A 75-Year Old CrossFitter vs. Ezekiel Emanuel

You may have seen this headline last week:Google ChromeScreenSnapz1118

It’s an intentionally provocative attention-grabber, but Emanuel does have a solid point to make, and some data to back it up:

“The question isn’t living longer. The question is high quality life, which is what most people want. And that’s why I think constantly asking ‘how long am I going to live’ is the wrong question to ask. …

(How well am I going to live) is the right question.”

– Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”

Bravo. Emanuel got this right. Extending life without extending function is cruel. And, to a large degree, that’s exactly what the American health establishment has accomplished.

In his Atlantic Monthly article “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” Emanuel cites the work of USC researcher Eileen Crimmins,

“The results show that as people age, there is a progressive erosion of physical functioning. More important, Crimmins found that between 1998 and 2006, the loss of functional mobility in the elderly increased. In 1998, about 28 percent of American men 80 and older had a functional limitation; by 2006, that figure was nearly 42 percent …

So American immortals may live longer than their parents, but they are likely to be more incapacitated. Does that sound very desirable? Not to me.”

Our health care system has increased life without increasing health or fitness. We’re on our way to a nightmare scenario:

“I have this fear that some day medical science is going to get average life expectancy to 150. And yet, it’s still, at 75 you go into the nursing home and they’re wiping your fucking ass and feeding you with a spoon and you’re watching Oprah all goddamn day long … for 75 years. That for me, was like dying at 75 and going to hell.”

CrossFit Founder and CEO Greg Glassman in 2009.

What to Do About Declining Old Age Function?

Unfortunately, Emanuel contradicts himself. He makes a great case that we should focus on functional capacity, not just number of years. Then he picks a cut-off point based on an arbitrary number of years.

If function is what matters, shouldn’t function determine when he stops trying to extend his life?

If at 75 Emanuel is still kicking ass in Tae Kwon Do, throwing his grandkids into the air, and writing viral Atlantic Monthly articles, will he just call it quits?

If at 69 he suffers a stroke and loses the ability to speak and walk, will he hang on for another 6 years just to reach the right number?

If Emanuel were consistent he would prioritize function, not age. Why did he pick 75 as a cut-off point, and not when he loses the ability to live an independent, functional, and intellectually-engaged life?

Jacinto Bonilla's 75th Birthday Party.

Jacinto Bonilla’s 75th Birthday Party.

A Logically Consistent Approach to Health and Function

If we agree with Emanuel and value a “high quality life” over quantity of years, how should we approach aging?

CrossFit put forth one way to measure health: work capacity measured across broad time, modal and age domains. If you’ve attended a CrossFit L1 seminar, this definition should be familiar. If not, it means that health is fitness sustained over time.

CrossFit directly conflicts with Emanuel’s paradigm: in CrossFit we want as much function as possible, and we want to maintain it for as long as possible. We’re not going to stop trying to live well at 75. To borrow Glassman’s example, we want to be the guy who’s riding his Harley to the fair at 90 years old, with his girlfriend in the back, and beating up the kid at the ATM who tries to rob him.

Jacinto Bonilla exemplifies health and fitness. Check out this video “Jacinto Bonilla, a 73-Year-Old CrossFitter,”

This came out two years ago. Jacinto is now 75. Emanuel concedes that some exceptional individuals will live past 75 in excellent shape, but they are anomalies, he says. They don’t disprove the data.

While granting that Jacinto is fortunate to have survived health challenges such as prostate cancer, and to be able to afford a CrossFit affiliate, he is not just lucky. His function at 75 is the direct result of a lifetime dedication to health and fitness. Emanuel rejects Jacinto’s approach:

“Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible. This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.

I reject this aspiration.”


What Emanuel misses, or chooses to ignore, is that diet and exercise are not just about extending life. When we eat healthy and work hard in the gym, we’re not all just trying to live to 120. We’re not just trying to extend life – we’re trying to increase and extend function.

Why is Emanuel Confused?

