November 01, 2012
Middle Aged Exercisers: On Not Throwing in The Towel
I can't speak to Old Age, 'cause I ain't there yet myself. But I'm 52. When I hear people bitching and moaning and sobbing about the toll hitting your 40's, 50's can take on the body, I respond by...
Bitching and moaning and sobbing right along with them! Cause yeah, it's amazing and amusing all the varied ways the human body can fall apart over time.
But when formerly active people with garden variety age-related deterioration (as opposed to serious injuries or medical conditions) try to use middle age as an excuse to drop cardio and strength training and intervals and anything more challenging than a trip to Costco, that's when I call bullsh-t.
You do not have to throw in the towel when your hair starts to turn silver, unless it's your gym towel and it stinks really bad and you're only throwing it in the washing machine so you get don't kicked out of your Zumba class.
First up, a photo digression, feel free to skip. But wanna know what this is a picture of?
Yep, this is what middle age will do to you. It's a pair of $5 reading glasses I am willing to risk having someone steal off my gym locker, because otherwise my aging eyes cannot make out the damn combination to open it. I learned this trick in Scotland, when I stood there stark naked with only a tiny gym hand-towel ('cause I was too cheap to rent a real one) and after 10 minutes of fiddling and cursing finally had to flag down a younger person to open my locker for me. (And btw, Scottish women seem even more shy than US women in locker rooms, and somehow managed never to appear naked whilst showering and changing, so I probably appeared to be even MORE of a scary freak than I would have at home. Lesson duly learned). Anyway...
Tips On Exercising While Middle Aged:
1. Just Do It.
And that's it for tips.
Seriously, I get so tired of all those articles in health magazines with "special" exercise prescriptions for people in every decade of life. These always set expectations lower and lower, which can burrow into your subconscious and mess with your head and plant unhelpful visions of impending wimpiness.
If you are new to exercise--at any age--you need to start slowly.
But if you are already active and suddenly notice that everyone else at the gym looks like they're cutting their high school civics class to be there, while your contemporaries are starting to count a walk to the mailbox as their "aerobics" for the day, just say screw it and keep going like you always have.
And yeah, sure, you'll need to be creative and sensible and work around the inevitable injuries that exercising will produce. But you do not suddenly transform into some delicate flower just because your body parts have a few more miles on them. Over a lifetime of exercising, you will have to develop alternatives to your favorite activities and alternatives to those alternatives. But this process should ideally start in your 20's; if you've been lucky enough not to have to crosstrain before, be grateful. But now is the time to suck it up and find other things you like to do if your favorite activities are causing you problems.
So instead of tips, here's a different list:
Three Reasons Why Exercising in Middle Age is Awesome:
1. You get extra credit for being older even if you don't actually need it.
You know how guys hate to be "chicked?" Well, in the same way I love to savor those occasions when I can "chick" a guy at something, I also love it when, for example, I can haul my post-menopausal ass up a hill on my bike faster that some 20-something guy or gal, even if it might be their first time ever on a bicycle for all I know. The expectation is that young people should generally outperform older folks, so it feels rather satisfying to "geeze" a youngster, an expression I think I just made up. On the other hand, I hate to be geezed myself by true seniors.
And the thing is, if you, like me, were never a particularly super-star athlete, then in all likelihood you can actually keep improving your performance on stuff that you put extra effort into.
2. The lessons you learn about life make it much easier to stay on track.
In the same way that middle age seems to bring more common sense and less drama to everything, it works for exercise as well. You understand that a forced break due to injury won't mean you will immediate gain 100 lbs and lose all your motivation; your favorite class being cancelled is an inconvenience, not an excuse to go into a suicidal depression and give up working out all together.
You get wiser about handling injuries, scheduling, finding creative solutions to obstacles; you can put triumphs and set-backs into perspective; and you have the self-confidence to feel like you "belong" in any exercise setting you are legally allowed to enter and the hell with anyone who gives you any attitude about it.
And along those lines, you don't give much of crap anymore if you look ridiculous and lame when you try something new. This comes in very handy if you, like me, are a bit on the clumsy side.
3. The payoffs are way more concrete and immediate.
Every day there is some new study about the long-term benefits of exercise. But when you're twenty, you can be in crappy shape and smoke and subsist entirely on diet coke and doughnut holes and Bud Light and go about life in a fairly functional manner. All those studies saying exercise will delay your first heart attack a few years or may make you somewhat less likely to get diabetes or whatever may not be all that compelling compared to the hassle of it all.
But once you're middle-aged, the payoffs in energy, attitude, strength, ability to sleep, self-esteem, and overall smugness become much easier to see, especially if you compare yourself to your sedentary peers. Not only that, but if you're willing to challenge yourself, a recent study found that high intensity intervals improved cognitive function in those who were middle aged.
Plus, those "far off" long-term health consequences are no longer so far off! An article in The New York Times pointed out that middle-aged exercisers are setting themselves up for decades of much more pleasant aging, staving off chronic and miserable diseases.
Want some more motivation? Check out Jody's physique over at her blog and tell me that women in their 50's are too old to do serious strength-training. (She also recently wrote a good article for Health Your Way on myths about fitness for older folks ).
What do you guys think about exercise and aging? Noticing any changes or are you still a young whippersnapper?
Older Exerciser cartoon: Felipe Rockett