Aging and Exercise
Something happened yesterday. It made me uncomfortable.
I was working out, doing the Monday routine of weight lifting that pairs back and chest strengthening. I’m no bodybuilder, but I was kind of admiring my own guns as I watched myself in the mirror doing those wide rows with 15-pound‘ bells. No illusions of super-strength, competitions in my future or of my physique standing up to the people in the gym on my screen, leading me through my daily workouts. Just a sense of satisfaction and, okay, a little awe as I watched my own muscle fibers tense and ripple under my skin.
It made me feel powerful. Strong. Kind of invincible.
Which is why afterward, when I noticed that nearly every part of my body was hurting, I was troubled.
My calves were still sore all the way through from my 3 miles run four days ago. Pretty much every muscle group from the waist down was still aching from the HIIT workout two days before. My shoulders were complaining from yesterday’s push-ups and shoulder presses.
How can I see that strong image in the mirror, and feel so much in need of…
There’s only one answer: I’m getting older.
For the last fifteen years, my motto when it came to exercise has been, “More is better.” If I’m feeling muscle soreness, push through it — do something that uses those muscles to flush out the lactic acid! Insanity, The Asylum, Body Beast, Chisel and Hammer, P90X, Boot Camp gym classes…I was constantly looking for the next, bigger challenge.
When I felt too tired to face a workout, I knew that if I pushed through it I’d feel better afterward, that the wells of energy required to make it happen were there, all I had to do was ‘dig deeper’.
But this felt different — ergo my discomfort.
This muscle pain is left over from days ago — usually, I recover pretty quickly, so what’s going on? The soreness that is immediate, and bone-deep — that isn’t how post-workout pain usually sets in, how can this be?
Listening to the body
I feel like my body is talking to me in this moment of noticing the global fatigue and systemic pain: SLOW THIS DOWN.
I missed my workouts a few days last week, for a variety of unavoidable reasons. To stay “on track,” I’d put five days of workouts back to back, rather than taking my usual approach of two days on, one day off, two days on, two days off. So it was the sixth day in a row of pretty grueling weight lifting and HIIT workouts.
I’m 49 now. I can still do all the workouts I could 15 years ago — in many ways, I’m stronger and fitter than I was then, and my workouts are more productive, more challenging than ever before.
But I think I’ve run head-first into that stage where I need to adjust my pacing.
The four workouts interspersed with three rest days model has been working really well for the last year or so…and while I began it just to try out a new trainer’s program, I think I’ve just discovered that it is time to accept it as the new normal.
My rest days are populated with walking, yoga, yard work. They’re not inactive by any stretch. But they are not physically stressful or taxing the way weight lifting and my HIIT, cardio-intensive sessions are.
This body of mine can do a lot. It has been through a good bit of wear and tear over the years. I need to listen to it as it nudges me toward treating it with consideration, kindness. That doesn’t mean not challenging it. That doesn’t mean “letting myself go,” retiring to the couch and saying farewell to fitness. It also doesn’t mean that I can’t do physically challenging, taxing, maximum effort work.
But it does mean that I need to allow recovery time. I need to give it a grace period before going on to demand more.
Fear vs. choice
I was uncomfortable at first because I felt that sinking sense of youth inching away from me, and I saw tragic visions of myself as week, misshapen, bent, immobile. I anticipated the loss of physical proficiency and health.
Well…I feared it.
But fear isn’t reality. It is a reminder of what is important, and although I need to adjust my habits and take the reality of living in an aging body into account, I do not have to let those fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And so I make this a note to self: every couple of days, take a day off. Work in an extra day of yoga sometimes. Keep upping your weights, but don’t push it too far — maintaining your current level of strength is preferable to injury, after all.
When I think back on the last fifteen years, I have to admit that pacing myself more gently would have been lovely — if I’d felt I had permission to do it. But I didn’t. I was always running from one thing to another, shoehorning the exercise in where ever I could get it, using it as an antidote for stress and overeating and loneliness and a whole bunch of other things, feeling that if I slowed down or did less of it, I’d be deep in enemy territory. For a long time, grueling hours of exercise were my escape, maybe even in some sense my addiction.
Perhaps if I’d had an imperative reason for doing it, if I hadn’t been given the choice, I would’ve found that it was all right to slow down, after all. That I could cope with all the demons, and still be fit and healthy too.
Maybe this is the last gift of my 4th decade: permission to slow down, the grace of recovery. And far from uncomfortable, from now on I have a feeling I’m going to be more comfortable than I have been in a long, long time.
- By Lisa Wathen