Secrets of eternal youth

a thirtysomething couch potato?
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Her skin, according to the Express, is "taut and honeyed ... it glows with the bloom of youth". The Mail revered her "stunning 35-24-35 physique". This week those taut, cellulite-free curves have graced their pages, provoking many column inches and a flurry of admiration. Another teenage Uber-babe? The latest supermodel sensation? No. All the fuss was over someone old enough to be a grand-mother. At the age of 55, Clair Chrysler was chosen as a "stand-in" for Jamie Lee Curtis, her of the body also praised variously as, "lithe", "lissome" and "youthful" in Fierce Creatures, the follow up to A Fish Called Wanda.

Chrysler chirps, "I was really surprised to get the part, because of the age difference and the fact that Jamie Lee is known as having the most fabulous body in Hollywood". For those of us whose bodily parts appear to drop as rapidly our ages rise, such a story causes mixed feelings. On the one hand we're meant to jump for joy that anyone the wrong side of 35 is still deemed attractive. On the other, it's easy to feel deep gloom; the Curtises and Chryslers of this world must surely devote agonising hours in the gym sweating for perfection. The very fact that a 55-year- old's body should receive so much attention indicates how exceptional her body really is. If you stand firmly in the wouldn't-be-caught-dead- in-a-gym camp, what hope is there of achieving anything close to that? Especially if you've reached 30 and toning is still an alien activity.

Chrysler admits she's spent her life exercising. ''A lot of looking good is inherited but you can abuse that as well. I've worked hard to keep a good base. I've swam from a young age and always eaten well." Nowadays her regime still sounds punishing. She has a personal trainer, runs half- marathons, does a daily 2-hour step class, gets lots of sleep and sticks to fruit and veg. No surprises there then. Does it all have to be quite so gruelling, though? Not completely, says Liz Earle, health and beauty guru. "It's definitely possible to have a good body when you're older and it's not hard," she enthuses. "My big thing is food and it's never to late to start. Between the ages of nine and 90 you can expect to see a difference simply by what you put on the end of a fork." Whatever age you start a healthy eating regime the visible changes are, she says, obvious. "Good food is a great preventative medicine. It also gives you the glowing complexion and healthy hair." She also recommends vitamin supplements - especially anti-oxidants. "They really are important in keeping your body looking young," she counsels. "Vitamin E supports the skin and helps to prevent cell damage. Research at Harvard shows that anti-oxidants do keep you looking younger longer. It really is worth doing." As is eating whole grains, fruit, vegetables and ditching junk food. For thirtysomethings with bad habits it still sounds like a radical lifestyle change. "No," says Earle. "It's easy. It's no harder to open a tin of baked beans which are really good for you than to eat a Mars Bar."

But if you really want to streamline your body at 35 plus, there's no escaping exercise. The fear is the longer you put it off, the more catching up there is to do. As Catherine, a 36-year-old television producer complains: "I've got to that stage already where I feel it's too late to do anything healthy. It's not that I've actually put on any weight," she says, "it's just what I've got seems to get about two inches lower each year."

Fitness gurus will say much of this is due to muscle wastage, which can certainly be improved at any stage in life. Sharon Walker, editor of Health & Fitness magazine, explains. "What makes a body look really great is a good muscle to fat ratio - the way to do it is increase your muscle through exercise. That's why you can see women at 40 with bodies of 25- year-olds."

Nutritionist Anita Bean agrees that everyone can keep their body looking younger. "There's no physiological reason why you have to end up looking flabby. What happens is that as people get older they do less strength- related activities and gradually lose muscle - 4lbs per decade on average."

The sort-of-good news is that healthy activity doesn't have to dominate your life. Take Marie Helvin who, at 43, claims to do three hours exercise a week, which doesn't seem such a sacrifice. "Sometimes I'll go running or use the weights and ab machines. It does give you a sense of confidence."

She's also a committed de-toxer. "I'm really into denial. It's the only thing that works. I de-tox every Sunday and drink hot water and honey. It gives your body a vacation for 24 hours." Helvin may not be a daily- exercise addict but she's committed to a healthy lifestyle; vegetables, fish and lots of brown rice.

Ultimately, achieving and maintaining a younger-looking body takes time and effort. Although those that are dedicated swear it's as much about personal well being as appearance. Funny, then, that those who work hardest on their bodies often compete in an industry where youthful image is all. "A lot of what I do is for self-satisfaction; it's awfully nice to run upstairs without puffing," insists Chrysler. "The outside results are just an extra."

An extra that most of us couldn't hope to achieve if we exercised night and day. Which is why it's important to settle for a realistic body-image when embarking on a fitness regime. As Walker says: "Obviously you've got a genetic body-shape. If you're pear-shaped naturally, you always will be. Exercise can improve on what you've got, but it won't necessarily make you look like Jamie Lee Curtis." Or her body stand-in for that matter.

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