When I was close to 30, I took up running. Most people would call it jogging, because I wasn’t exactly breaking land-speed records, but I completed a few marathons over the years and these days I still put in 20 or so miles a week, mostly so I can eat what I want to eat without gaining too much weight. I’ve been lucky, too, because I’ve never experienced any lasting injuries so I can run pain-free. Doing a little yoga from time to time—along with some strength-training—helps tremendously.
But I have to admit, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also succumbed a bit more to laziness. The perils of menopause, followed by a move from teaching (walking from class to class and around the room during lectures) to being a dean (sitting at a desk or in meetings) didn’t help. The pounds formed quickly and I got less and less interested in moving my body. Even in retirement, my regular running routine just doesn’t seem as effective as it used to. I’ve thought more than once that it might be good to switch from running to walking—you know, slow down a bit as I age.
But recently I discovered Dr. Joe Baker and his work at York University in Toronto, and it’s got me thinking that I may be approaching this whole thing from the wrong angle. Baker is an associate professor in kinesiology and health science and his research is in lifespan and exercise. He developed an interest in the role of exercise in older people’s lives when he was working with masters athletes, helping them extend their athletic careers as they aged. “We actually have a very limited understanding of the levels of functioning older adults can aspire to,” he says, “and these limits are continually being challenged.”
Now that I can set my own course, it feels like the most important time to live—and train—with intention.
As he and his colleagues continued their work, they began to realize that much of what we experience in our bodies as we age isn’t a direct result of the aging process. “We found that a lot of things we simply assume are due to aging are the result of disuse or changes in training patterns. From this initial work, we started to challenge the notion that aging is an inevitable cascade of declining function and health.” He also looked at how negative stereotypes about aging impact our health and well-being.
“It’s no secret,” Baker says, “that getting older and being old are thought of quite negatively in most areas of North American society. Our research has found that these negative stereotypes have important influences on our health and behavior. For example, older adults with negative attitudes and expectations about aging are less likely to exercise.”
As an antidote to this dilemma, Baker suggests changing things up—mentally as well as physically. One thing he recommends is “deliberate practice,” a term used today by psychologists, musicians, and tennis players, among others. What makes this approach different than me just heading out for my regular plodding, four-mile run is that it involves setting specific speed or intensity goals and paying attention to my efforts and their results. In other words, engaging--both physically and mentally. Baker says it isn’t necessary to incorporate these techniques into every run, but doing it even once a week can help.
It’s funny, but as I’ve communicated with Dr. Baker, I’ve come to realize these are probably good practices to utilize in other areas of my life, as well. Just setting some new goals about what I’m going to cook this week can reenergize me about making dinner. Paying attention and being deliberate about my relationships instead of simply going through the motions almost always results in a meaningful conversation. And repeating these behaviors, just like scheduling a high-intensity run once a week, gives me something to aim for, which keeps my brain going in a positive direction.
To inspire other folks who are planning their second acts, Baker points to 84-year-old Ed Whitlock, the first person over 70 to run a marathon in less than three hours, and to 104-year-old French cyclist Robert Marchand. In 2014, Marchand broke his own one-hour track cycling record in the over-100 age group.
I doubt that I will become another Whitlock or Marchand, but it thrills me that people like Baker are reminding people like me that this is not the time to rest and slow down. To the contrary, now that I can set my own course, it feels like the most important time to live—and train—with intention.