The truth about aging and fitness: Five fitness commandments to live by.
Watching other people work out is endlessly interesting to me. Although I’ve tried many weird workouts over the years, the human drive to find new ways to get fit always amazes me. As I watch someone stack a balance board and a bouncy ball into a squat rack, I can see the wheels turning in his head (it’s almost always a “he”): “This is gonna be great! Nobody has ever thought of this before!”
“Workout fail” compilations on YouTube have reduced me to tears of both laughter and empathy. But I’d argue anyone who has never bailed off a treadmill while trying to run backwards with a pack on, or dropped a loaded bar inappropriately while attempting to snatch it one-handed, hasn’t been trying hard enough.
I’ve been seriously training for one sport or another for more than 30 years; in that time, I’ve borne witness to some truly weird workouts, diets and mental training regimes. I’ve gone from a 150-pound pudgy adolescent, to a clinically anorexic 142.543-pound sport climber, to a 195-pound CrossFit gym rat, back to a 150-pound bicep-less skinny guy obsessed with trail running. With all this training, diet and switching of sports, I’ve started to notice some truths about fitness.
The first truth about working out is that, in the long-term, it doesn’t matter what you do to work out. Lift weights, swim, hike around the neighborhood with your dog, cross-country ski, do squats while wearing inline skates (I’ve seen that)—it just doesn’t matter. The gym-rat bench-pressing 250 pounds fully believes that is the way forward, and for him, that’s true. That day, right there, he is working out. That’s what matters. Doing something physical, pretty much every day, kicks ass on not doing something physical. If movement doesn’t happen, then atrophy is winning. Atrophy always wins eventually, but it doesn’t have to win today. Today is a good day to work out.
The second truth is that individual workouts don’t matter much, but regularity does. Most of us are training for a specific sport even if we don’t realize it. If you’re puking occasionally and scraping all the hair off your shins while deadlifting in a CrossFit workout, you’re training for CrossFit at that point in your life. If you want to get better at shin-hair removal, then you’re going to need to do it regularly. Specific sets, reps and weights—all less important than showing up regularly. Miss a workout and you don’t progress. Do some weird-ass version of your workout in a hotel room using the towel rack (I ripped one out of the wall once, it was expensive) and you’ll at least maintain—and likely get better.
The third truth is that your sports and interests will change over time, and fighting that natural arc is counterproductive to staying fit. I used to travel with a pull-up bar and a piece of wood with small finger-holds on it. I’d hang the fingerboard in hotel room doorways; that exercise mattered to me more than anything. I haven’t done it in 20 years, and I’d likely shoot myself if I had to do it today. Hanging on to what was important in the past isn’t conducive to lifelong fitness. It’s more important to follow your interests, stay active and explore new physical skills and ideas. A little or a lot of obsession is essential for high-performance competitive sport, but life changes, and we have to change our physical expressions as well, or we’ll get bored. People who are bored with moving, stop moving. When I see a pack of elderly folks busting a move through the mall wearing coordinated track outfits, I cheer them on, and use their motivation to get my own sorry ass to a workout. Those folks probably weren’t doing that in their 20s, but they look and feel better than the other elderly people reclining in the food court.
The fourth truth is that the most important movements are less about strength than understanding the movement itself. I recently taught a climbing/training clinic where one older guy—in his late 60s—intrigued me. I noticed that when doing pull-ups, he always pulled the rings down to his pecs, not the usual half-hearted chin-fuzz over the bar. There were a couple of hipster post-CrossFitters in the clinic, who started showing off by doing sloppy muscle-ups. The older guy asked, “Is that valuable for climbing?” I replied, “Probably not directly, but it does show you have good range of motion and strength.” The old guy then did the cleanest, smoothest muscle-up I’ve ever seen. He was a gymnast in his youth, and still coached. His arms were twigs, like mine, but he understood how to do a muscle-up in the same way old mountain guides know how to walk smoothly through rough terrain. Being strong is less important than understanding how to move. And moving is everything.
The final truth is that fitness is worth sacrificing less important things for, and most things are, long-term, far less important than fitness. Fitness is really health, after a certain point, and being healthy requires exercise. There is very little that exercise doesn’t help alleviate, from depression to diabetes to osteoporosis. Find a movement that feels good and do it with regularity. Thirty minutes of running through the streets and a fast bowl of soup is a far better use of an hour than looking at new sofa fabrics or whatever else we do at lunchtime. Blow off that work meeting to hike up a hill—when you’re 70, still being able to hike up a hill will be far more important than the meetings you missed.
Today, I’m going to blow off some emails so I have time to do something physical outside with my five-year-old. Because she needs to know that I care about both her and about getting some exercise. She deserves it as much as I do. The emails will wait.