When I first read Emanuel’s article, I didn’t pay much attention to the author and just evaluated the reasoning. It’s his right to make misguided choices about his health. And illogical first person click-bait articles are the high fructose corn syrup of journalism.

Emanuel is not just your average American, however. He is a doctor and a prominent bioethicist. Some describe him as the architect of Obamacare. And that’s where this gets weird.

It’s perverse for a health care professional to imply that we shouldn’t try to extend our functional lifespans. Emanuel claims he’s not trying to convince anyone. People who aren’t trying to convince anyone don’t publish their argument in the Atlantic Monthly and make appearances on MSNBC.

What interest does Emanuel have in promoting the pull-the-plug at 75 idea? He claims that picking an arbitrary death data will give us spiritual benefits:

The deadline also forces each of us to ask whether our consumption is worth our contribution. As most of us learned in college during late-night bull sessions, these questions foster deep anxiety and discomfort. The specificity of 75 means we can no longer just continue to ignore them and maintain our easy, socially acceptable agnosticism.

Here’s some free advice: When political figures justify certain physical costs with notional spiritual benefits, run fast.

The Congressional Budget Office gives clearer insight into what’s motivating Emanuel:

Federal spending for Social Security and the government’s major health care programs—Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and subsidies for health insurance purchased through the exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act—would rise sharply, to a total of 14 percent of GDP by 2039, twice the 7 percent average seen over the past 40 years. That boost in spending is expected to occur because of the aging of the population, growth in per capita spending on health care, and an expansion of federal health care programs.

The combination of an aging population, Social Security, and Obamacare is a fiscal time-bomb for the US Federal Government. Getting people to die earlier kills two birds with one stone: it decreases health spending and decreases the cost of social programs that would continue supporting them throughout old age, such as Social Security. Emanuel’s editor, Greg Easterbrook, clearly admits that this is a factor in his segment with Emanuel on MSNBC. 

Jacinto Bonilla has a more elegant solution to America’s physical and fiscal woes:

“Tell the doctor he just has to keep moving.”

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25 comments

  1. Pingback: Quality of Life Vs. Years of Life » North East CrossFit

  2. Jacinto’s birthday party was one of the best WODs ever. Jacinto just proves that age is just a number. And I’m pretty sure I took that photo of Jacinto and Bri.

  3. Go, Jacinto!!! I want to be you, in a few years!!! I’m just a 69 year old kid! I’ve been doing CrossFit for nearly three years now. I’ve got my Level One, Kettlebell, and Power Lifting certs. I coach one of the early morning sessions at CrossFit BearCat in Palm Coast – Flagler Beach, FL. I 100% agree with Jacinto, that one must keep moving! However, a big caveat is that “years take their toll.” I’d love to compete at a higher level, yet a few things get in the way: Like, multiple knee and foot surgeries, multiple shoulder surgeries (and one that is so ripped, it can no longer be repaired), hip replacement surgery, serious joint arthritis, heart attack + heart muscle damage, triple bypass open heart surgery… to mention a few! Twenty years as an Army Officer really kicked my ass for me. I come in to the box and will do all than I CAN do, yet must accept that there’s plenty I CAN’T do… in SPITE of really, really WANTING to. The whole “mind over matter + positive attitude + believe it to achieve it” thing only goes so far. I can set my life goal to be the starting center of the Boston Celtics, and work my ass off to get it, yet at 5’8″ and 69 years of age, it’s not within my grasp. Bottom line is “just keep trying.” I live by my Army career motto: Be All That You Can Be… (with clarity about the “CAN be). HOOAH!!!

    • Aoifeg

      Awesome post – I’m a 39 year old woman, doing Crossfit for 2 years after years of a sedentary, lazy lifestyle. I hope to be a 69 year old woman still doing Crossfit and being ‘all that I can be’

      • “Aoifeg” – Being part of the “CrossFit Family” really helps… After my first few humbling WOD’s, I guzzled the Kool Aid and haven’t looked back. Heck, at 39, I assume you are doing “One Armed Burpee Muscle Ups” like there’s no tomorrow 😉

  4. Aoifeg

    I wish!! I discovered that I’m pretty strong, I can back squat, clean & jerk and dead lift with the best of them but I’m still working on a pull up, not to mind a muscle up!! I can throw myself into a challenging met con now with enthusiasm, and I’ve got endurance that I wouldn’t have believed a few years ago – I’m proud of it and excited about working on it!

