I turned 65 this year, but in my mind, I am still that 17-year-old kid who was indestructible and could do whatever he put his mind to. The optimism of youth is a wonderful thing but it can play havoc with a middle-age (yes, I think 65 is still middle age) body. Here are my suggestions for staying active, and uninjured, so you can “mature” gracefully.
• Accept your limitations. Physical deterioration is real and you cannot stop the march of time or its effects. At some point, you will have to give up certain activities because the injury risk is too high or you just can’t do them anymore. You don’t see many middle-age tackle football leagues out there. I don’t play soccer anymore because I have a partially torn meniscus in one knee and the impact on, and twisting of, my knees in soccer is likely to aggravate this. Aging also means you will not be as fast, as strong, or as flexible as you once were. Instead of comparing yourself to all comers, including those younger than you, focus on staying near the top of your age group.
• Push yourself. Accepting reality does not mean total capitulation. Without challenges, life becomes pretty humdrum. Middle-aged and senior citizens accomplish outstanding levels of fitness and performance by careful preparation, patience, and desire. For example, Diana Nyad, at 64, became the first person, man or woman, to swim from Cuba to Florida. I have a high school classmate who swam in high school and college and admits he had just an OK record. Unlike his peers, however, his drive and desire did not abate with time and he kept swimming. Now he is setting world records and winning gold medals galore in his age group in international competition. My father won several gold medals in the Senior Olympics regionals simply because he outlasted his peers and was the only swimmer in the 90-plus age group. You don’t have to be an Olympian. If you can walk a mile comfortably, keep pushing to walk farther every time you are out. Like compound interest, small incremental increases over long periods will yield incredible dividends eventually.
• Find something you love. For me, it’s running. For my wife, it’s tennis. If it’s fun, you’ll want to do it, find the time to do it, and do what it takes to continue. The one caveat is it should be sufficiently active to make you work physically. Chess, stamp collecting, reading, etc., are all wonderful, but you need to find something that makes you move. Everything about how bodies are designed and function screams “MOVE!” A sharp brain in a dead body is not of much use. Studies have clearly shown that one of the best ways to ensure that your mind stays sharp as you age is to keep your body fit. If there is a magic bullet to aging well, it is exercise.
• Cross train. This popular term often is misunderstood. What we call cross training was once simply called daily life. Life was more physical, but we have been so successful in inventing labor-saving devices, such as the remote control, that you can almost live your life from the couch. Most people get their exercise from a single activity, in short blocks of time, over an hour or less, one or more days a week. Repetitive activities tend to work limited groups of muscles and joints to the exclusion of others. The result can limit overall fitness and an increase risk of overuse injuries. Vary your activities to include cardio, resistance, and flexibility. Some people love the gym. I don’t, but I still go two days a week because the strength, flexibility, and balance that I work on keeps my body in better shape for running.
• Listen to your body. My doctor calls me “hyperaware” because I am attuned to little changes in my body. I have learned, through years of experience and painful lessons, to pay attention. There is a difference between the “hurts so good” pain of sore muscles that have been pushed and a true muscle strain. Shortness of breath should be proportional to your level of exertion and it should resolve quickly, typically within minutes. Exercise should not cause dull pain under your breastbone. Most people are clueless when it comes to the cues their body gives them, or they ignore them. All pain is not gain.
• Find like-minded individuals. Sports and exercise are wonderful ice breakers for meeting new people or getting to know casual acquaintances better. People who are socially connected live longer and are more content than those who go it alone. Besides, exercising with others is encouraging, shares the pain, and is a lot more fun.
• Get a physical checkup before embarking on a new fitness regimen. This is simple common sense and your doctor is the best person to clue you in to potential problems you might encounter and direct you to activities appropriate for your situation. Dropping dead of a heart attack the first time you go out to exercise is probably not going to do you much good in the long term!