Six Ways To Lick Yourself Into Shape

Two thousand years ago, Pliny the Elder wrote in his weighty tome, Naturalis Historia, describing the birth of a bear: Hi sunt candida informisque caro, paulo muribus mahor, sine oculis, sine pilo; ungues tantum prominent. Hanc lambendo paulatim figurant.

Latin tortured me at school. I was clueless and rendered somnolent, inspiring my teacher to launch chalk-missiles at me. For those of you, like me, for whom the ancient tongue is well and truly dead, the above translates to:

These are shapeless white flesh, a little bigger than mice, with no eyes or hair; their claws alone prominent. They [meaning their mothers] lick them gradually into shape.

Common belief held that newborn bear cubs were shapeless, their form completed by magical maternal saliva, inspiring the modern usage of being licked into shape: “to put into a satisfactory condition.”

Pliny was misinformed, of course, but two millennia later, fake news still flourishes. A classic internet meme featuring Thomas Jefferson’s portrait states, “Just because it is on a search page next to a picture of someone famous does not make it true!”

Before I advance the throttle on this particular rant, a caveat: medical knowledge changes. We review weather prior to take-off, but check multiple times en route because developing storms might alter our plans. Bears are not born as amorphous animals. And likewise, medical science progresses as time progresses.

  1. A gut feeling: Recent research implies that urolithin A, a substance produced by gut bacteria, might play a role in helping muscle function, especially as we age. A recent clinical trial from Seattle and Lausanne, Switzerland, suggested that an oral urolithin supplement may be safe and might help in this regard, but recommended further work.  Please note the italics in “might, may and might” – they are mine. Urolithin A is produced when gut bugs feed on, among others, pomegranate, strawberries, blackberries, various nuts, and wines aged in oak barrels  – that caught my attention! Urolithin supplements sell for $50  – $60 per month, but for less money you could enjoy, yes enjoy fresh fruit every day...and personally I supplement my weekly routine by joyously extracting seeds from a plump pomegranate which also provides dietary fiber as a bonus!


  2. To boldly go: I love Star Trek for many reasons, including how scientifically plausible statements are combined with implausible dialogue. For instance, I always wondered just how fast “warp speed” was, and where to find dilithium crystals, given that this substance’s name implies two atoms of lithium, a metal which cannot form such molecules. I may not have been a Latin scholar, but paid attention in chemistry class! It is similar in food dialogue. While those with celiac disease must definitely avoid gluten, and gluten sensitivity is seemingly more common, it has become fashionable to dissect what we eat with a dilithium-powered microscope. If you want to live long and prosper, my mind-meld suggests simple guidance; eat less, eat slowly, avoid packaged goods and sugar, eat more fruit and vegetables and less red meat. But remember, food is more than just sustenance for our bodies, it is nourishment for our souls.  And when summer comes around, I shall beam all sorts of delicious meats onto the vulcanized  – pun intended  –  steel barbecue. Don’t cling on – sorry, could not resist - to Pliny-like theories until science proves otherwise!


  3. Pliny and pals: Two and a half thousand years ago, Sushruta, an Indian physician, stated that “diseases fly from the presence of a person habituated to regular physical exercise.” Pythagoras was not just a mathematician, he also advocated daily exercise combined with proper diet and relaxation. And Hippocrates, he of the famous oath, held forth that “food and exercise, while possessing opposite qualities, yet work together to produce health.” And furthering the concept that exercise is medicine, our pal Pliny wrote:  “The Roman people for more than 600 years were not without medicine, they were without physicians.” History and modern science agree that exercise is key to good health.  While fancy equipment, snazzy clothes or expensive gym memberships are not critical for physical fitness, technology can help, such as apps to travel from couch potato to 5k runner. But remember, accepting a sedentary lifestyle took time, so it will take time to become active and healthier. A simple expedient helps though: only exercise on the days you eat! And although eating an apple a day may keep your doctor away, check in with your physician before embarking on a new program of diet, exercise or weight loss.


  4. Weigh the optionsMonitoring weight is a useful health evaluation tool, but take other things into consideration such as waist circumference and body fat; if high this implies shorter lifespan and healthspan. Note that weight fluctuates as much as 4 pounds each day, lowest before breakfast, highest after an evening meal, and tends to be higher on Sunday evening than Friday morning. Women also see weight changes in concert with menstrual cycles. So, weighing once a week, maybe Wednesday after arising, preferably without clothes, probably suffices. If weight changes up or down without commensurate alterations in diet or exercise, see your doctor as it may infer serious disease.


  5. One for the road: Pliny also suggested that if bitten by a rabid dog, afflicted individuals might attempt various ways to avoid rabies, including imbibing singed ashes from the harmful hound’s head as a libation, literally the hair of the dog that bit you! We all know about “eight hours bottle to throttle,” but wisdom suggests pilots should abstain much longer prior to flight. Additionally, wine in moderation may head off cardiovascular disease, but in excess will put every organ in a pickle jar, leaving you in a pickle. In case you are interested, it was not Pliny but Samuel Pepys who took that phrase (meaning drunk) and applied it to being in a generally sorry state.

  6. You don’t have to be in Who’s Who to know what’s what: Health is defined by WHO, the World Health Organization as: “... a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Physical and mental health is supported by eating well and exercising regularly. Good diet improves proper operation of every organ and impacts mood, regular exercise releases happy chemicals that induce good feelings, and daiquiris depress; doubt it not. As does all booze – they interfere with every part of your body. Every part. But in addition to advice rendered above, think about how you treat yourself – and others – emotionally; being mellow and nice has health benefits. Sam Levenson is one of my favorite American humorists. His 1979 book is the title of this section and his 1973 book, In One Era & Out the Other, contains some great wisdom; for example, “Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm. As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands: one for helping yourself, the other for helping others. Your “good old days” are still ahead of you, may you have many of them.”

So, that’s it in a nutshell, Pliny, Captain Kirk and Sam Levenson’s guide to licking yourself into shape. And “in a nutshell”? Where did that originate? Apparently Pliny had a tiny copy of Homer’s Iliad, which immortalized the Trojan war...small enough to fit in a nutshell! Don’t go nuts, but get fit and fly well!

You can send your questions and comments to Dr. Sackier via email: [email protected] and listen to his weekly podcasts at:

Jonathan Sackier
Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.

Related Articles