only in Russia, but in the West, as well.
(Fun fact: In 1965, Big Sugar hired prominent scientists to discredit the connection between sugar consumption and cardiovascular disease. The sugar cartels paid top Harvard University scientists the sweet sum of $6,500 (about $50K today) to put all the blame on saturated fat. As if being fat wasn’t shameful enough!)
Going back to my med school days in Soviet Russia, I had an almost insatiable appetite for sweets. And since fruits were unavailable at the time to anybody but the party elite, I had to consume ‘refined’ carbs to support the intellectual challenges and other rigors of medical school. In hindsight, I’m glad I started exercising, since I largely burned all that sugar off anyway.
My exhaustive workout regimen had after a few months proven to be a success. I was leaner, fitter, and felt more alive than ever. I became increasingly confident that I’d live well into my 70s, maybe even my 80s, so long as I kept it going.
And then, in 1985, a miracle happened. Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the reins of the USSR. In one fell swoop, ’Gorby’ ended an entire era of demented communist leadership. Ushering in perestroika, a top Soviet official finally offered a glimmer of freedom to the populace. If it wasn’t for him, I would probably still be reaping the illusory harvests of socialism behind a still-closed Iron Curtain.
But, thanks to Gorby, the Berlin Wall fell (1989), the Soviet-Afghan War ended (1989), Russia’s first McDonald’s restaurant opened its doors in Moscow (1990), and the Iron Curtain finally opened (1991).
Suddenly, fresh, clean, healthy fruits and vegetables were available on almost every street corner in Moscow. Some had exotic names like kale, bok choy, and arugula, but so long as they tasted OK, I didn’t care. I ate with abandon.
My fellow Muscovites finally began to take up running, jogging, skateboarding, rollerblading, and countless other activities that would’ve been no-no’s just a year before. Numerous private health clubs and spas popped up everywhere, seemingly overnight.
I found myself signing up as a member of one of the poshest fitness clubs in Moscow. Suddenly, some of the world’s most cutting-edge fitness equipment was at my fingertips. And the amenities! The club’s sauna was a bona-fide Finnish model where you could turn the heat up to 248 degrees F (120 degrees C). And when you were done sweating, you could take a dip in its world-class jacuzzis, and let their hot water jets massage your aching muscles after a long Russian winter’s day.
What’s more, it was all private. No more worries about breaking this or that Communist Party rule, about potentially offending this or that potential Communist Party member sitting by you in the spa. All our former worries as normal Soviet citizens evaporated into the steam of the sauna.
At times, during those heady days in the early ‘90s, I had to pinch myself just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
And then there was the culinary scene. Countless exotic restaurants, with previously-unheard of cuisines, opened their doors to the public. Me and my fellow Muscovites finally got to sample Coquilles Saint-Jacques, veal Milanese, and sashimi for the first time in our lives.
I distinctly remember dining in the newly-opened Nostalgie restaurant in Moscow, which quickly built a reputation for itself as a purveyor of fine French cuisine and live jazz. After its unbelievably delicate foie gras melted in my mouth, I knew there was no return to Communism. I stopped pinching myself from that day on.
But there was still one looming problem in this newfangled paradise: the pernicious, gloomy, and utterly depressing Moscow weather. To add insult to injury, by 1998 the air pollution in Moscow had reached LA levels. Not a good place for setting longevity records by any measure.
Now don’t get me wrong. Moscow is undoubtedly a beautiful city, full of architectural marvels and treasures that rank right up there with Paris and Rome. But pollution is pollution, and if a city has it, it’s hard to get past that familiar thick pall of dust and grime that has seemingly settled everywhere.
One of my sardonic tourist jingles I wrote to get a kick out of my friends back then:
‘Want to get age spots, wrinkles, and rosacea in your early 40s? Then come to Moscow! Don’t be discouraged by our gloomy skies! What we lack in sunshine and damaging UV radiation, we effectively compensate for with air pollution! Moscow: Heaven is only a breath away.’
It doesn’t help that toxic air also exacerbates heart and lung disease, has been linked to diabetes and mental illness, and, on top of all that, accelerates aging.
