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William Sanders resident writes the book on ageing

Written by Maryvonne Gray
on May 02, 2024

Aptly-named William Sanders resident Leigh Elder has the perfect project on the go for someone living in a retirement village.

He is writing a book about the ageing process and has recruited his fellow residents at the village to help with his research.

“The average life expectancy is 82, but the average health span age in New Zealand - so when you’re in good health – is 13 years less,” says Leigh.


“We’re living longer but we’re sicker. If you could improve people’s years of health it would be a fantastic thing to do – and with the right set up you could.

“So I’d like to show people that it is possible to lower your biological age.”

Specifically, Leigh is suggesting a few small lifestyle tweaks, i.e. aspects of the environment that you can control, to lower your biological age, or slow down your rate of ageing.

It’s a bold claim but Leigh is certainly walking the talk – quite literally!

Back injury permitting, he does a couple of hours exercise a day, either up the hills of Devonport or playing golf, and balancing that he does daily stretches and weight training.

Physically, Leigh says it’s important to regularly work on your balance, agility, fitness (i.e. cardio) flexibility and strength, also known as BAFFS. 

William Sanders village proved to be the perfect setting, with fellow residents keen to test out BAFFS by getting together and performing stretches and exercises like press-ups, burpees and star jumps.

Village yoga classes and aquarobics sessions in the William Sanders pool have proved to be great alternatives too.

“The aim of it is for people to have their own routine together which they can do daily. You can set goals around it and it’s measurable and achievable and what interested me is that they can improve,” says Leigh.

One resident, Gail Young, said she particularly benefited from the get off the floor exercise while another, Sherilyn Hurman, a physiotherapist, described the ‘aha’ moment she experienced.

“It gave me the impetus to work out the areas I was weak in and look to improve in these. I’m really enjoying my aquarobics and two yoga sessions a week, which I never thought I’d do, and I continue to walk at least 5km as often as possible.

“As a result I have improved my resilience by having a new purpose in life and have become fitter too.”


Leigh led a stretching class for fellow residents on TVNZ's Breakfast Show last year.

Hawera-born Leigh comes from a strong sporting background having played golf, cricket and table tennis at representative level, and worked as a physical education teacher until he was 40.

However, subsequent career choices showed him that physical fitness was not the only thing that could slow down the rate of ageing - a good diet and a strong sense of purpose in life were essential too.

After a stint as an independent financial planner, Leigh ran a rest home with his second wife Kate.

“It was a great experience but the thing that stuck with me was seeing people in their late 60s having become lost, to the point where they needed rest home care. They were old before their time.

“That has kind of shaped my thinking until now.”

Next came work as a life and business coach and Leigh was struck by how many people’s goals were around weight loss.

This led to Leigh writing a best-selling book called Eat For Keeps, and in turn led to many people losing weight, improving and sometimes reversing their type 2 diabetes conditions and permanently changing their lives for the better.

“We had a charity called NZ Blood-Sugar Foundation and the funds went towards wellness challenges for at risk patients of GP practices in the Bay of Plenty.”

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Leigh with his two Eat For Keeps books.

When Leigh turned 70 a couple of health challenges made him take stock and realise he wasn’t the bullet proof chap he thought he was.

“I decided I’m going to try and live like someone who’s 20 years younger, and it has given me a great focus.

“That challenge is with me all the time – the way I walk, my posture, the way I try and present myself… It even translates into how I think, who I kick around with, and what I eat of course.”

And despite vowing never to move into a retirement village, even berating his mates who did, he has done a complete u-turn and loves the sense of connection that’s come from being part of the fantastic William Sanders community, both residents and staff alike.

“Kate and I are absolutely very happy here. It’s like living in a five star hotel and the staff are a really great caring mob.”

Now 80, Leigh is keen to share the knowledge and insights he’s gained around fitness, diet, purpose and community and has been interviewing older people with remarkable longevity to include in his new book.

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Leigh with New Zealand's oldest athletics coach, Arch Jelley, who shared his life story with William Sanders residents in 2023.

While 20% of ageing is pre-set by our genes, 80% can be influenced by positive changes to our lifestyle and this can actually turn back our biological clock, Leigh says.

“The good news is that it is never too late to reverse some of that cell damage and make yourself biologically younger by making a few permanent lifestyle changes.

“I experienced this first hand many times when I saw type 2 diabetics dramatically improve their ability to process glucose (sugar) by reducing the amount of simple and starchy carbs they were eating.”

The net result, he says, was that much of the damage done to millions and millions of cells in their pancreas, liver, blood vessels and other parts of the body was reversed.

“It’s never too late to improve your lot. Value yourself - you’re worth it and you owe it to your family and friends and yourself to try.”

About Ryman Healthcare:

Ryman was founded in 1984 and has become one of New Zealand’s largest listed companies. The company owns and operates 45 retirement villages in New Zealand and Australia which are home to more than 13,900 residents and the company employs 6,800 team members.

Media advisory: For further information, photos, interviews or comment please contact Group Corporate Affairs Manager Silke Marsh on +64 27 294 3609 or Communications Advisor Maryvonne Gray on 027 552 0767.

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