The deterioration of the human body is an inevitable path all of us must take during the aging process. For some this path is much more arduous than for others. The amount of fitness and function people can hold onto varies from one person to another. At one end of the spectrum you have people into their 90s still living independently, exercising daily usually gardening or walking (the two most popular activities), maintain a healthy weight, and possibly still having sex. At least I like to think so. At the other end you have someone who cannot wipe their own butt. I feel this is the ultimate life humiliation. If possible I want to be one of those people who can still clean themselves until their last day.The one thing I fear most as I age is not being able to physically perform the way as I could in my youth. As we get older, it is inevitable that aerobic power declines, muscles atrophy and the nervous system slows down. It will be especially difficult for me to deal with this ultimate ‘losing battle’ given that a great majority of my life’s happy moments occurred while I was doing something physical.
- The thrill of completing my very first lap at the 24hrs of Adrenalin Mountain Bike Race. At the start I was lined up with 200 riders. I thought I was going to crash and kill myself. When I finished a respectable sub hour lap I remember yelling at my cheering teammates around the last corner “This is fucking easy”. It was not but I was so pumped up.
- Crossing the finish line at the Vancouver half marathon I have a picture of myself ripping my shirt to shreds (much like Hulk Hogan before a wrestling match). I told everyone I would do it if I broke my goal time of 1:35:00. Finished in 1:33:52, and it hurt so bad/good.
- Beating my arch nemesis/friend Duey in badminton or tennis. He is an equal trash talker when we play racquet sports together. I always bug him that he should be better than me because he is Chinese and should be better than a white guy (so politically incorrect). Although it does not happen as much as I would like every once in a while everything comes together physically and mentally. The almighty Zeus tosses down a thunderbolt upon me and I feel unbeatable. I am in the zone. I get to brag about the thrashing at least until the next time we compete.
- Winning an Edmonton Ball Hockey Division Championship is another great example. One thing I would recommend to anyone thinking of playing in a ball hockey league...don’t do it. I mean if you don’t care about getting hacked, cross checked, punched and threatened then do it. This is the place where all super competitive minded people go to get an athletic high. Everyone is playing for their own imaginary Stanley Cup. It gets very intense and sometimes you think you may not make it out of the arena alive. In my youth I was, lets say.... a bit of a psycho. After years of being bullied in school I found ball hockey where I unleashed all my inner rage on others. It was an incredible physical and emotional release. The sport was exhausting to play. There was no coasting like in ice hockey. If you wanted to get somewhere you had to sprint. Fighting was all part of the game. You could punch someone right in the face for pushing your goalie around, for example. The result was a mere two minute penalty for roughing. Where else in the world could you assault someone like that without any major retribution? I didn’t even mind getting hit back. I was generally bigger and fitter than most people I played against. I usually got the better end of the deal. That is until you start getting older and you start slowing down. All of a sudden 15 years into a career your opponents are younger, faster and stronger than you. My knees started aching from the impact of the sport. It took me days to recover from all the inflammation. I was at least smart enough to retire once I realized I was no longer an intimidating force. I remember my last ball hockey fight. I was punched three times in the face before I got one shot in. I just grabbed on and wrestled my opponent to the ground hoping the referees would separate us before I was permanently damaged.
Playing sports, working out and the feeling of being fit is exhilarating for me. You can almost say it is an addiction. If I take more than two days off from doing physical activity something just does not feel right. I feel sluggish, weak, soft and less happy.
I am now 47 years old. The abuse my body has been subjected to has taken its toll. Every day I experience some kind of lower back pain, right knee pain plus shoulder/neck discomfort. On bad days after playing hard at sports, I am limping around. On good days I feel a mild ache at various joints throughout my body. There is not a day that goes by without some form of body discomfort. I know a change in activity and intensity level may be good for me.
I have separated my shoulder from crashing my bike, wrecked my lower back from ball hockey and squatting heavy, plus deteriorated my knees from years of volleyball. After all the injuries over a lifetime there is always a short time that must be allowed for the healing to occur. They key is to stay in the game. I have managed to work around injuries. It is important to evaluate what movements and loads cause you pain. You also need to develop the body awareness of what is bad pain (delays the healing process) and what pain you can tolerate that aids in the healing process. This comes with experience and by working with a professional to assess your movement patterns and what compensations you are making to avoid pain. I switched from playing ball hockey to ice hockey. There is less impact on the knees. I stopped doing heavy rear barbell loaded squats which I found my back had a difficult time supporting. I concentrated on other squatting variations that place load on my lower body without the extra stress to my spine. Some variations I do are; one leg balance squats with a forward reach, one leg step ups, and goblet squats. For cardiovascular work in the winter time I took up cross country skiing, another great activity for your exercise time while minimizing the impact forces on your knees and back. For my shoulder I had to stop doing bench presses, bodyweight shoulder presses and chin ups for a time because they caused me too much pain. I experimented with other movements to train my upper body that I was able to do in a pain free environment such as; rowing movements, cobra flys, and light range of motion exercises with dumbbells. The lesson is no matter what your injury or pain issues are, there is always something you can still do. If you can only aqua size then so be it. You are still in the game – well sort of.
