While we all age, if we live long enough, there are a few assumptions about aging and our ability to enjoy a high level of fitness that are best questioned. Both studies and anecdotes give us good reason to suspect that these assumptions are based more on people’s choices as they age, than their real limitations. There are 7 basic misconceptions that I regularly hear from people when they see me enjoying a lot of activity.
1. No energy – This is a vague and misleading description. What is really meant is “no stamina.” There is a way to get stamina. It is not something people have or don’t. If you use your body aerobically, it sends signals to the systems used to get ready to produce more “energy” next time around. It’s like having your own perpetual motion machine! Start it moving and it becomes more capable of moving. Even the best race horse will not race well if it never goes around the track.
Nutrition is crucial to stamina, too. It doesn’t need to be complicated (It is Not Rocket Science), and I don’t think there are any magic ingredients that have been kept secret for thousands of years. I think most people have a pretty good idea of what are good foods. Eat well, and you will feel more capable of moving.
2. Prone to injury – There are two main reasons for this. One is past injuries. The ones from younger days. This means that such injuries are not directly because of current age, so much as because of youthful escapades.
The second reason is trying too hard. Whether it be trying too hard after long periods of relative inactivity or trying too hard because of not wanting to feel old, the result is the same. Something gives way. However, even a younger person will injury themselves when they push themselves too hard. (See reason #1)
It may be harder on us mentally to deal with injury. It may even take a little longer to heal than, say, it would for a 6 year old. Still, the degree of injury and the healing process are quite possibly more affected by other factors, including proper rest and supportive measures to the area involved.
3. Too stiff – Have you ever seen bedridden patients? They don’t use their joints enough and mobility is often lost. The way to help avoid that is to have them or someone else very regularly move their joints. The average adult does not engage in the same natural play and joy of movement that children do, which is one important factor in decreased flexibility.
Now, I am well aware of the different bone growth phases and proportions that make a difference in flexibility. Plus, some people’s bone construction is tighter at the joints than others, their whole lives. But what we are talking about is the flexibility of one person over his or her own life span. That flexibility can be maintained or regained by using those joints in the fullest range of motion possible. Anything from dancing to gardening can gradually increase a person’s flexibility, even after the age of 50. Don’t make the mistake of accommodating feelings of stiffness that can come and go.
This concept is demonstrated by the physical therapy that usually follows orthopedic surgery. It is well established that moving the affected joint very soon after surgery is of great importance. One of the most notable times I went through this is when I broke my cheekbone. I wouldn’t be able to open my mouth more than a fraction of an inch if I hadn’t daily persisted with the stretching exercises to gain back full jaw extension.
4. Decreased muscle mass – Muscle mass grows because it is used. If you don’t use it, it atrophies. As we age, we might not have the ability to get as strong a the youngest, strongest person can, but not very many young people get that strong either.
I’m not talking about bulky muslces here, because that is a slightly different subject that does appear to be connected to male hormones. However, we have all seen very skinny people of any age that have no muscles to speak of. Some of them may have physical conditions or genetic profiles that lead to this. For most people, this is the result of not using their muscles. If someone doesn’t care, fine. I’m not judging that. What I am saying is that someone over “a certain age” does not just have an unavoidable “condition” that keeps them from enjoying an active life. Aging muscles still have a lot of potential to be strong, and often stronger than young people who are inactive.
5. No balance – This could be related to a few things. One could be muscle development, as mentioned in #4. Muscles help keep balance by sheer power and by supporting joints.
Another component could very well be shoes. You may be tired of hearing me say it, but it is true. Footwear has a great impact on balance. That is why gymnasts are always barefoot. If a body is denied the sensory input and the use of ground level muscles, balance is going to suffer. Ask any ankle.
And then, we get back to motion. Certain movements develop both the mental and physical patterns to enhance the ability to balance. Consider me playing my flute. My fingers don’t look any different than anyone else’s. I also don’t know any more notes and fingerings than most high school flutists. But there are connections in my nervous system after so many years of playing. Sometimes my fingers just play a sequence without me having to think much about it. But only if I keep playing on a regular basis. If I can’t play for a while, it may take a couple of weeks to get back to the same level of dexterity. It is a mystery that is not totally understood.
6. Can’t compete – Let us first ask, “With whom?” There is only room at the top of the heap for a very few number of elites. The rest of us, by physical design or different life choices, move at a different speed. It makes no sense to get too hung up on who is in first place, no matter how fun it is on a day it might happen.
But then, again, maybe you can compete. There are several examples of older athletes surprising people even in high level competitions. That probably won’t happen to most of us. Still, you can compete with yourself, you can compete within your age and gender, and you can also compete with all those younger folks who haven’t yet found their own full potential. It doesn’t need to be dog-eat-dog competition. It can be motivating to everyone involved. If competition is something you enjoy, find the right goals and do it.
7. Need more sleep – It may be that more sleep is necessary as a body ages. It is also possible that you needed more sleep all along and now you have time for it. It may simply be that adjusting to increased activity levels is requiring more sleep restorative time. If you read the biographies of elite athletes, the amount of time they get to sleep is amazing. Once again, we find there are so many variables in a given person’s life, plus so many variations across a given age group, that it doesn’t make much sense to claim this as a hinderance to fitness inducing activity.
If motion and fitness are not something you enjoy, that is your choice. Recognize it as a decision and don’t make excuses. However, if you find yourself wishing you “had as much energy” as that other person your age out there on the dance floor, running a foot race, or spending hours in the garden, there are things you can do about it.