The story of fitness is deeply intertwined with the way we learn to relate to gravity. From rolling, to crawling, to climbing, then walking and running, each of us moves through these developmental grooves, experiencing them as a series of incredible discoveries, which they are. The structure of the spine, shaped as a “C” when we are born, changes slowly to an “S” as we learn first to pick up our heads, then the rest of us, moving gingerly toward greater degrees of autonomy. Our first, unaided steps are miraculous and celebrated as such by family members. They represent a victory over a force of nature that would drive us to the center of the earth.
What a shame that we forget all of this as we move on to greater physical and cognitive challenges. Sprinting, tumbling, running backwards, spinning, leaping, and diving, we experience these first as magical, second as mundane, then soon after as a given, one that is wrapped in a tacit assumption: we see gravity’s influence on our lives as diminishing toward a vanishing point, at least for the first four or five decades of our limited time on this planet.
Between fifty and sixty, I would argue, we begin to see and feel its presence once again, not overtly, but through its effects:
- Confronted by a large puddle between you and your car in the grocery store parking lot after a sudden rain, you realize you can’t remember the last time you ran and jumped, or just jumped, and so you walk around.
- To sit down on low chairs, sofas, and toilets, you now catch yourself either dropping the last few inches, or you hinge forward with your upper body and take hold of a rail or arm rest if there is one, not because you need it, you think to yourself, but just to be safe.
- Having gotten down on the floor to retrieve a dog toy that rolled under the bed, you pause to consider your strategy for standing up.
- Sitting on the floor with your legs crisscrossed is no longer comfortable.
Of the three broad reasons for exercising, looking good, feeling good, and moving well, the majority of non-competitive adult exercisers between 18 and 45 that I’ve surveyed prioritize looking and feeling one’s best over moving the best that one can.
As adults over fifty however, our priorities shift increasingly toward questions of function. How long can I maintain my current functionality? Can I improve my movement quality, and if so, to what degree? Merely asking these questions is to simultaneously acknowledge gravity’s endgame while seeking strategies for managing the dilemma that is our finite lifespan.
These questions aren’t arising in a vacuum. Many of our clients have watched their parents’ loss of function and subsequent transition from homes, to “independent living,” to nursing homes, and they indicate that these experiences provide a clear incentive for them to keep moving. For others, it is a strong desire to maintain the lifestyle that they currently enjoy.
To my mind, these rationales, along with many others, are all worthy provided they end in action, and by action I mean quality movement.
Training to move well is different than training to look great in a swimsuit. The former focuses on movement quality (as an end in itself) while the latter focuses on movement quantity (lift more + run faster = look great). Most fitness programs that reach you via television or online are pushing high intensity interval training for the purpose of transforming the way you appear.
Our clients over 50 also want to look good, but when I talk to them they often express a sentiment that really resonates with me: their reasons are tied less to attracting a partner at this life stage and anchored more to their basic self-esteem. Interestingly, even though they feel their goals and energy shift more toward moving well and a feel good experience in their bodies as they exercise, many admit that all of the advertising on TV and online leaves them feeling conflicted about their motivations and how they should be working out.
Here is a secret: regardless of whether you train for looking good, feeling good, or moving well, you still end up receiving all three as benefits. By focusing on increasing (or preserving) your functionality, you will feel better and you will look better. The results you want may take months instead of weeks, and you may need to make shifts in your diet rather than trying to exercise excess weight away (which rarely works), but you will greatly reduce your risk of injury, ensuring that you maintain a level of fitness for your self that is optimal (versus maximal) and sustainable for decades.
Put another way, gravity plays the long game and so should we. Even if gravity outlasts us, we should never succumb, but instead acknowledge its omnipresence in our lives and then actively defy it by rising from our beds and moving as upright and as buoyantly as we can throughout our day, every day. Doing so will not change the end of the story (spoiler: gravity wins), but it can help you achieve an amazing quality of life for the time that you have left and inspire others to take up the cause.
With that ideal in mind, the obvious question is, what does it mean to move really well? For the answer, stay tuned to next month’s newsletter!