The loss of function as we age can be slow and not noticeable. Allow me to use the tying of your own shoes as an example of function deterioration as you age.
- In your teens and 20s you are able to balance on one leg while bringing the opposite knee to your chest. You bend over and tie your shoe without falling over.
- In your 30s and 40s balance is more difficult. You packed on weight while having a family and career, you notice your legs are weaker from lack of training, plus the flexibility in your hamstrings and hips have decreased. You now have to stand on both legs bringing one leg up and placing your foot on a bench or chair in order to reach your shoe laces.
- In your 50s and 60s there is a further decline in strength and ability to bend your knees and hips. It is much easier to sit on a chair supporting all your body weight while tying your shoes. If your belly protrudes excessively you have to turn your leg outwards so that there is room for your stomach while you bend over so as not to hit your thigh. The shoe laces cannot be reached on top of your foot. You are relegated to tying them toward the side of the shoe.
- In your 70s and 80s weakness, stiffness and pain prevent you from using shoe laces anymore. Shoe horns are used to slip on footwear or you have to get someone to help you.
- In your 90s it is slippers.
Accepting that you can no longer do an activity like you once did is too easy. There needs to be a bit of a fight or a backup plan to put in place. I hear too many people say “well I can’t do that I’m too old” or “I used to be able to do that when I was younger”. You see people in their 50s not only walking less but using electric scooters to get around. Older people become even less mobile during the winter months. The fear of slipping on ice in combination with their excess weight and the discomfort of the cold keeps them inside on the couch. In Edmonton that is many months sitting on your butt.
In contrast there are many seniors that can still do remarkable things with their body. I see many people into their 80s still entering bike races, cross country skiing, hiking mountains and competing in their age group in triathlon. Just recently I witnessed a fellow who was 84 years of age deadlift 429lbs at a body weight of only 148lbs. That is beyond my strength level and I am almost 40 years younger, what an inspiration.
What makes some people give up on life and sit on the couch as they age while others embrace the process and still stay active? There are so many reasons and varied situations that would it be impossible to answer this question for everyone. What I will cover is which physical abilities deteriorate first and what you can do about it. The body tends to lose the following physical attributes in this order unless there are some unforeseen circumstances or disease:
- Agility, coordination and reaction time.
- Power (the ability to move their body weight or external weight with speed over distance).
- Strength, mostly upper body in women first and butt strength in men first. This contributes to an impairment of good posture.
- Maximum Aerobic Power (ability to push your heart rate near maximum levels).
- Muscular Endurance.
- Aerobic Endurance.
What needs to be taken away from this list is what you should focus on in your training to delay the aging process. Incorporate some agility footwork drills using a speed ladder. Start with some basic steps and then increase the complexity and speed of the footwork as you get better. Attempt some jumping or bounding drills to work on your power for the lower body. Use a medicine ball to toss around for the upper body. Focus on basic strength movements such as squats, deadlifts and lunges. Try some hard interval work for 30 to 60 seconds getting your heart rate elevated followed by a recover time then repeat for a certain volume of sets. Of course all these suggestions should be specific for your current fitness level and function properly progressed by a qualified exercise specialist. It is worth a few bucks to make sure you are doing things correctly and safely.
In my experience as a trainer the baby boomers want to have full functioning quality life years ahead. They want to be active grandparents taking their grandkids swimming, engaging with them at the playground rather than just sitting and watching. They want independence and less fear of breaking a bone from falling. Everyone has set backs such as an injury accident, depression from people around you dying and the aches/pains that coming with aging. People need to believe there is hope to be better than they are and that it is never too late to engage in a healthy lifestyle. As I see it you have two choices.
You can just settle and accept old age living as a bingo playing, couch laying, mashed potato eating, electric scooter using lazy ass OR you can be a mountain hiking, powerlifting, carrot chomping, wiping your own butt MOFO.