After a while, I got sick of it. I had to get out.
My urge to escape Russia started becoming directly proportional to the rising concentration of toxins in the air. I needed a serious upgrade in my living conditions. Otherwise, it just wasn’t worth all the work I’d been doing.
I immediately set my sights on that faraway land of freedom and dreams: the USA. All that Soviet propaganda after all those years of saturation had only gotten so far in obliterating its image in my eyes.
I’ll give you a few hints as to which part of the US I set my sights on: superb weather, a burgeoning biotech industry, an illustrious arts scene, amazing wineries … If you chose (northern) California on your first try, you have my undying adulation and respect.
Back in Moscow, I began filling out all the required paperwork for a new life in the States, and waited for the right opportunity to escape. The stars finally aligned for my benefit, and on November 16th, 1999, I found myself on the Delta flight from Moscow to San Francisco.
I knew I’d found the right place the second I arrived and stepped outside. The experience was one of the most sensual of my entire life. Deeply inhaling the ocean air, absorbing the rays of the sun … I felt as if California was filling my soul like one fills a glass with water.
After hunting a while, I eventually found an apartment in Campbell, smack dab in the middle of Silicon Valley. Within walking distance I had access to half a dozen tennis courts, a stadium, and a swimming pool that was only 20 yards away from my front door. I couldn’t believe my luck.
And to potentially stimulate my intellect (and wallet), the HQs for both Google (still a toddler company at the time) and Yahoo (then valued at $125 billion) were short drives away. The air was filled with the aspirations and unbridled ambitions of millions of people. I’d never felt so alive.
I was ready to raise my longevity bar to 85, even 90 years of age, but it was 1999, and - if you’re old enough to remember, dear reader - the specter of Y2K was dampening all of our spirits. Even I, your typical cynical surgeon, wasn’t immune to its knell. My pragmatic mind knew nothing would happen when the ball dropped, but I still held my breath just in case.
While other people were wringing their hands in fear, however, I was making the most of my newfound life in America by ringing in the year 2000 from the slopes of Lake Tahoe, indisputably one of the most beautiful places on Earth. After hearing that Australia, Japan, and finally Europe got through the first hours of 2000 just fine, everyone, including yours truly, breathed a collective sigh of relief and got on with life again.
With Armageddon averted, I knew that my health and longevity were in nobody’s hands but my own. All I had to do was stay the course. I was certain that nothing could derail my progress.
Nothing, that is, except my own hubris …
Permit me to speak mythologically for a few paragraphs:
Since time immemorial, the gods have never liked us humans taking control of our destinies and extending our time on this planet. They tolerated us when our average lifespan was 25 years of age, at most. They even took an active part in our lives - Zeus’ escapades with our females were nothing short of legendary. But when we started regularly surpassing 25 years of age, we began to provoke their ire.
If there’s one thing the gods have been good for after all these years, it’s being pathologically thin-skinned and prone to petty but deadly vengeance. For his hubris, Zeus killed the mortal Phaethon for presuming he could control the reins of the sun chariot. Apollo and Artemis killed all of the mortal Niobe’s children after she questioned the fertility of their mother, Leto, who just happened to be Zeus’ girlfriend. (Niobe had a point: She was the mother of 12 children, while Leto only birthed 2.)
Back in California, I’d gotten so intoxicated by the Bay Area that I started thinking I was invincible. I imagined that not only could I extend my life, but reverse the aging process itself. As a fan of mythology, I should have known better.
The gods punished me for my hubris ruthlessly. Before I knew it, my health was in the toilet.
To my dismay, conventional medical approaches failed to work. But, again, I was in the US of A, the land of second chances and silver linings. What’s more, I was in the middle of Silicon Valley, the cradle of ingenious scientific innovation. On top of all that, I already was a scientist, so all I had to do was apply my skills and find a solution to my problems.
And that’s precisely what I did! Leveraging my own medical and personal experience with diet and fitness, I created the Eating Applied method, which not only helped me to quickly restore my health, but also seriously increased my prospects of living longer.
I’d like to share this invention with you, dear reader, and invite you to join me on the road to healthy longevity.