María Capovilla: A New Understanding of Fitness

31.01.2021 |

Episode #9 of the course Secrets to a long life: A study of the world’s oldest people by John Robin


Welcome back to our course on long life!

Yesterday we met Antonio Todde and discovered the importance of trying to conjure our own version of Sardinian mountain calm, to tap into deeper calmness around the inertia of being.

Today, we’re heading to Ecuador to meet our last female longevity study.


María Capovilla: 116 Years Strong

Today’s supercentenarian had two things in common with Jeanne Calment, the longest-lived woman of all time:

    • They shared the fact they are the only people to be considered the world’s oldest person on two different occasions.

    • Both “died” but then lived on for over a decade.

It was at age 100 when María Capovilla was expected to die, even given last rites in preparation for it, but she recovered with no outstanding health problems right up until her final years. She died at 116, but if she’d lived a mere 18 days longer, she would have made it to 117.

María was born in Ecuador, in 1889, the same year as Adolf Hitler and Charlie Chaplain. She was 22 when the Titanic sank. She was 79 when she saw Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. She was 101 when dial-up home internet became widespread. Had she lived a year longer, she would have seen the launch of the first iPhone.

She never smoked, she drank in moderation, and she ate small meals. She was a devout Catholic, taking mass every Friday. She drank fresh donkey milk from her family farm her whole life and speculated that this helped her live for so long.

She was considered to be in good shape, right up until her last days, when she caught pneumonia. Before that, her family fully expected her to live to her 117th birthday. She kept herself moving, continuing to walk despite needing the help of an aide, and she busied her mind with a reading, right up until she lost her eyesight.


María’s Longevity Lesson

Just like with Jeanne Calment, María’s secret lies somewhere in the details of how she lived her life.

The words of her daughter, Irma, will help highlight it some more: “What is admirable is not only that she reached this age, but that she got here in shape, in very good health.”

You might see Jeanne Calment’s determination, and Jiroemon Kimura’s discipline, and in fact, you might spot a bit of all the interiority traits from our other supercentenarians thus far. But one thing that is unique about María is seen in those words of her daughter—“good shape.”

María’s one word might be fitness. But, just like we did with Hendrikje’s “stop complaining” mantra, it’s worth spending time unpacking just what “fitness” means because it’s often misunderstood.

Fitness does not mean having big muscles or being able to run a marathon. It doesn’t mean going to the gym and doing a fixed workout program. It doesn’t mean being slim.

Fitness, understood by way of María’s wisdom, means simply being the best shape you can be in, in a way that lets you keep moving, keep active and engaged in your daily life.

However, it also can be appreciated from the other eight angles we’ve learned about:

    • Keeping committed to it is a measure of Jeanne-like determination.

    • Complementing it with a healthy diet requires Jiroemon-like discipline.

    • Not taking it too seriously is a measure of Sarah-like calmness.

    • Having fun with it can summon Emiliano-like laughter.

    • Accepting your natural limits, and treating exercise as a way to just be in your body, whatever that means, is very much the way of Violet.

    • Learning to adapt to obstacles in fitness training, to start fresh after injury, to keep going, is very much the way of Yisrael.

    • Just doing it, without thinking negatively about how hard it is, is a very Hendrikje-like approach.

    • Staying focused on the inertia of how you can keep doing it, and noticing how progress compounds over your weeks, months, and years, is very much the way of Antonio.



Your skeletomuscular system is interesting in that, all the way until your 70s, you can keep developing it. You do lose muscle mass in your 80s and 90s, but even at this age, continued investment in some sort of fitness regimen can reduce that.

Stop and think about Jeanne Calment in her wheelchair. She couldn’t ride her bike anymore, and she couldn’t walk anymore either, but she still did her arm and leg exercises, seated in her chair, to keep her fitness.

If you’ve been putting off exercise, take this lesson as your push to do it, but, unlike most “all or nothing” programs, think practical like María: whatever you do, it ought to be sustainable, and it is for the purpose of improving health and movement, to give you that inner ball of energy that keeps you going.

Whatever age you might live to, may you get there “in shape and in very good health”?

Stay tuned for our final lesson, when we’ll put everything together around our final supercentenarian study!


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