Aging and the Edges

I still have “use or lose it” on my mind…

I’m 61 years of age now. How did that happen?

I received an email from a former student, Darin, who is now CEO of a hospital in Idaho. A hollow gasp scampered from my mouth when I realized 20 years had slipped by since Darin had been in my class.

Poof – there it went.

Here’s what I’ve noticed about aging.

You start living near the edges.

Everyone knows that as you age, you lose some muscle mass, strength, speed, endurance.

It happens no matter how hard you try to stop it (although that doesn’t mean you should stop working on yourself). You don’t see 45 year old running backs in the NFL. They might still be superbly fit but not fit enough to compete.

I think of it like this. I have a certain amount of physical capacity. You could think of it like money in the bank. When I was younger, maybe in my 20’s, my physical capacity was huge. I could do a lot of stuff. It was like having a ton of money in the bank.

And like a bank account, when I exercise, perform daily tasks, I have to dip into that account to pay my bills. In this case, it’s the energy I use up for all the stuff I do.

Let’s say I had 1000 units of physical capacity back then. The gap between what I used in day to day life or sports or exercise and my reserves was great. I might live and play using only 500 units leaving another 500 units in reserve, in the body bank. With some rest, I would be right back up to 1000 (or maybe higher).

I lived and played nowhere near the edge of my abilities, nowhere near tapping out my bank account.

As you age, your body creeps closer to the edges. Some people toss this off as “I’m just getting old” and there’s some truth in that. Aging imposes a tax on your physical abilities (as do injuries, surgeries, illnesses). So, instead of 1000 units, now I may have 500 units of capacity.

Your body bank account shrinks.

Now, let’s say that every day life – stairs, walking, cleaning the house, shopping, working, etc – uses 300 units. I would still be okay, not overdrawn, because I have 200 units in reserve.

But, each year, unless I work at it to slow the drop, my capacity continues to fall until one day my reserve and expenditure match.

This is when problems often show up.

Little things like stiffness or soreness. Or maybe you can’t get up off the floor as quickly or something aches or hurts. And usually it seems like it appears out of nowhere. Your shoulder or some other joint starts to ache and you can’t understand why.

The signs of living near the edges are all around you. Is it tough to turn your head far enough to back your car out of the drive way? Or how about sitting cross legged on the floor? Have you stopped taking the stairs because now and then your knee or hip hurts? How about your weight? Are you able to keep it within an optimal range?

Here’s the other thing I’ve noticed. If you want to increase your capacity, push the edges out, you have to work on it.

And be patient.

Even though your abilities erode some as you age, your body doesn’t stop responding to nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle choices. You can push the edges out, for example, by making wise choices around food and exercise.Think of these things like deposits. And over time, these deposits increase your body bank account.

If you have to pick one area of exercise to work on over anything else, choose strength.

Increasing my overall strength does a lot of good things for me. It improves my flexibility just as well as static stretching. My cardiovascular conditioning improves as does my balance. Bone density improves too. And I have a better chance of living a longer, healthier life.

Agility is balance in motion. Moving quickly requires an underpinning of strength plus balance. Without sufficient strength, agility suffers. You fall down more when you lack agility.

Strength training improves your ability to produce and absorb force. This is one of the most important abilities to manage as you age. Most non-traumatic injuries come from exposure to loads that your body can’t handle – either one time or over a number of times.

I can’t get all of these improvements with running or cycling or swimming or other aerobic focused exercise alone. If you can add any of these things to your routine, super. It will help you just that much more.

Strength training two days a week for 30 minutes per session will produce a significant return on your investment of time. And as your strength grows, you can add a day or two per week.

The take away is this. Whatever level of ability or fitness I have today, I won’t have that same level in 10 or 20 years. If I pay attention to the “edges” and work at it, the drop will be mild, barely noticeable. Otherwise, it’s a gamble at best.

Get moving, keep moving and watch for signs of the edges. You don’t want to live there.

Do what you can to push them further out.

Thanks for reading.