I get told fairly often that I need to start taking it easier. That I need to write larger, or make the font size bigger on my laptop. That my eyes are going to go soon.
Friends and family hint that I’m too old to be practicing jujitsu, or parkour, or running obstacle races because when you start getting to my age you don’t heal as fast. You’re more fragile.
I hear other people talking about how their memory isn’t what it used to be, and that they just can’t stay up late and get up early like they did when they were young. That they can’t exercise because of their bad back or that their grip strength is failing.
I think it’s all crap.
There are plenty of examples out there of older people who live incredible, fulfilling lives and do things that would be impossible for people far younger. There is the 96 year old sprinter who is still setting records and the 87 year old German gymnast who can still rock the parallel bars. Just a quick YouTube search also turned up this 93 year old yoga instructor, and this 80 year old athlete who I’m not sure I could keep up with.
Some of you might be trying to explain away their strength and mobility by saying they hit the genetic jackpot, but I disagree. If you listen closely to their stories there is one thing they all have in common.
They’ve never stopped moving. They’re continuing to push themselves every day of their lives.
Yes, it’s true that you’re at a disadvantage as you age. From a biological standpoint you have become irrelevant. So sure, if you give up, If you slow down and spend more time lounging in comfort, a downhill slide isn’t all that far in your future. But is the simple fact that you are aging the cause?
I think the answer is a resounding NO!
Let me illustrate with a little example. If you spend the day digging postholes for a new fence, unless you have good pair of gloves, you’ll end up with blisters. But if you spend a few months digging postholes your hands will toughen. You will have calluses so thick that you won’t ever need gloves again.
Why does this happen? The cells of our bodies are continually dying and being replaced. This happens at different rates for different types of cells. Bones and connective tissue are slow, muscle and skin is pretty fast. But lets get back to those blisters.
When the blisters pop and the skin begins to regrow, it will be a little thicker and a little tougher in response to the additional stresses you put on it while you worked.
The same thing happens when you lift weights or carry heavy loads. The muscles and bones respond by adapting to be ready for a similar load in the future. The muscle fibers grow stronger. Bones grow thicker. All of the connective tissues around the stressed joints get stronger as well.
Unfortunately this works in the other direction as well. If you don’t stress the system, when tissue cells are replaced, the body conserves energy by making them a little less strong in anticipation of easy days ahead.
This mechanism is universal. If you don’t uses your eyes in a way that stress them, they will become weak. If you don’t use the full range of motion in your hips, you will begin to lose that mobility. Biologically if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Think about that for a minute. Does this explanation make sense? If you’ve lost a step did it happen before or after you stopped pushing yourself? Did you take some time off only to find out that you could no longer do things that were once effortless? I’m betting I know the answer.
Of course this is a hard thing to accept. Every ache and pain, every annoying decline in performance, is essentially your fault. Luckily, this also means you can reverse the process.
How to Take Action
The first step is prevention. Think about what you want to still be able to do into your twilight years and make a plan. If you want to stay as young as those in the videos above, you need to find ways to continually challenge your body and mind.
- If you want to be able to play in the floor with your grandchildren years from now, you should be spending as much time as you can sitting on the floor now in preparation.
- If you want to be able to read without glasses at 90, you need to be spending time outside in nature where you are continually shifting your focus between the near and the far and the minuscule and the massive.
- If you want to keep your mind sharp you need to find activities that push you to your limits every day. Start building a memory palace. Learn a new language. Travel to a foreign country where everything is unfamiliar and novel.
The second step is to begin the rebuilding process. Be patient. Find your comfortable limits, and then push just a bit past them. Then do it again and again. Here are a few place to go to get started:
Mobility and Flexibility
Mobility WOD – Kelly Starrett is the godfather of restoring mobility. If you want to be as limber as a seven year old girl (mine is like Gumby) he can help you get there in ten minutes a day.
Gymnastics Bodies – Coach Somer’s program will build you a strong flexible body from the ground up. The progressions are so slow that many people become frustrated and try to skip ahead. Don’t do it. Every set and every rep is designed to steadily load your tissues in a way that will turn you into a physical beast, whatever age group you might fall into.
In his excellent book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, James Gleck details the method that the great man used to maintain his eyesight. Focusing near and far, utilizing all of the muscles the manipulate and focus the eyes.
Moonwalking with Einstein – lays out several strategies for developing a bulletproof memory as it traces the author’s journey from journalist to memory champion, plus it’s a really fun book. I’ve recently read that memory problems are not a dysfunction of the brain brought on by aging, but a failure to consciously develop the system used for recalling the massive amount of information that we absorb during the course of our lives. What you really need is a better system of organization. You can learn some here.
Movement Matters and Move Your DNA – These two books by Katy Bowman are on my “read every year list”. Not only is she self-deprecating and funny, but she has an entirely different philosophical approach to living a happy life as a human. She is also wickedly smart.
Ok, those should get you started. If you happen to know of something else that should be on the list feel free to contact me and let me know. Also, if you have any other great examples of incredible older athletes, I’d love to hear them. Now I’ve got to get to bed, I’ve got jujitsu in the morning, and I don’t want to be late.