In the middle of a 20 mile cycle not too long ago, a scary thought struck me. Blindsided me, actually.
What will happen to me ~ my body, my mind, my mood, my soul ~ when my aging body can no longer support my daily exercise? In simple words….when I get old.
That is a loaded question, isn’t it?
It reaks of fear and it echoes the assumptions established by our society that after a certain age, when a certain set of physical characteristics take hold (like wrinkles and loss of hearing), I will no longer have the ability to do what I want to do.
It assumes that “my” body will degrade after a certain point. And that rate will be normal. But what’s “normal”? And, for that matter, what is “old”? Those are subjective observations. Opinions. Possibly even judgements.
I certainly don’t feel my age by any stretch of my imagination, even though my kids call me old and, when I used to teach, I would use my age as a joke to break the ice in a roomful of teenagers.
Even over the past six months, as I have donned reading glasses and have to ask people to repeat things more frequently, I don’t look as old as I am, or at least that’s what most people tell me. Based on that then, it might mean that I have an extra ten years before I get to “normal”. It is a fact that aging is accompanied by decrease in muscle size, destabilization of bone structure, and tightening of ligaments and tendons. However, it is also known that those who start exercising relatively early in life and continue to do so into the later adult years can slow down that natural aging process.
And what about the impact of good diet and nutrition, which many times are in tandem with the athletic mindset? Furthermore, genetics and overall demeanor. These must all play a factor, somehow, I hope. Like I said, maybe I am not “normal”.
Let’s assume for argument sake that I can keep up with this routine for another five, hopefully ten, or so years. After all, when you have athletes like Jack LaLane (remember him, is he even still alive?), Lance Armstrong, Brett Favre, et.al. setting the standard, it is kind of hard to sit back and use the excuse that I’m getting too old for this. Every race I have been to has tons of “old” people, gray hair, wrinkles and the like, running. This includes the half-mari’s that I have run.
As you can see, there is a precedent for the aging body continuing to do its thing well into “old” age. So, somewhere between 50 and 75 my physical ability will decrease. I can probably count on slowing down, so instead of a 9:10 mile I will have to settle for a 15:00+ mile. OK, I guess I can handle that, as long as I still have a choice to run, or not to run.
I don’t want that wrenched from me because of an aging body.
OK, so with luck, as I age, I will figure out “other ways” to cope without the intense exercise. But what ways?
I know I use exercise as a pacifier now. Sure, it helps me keep in shape, better shape than I have been in my entire life. This, in turn, helps me feel good about myself in general. But, more than all the surface-level results, it calms my thoughts, my moods, my very soul. If I go more than three days without it, the fog creeps in, making me dark and gloomy. My muscles ache more than usual. I start bingeing on foods that under normal conditions I would never consider ingesting. When I have a physical goal I am striving for, whether it is six mile slow run early on a Sunday morning or training for a half-marathon three months down the road, I feel at peace with myself. I feel productive, effective, and serene all at the same time. It’s almost like my physical activity, the little and big challenges in that arena that I overcome every time I set a goal for myself, is an element of me that would be painful to lose at any cost. And, like a severed limb, would continue to ache even in its absence.
If I get to 75 and have to give up the extreme sports, like skiing and cycling and running and weight lifting (OK maybe not swimming because I don’t particularly like swimming to begin with), what would I replace those with? Shuffleboard, bingo, walking. My mind reels. I hope by then I will have lost the inner need for the intense physical activity. Every “older” person I know seems to have reached and confirmed this eventuality. But, if that is what it means to get “old”, I don’t want any part of it.
I will try to hold it off as long as I can. I will thoroughly enjoy every minute that I have using my body, aging or not. I vow to come somewhere between beating it into the ground and pampering it for fear of injury. I don’t want to get to that magic “old” age, whatever that number may be, and be sorry that I didn’t try and do everything that I could before I lost my ability to choose.
At that point, it will all be too late.
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