  5. christy

    This article is awesome ! I’m a 52 yr old crossfitting for 3 yrs I couldn’t love it more I’ve got some oly lifting records under my belt, a tough mudder completed !! This is a journey I hope. Never ends for me !

  6. Jacinto Bonilla is inspiring! After 15 years on the couch, at 50 I started sea kayaking and got back into the gym for body building type work outs. We went Paleo and got healthy. Then I heard about Crossfit…… One WOD and I was hooked. I sucked at everything! But the Crossfit culture is so encouraging that I keep going back. They don’t care if I finish last, they care that I finish! I drank the Kool Aid and I’m a believer. By the way the tape measure does not lie….I’m on my way to being my best self at 51! Ezekiel Emanuel can suck it, at 75 I will still be functional, athletic and vibrant. Use it or loose it!

  7. Tom

    Ezekiel Emanuel gave us obamacare which has death panels in it for old people so for him saying he wants to die at 75 means that he want us to die at 75.

      • Mick

        As a 45yo cardiac surgeon, active duty army officer, and avid crossfitter, I’ve got some insight. Dr. Emanuel was not only part of the team gave us the Affordable Health Care Act, he is the main architect of provisions that are summed up as stated above, the death panels. No surprise, he’s not being truthful in the article he wrote quoted above. He’s stated many times in other interviews and writings that he believes people have outlived useful contribution to society in their 40’s. This is the real goal of AHA, to stop providing health care at a young age. This will contain costs. Politicizing and centralizing medical care for the masses that don’t pay attention or take care of themselves is just another control tactic.

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  13. Doug

    Oh come on, haven’t you ever heard of the expression “tongue in cheek?” Dr. Emanual is on our side, arguing for function rather than just duration. I doubt seriously that he really wants to die at age 75…
    By the way, there are no such thing as “death panels” in the Affordable Health Care Act. Look for yourself. They are a complete fabrication of Sarah Palin and her “confused” buddies at Fox News. They don’t exist! However, since we as a nation are paying close to 20% of our GNP for disease care, doesn’t it make sense that someone is looking at the efficacy of intervintions? I mean, jeez, we give people $100,000.00 drugs that prolong their lives 4 months. Medicare now pays for those FDA approved drugs no questions asked. Shouldn’t we ask the question. I hardly think that counts as a death panel.
    By the way, now age 57, 5 years of CrossFit, expect to be going strong a bit longer. And recommend CrossFit to many of my patients…

    • Mick

      If Dr. Emanuel didn’t have the track record and statements of the past few years, I might believe this was tongue in cheek. He’s let his politics interfere with his responsibilities to his patients. The latest round of CMS changes and so-called “meaningful use” requirements has convinced me that he and his compadres are up to no good. I do agree that end of life care does need to be better managed.

    • The “no death panels” claim depends on the definition of “death panel.” PPACA (Obamacare) does not call for a panel that will give a thumbs up or down on individual cases. But it does include a politically appointed panel, the IPAB, that will dictate what treatments can and cannot be paid for by the mandated insurance. Treatments beyond this are discouraged, taxed heavily (e.g. “Cadillac insurance”), will have low reimbursement. Just look at the politically-driven RVU’s of Medicare and you’ll understand. In effect, IPAB is a death panel, among other things, deciding what treatments will and will not be available. Decision making is removed from those who should have it, patients and doctors.

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  16. Well done! The current federal bureaucracy and politicians regard us as the problem. They promised much, can deliver next to nothing, and now want to convince us that we should go quietly off and die.

    They are our servants. It is time to dismiss them.

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