It’s about shifting gears. If you have spent much of your life in the sedentary mode, the idea of fitness may be not only alien, but downright repugnant. It is to me sometimes, and it has pretty much always been my lifestyle! Fitness is work, and work over time. Not just a once-in-a-while thing. But there are four great reasons to address those gears and shift into a healthier life style. One, you’ll feel better. Two, you’ll look better. Three, you’ll live longer, and four; you’ll live better for whatever years you have left!
I am reading a great book by a lay person and a doctor, they take turns with the chapters and it’s a fascinating read. Their premise is that there is a critical distinction between aging and decay. Aging is inevitable, but it’s biologically programmed to be a slow process. Most of what we call aging, and most of what we dread about getting older, is actually decay. That’s critically important because we are stuck with real aging, but decay is optional. This means that most of functional aging is optional as well.
You can’t do anything about your hair getting gray (well, you can actually, but that’s another story), gravity will take its toll, and your maximum heart rate declines steadily over time, regardless of how active you are. Your skin degenerates so you look old, no matter what. But you do not have to act old or feel old, and that’s what counts. Aging can be a slow, minimal and surprisingly graceful process.
Are you hooked yet? Okay, so maybe you’re still young enough to be invincible; some of us are listening. Nature balances growth with decay by setting your body up with an innate tendency toward decay. The signals are not powerful, but they are continuous, they never stop and they get a little stronger each year. In our forties and fifties our bodies switch into a “default to decay” mode, and the free ride of youth is over. In the absence of signals to grow, your body and brain decay, and you “age.” All we can do is to override those default signals, swim against the tide and change decay back into growth.
How? By changing the signals we send to our bodies. The keys to overriding the decay code are (here’s the “four” thing again) daily exercise, emotional commitment, reasonable nutrition and a real engagement with living. But it starts with ….yup…..exercise.
You have to exercise all the time because it’s who you are. More importantly, it’s also who you were, what you came from, hundreds of millions of years ago. Your body is a gift from trillions of ancestors, and the fact that you’re here means that every single one of them survived. Each one of them got it right; each one passed on a little more strength, speed and smarts to the next generation.
All of our ancestors survived because they had to move, and move fast, to find food or not become food. And they did this every day…when they quit, it was because in stressful times; in drought, famine of winter, we are built to shut down, to hibernate, to retreat—to atrophy and decay as quickly as possible. From the point of view of the species, once the years of childbearing and rearing were done, this may have been a good way to age. In that mode less food is used and, of course, death comes sooner to make room for the next generation. That’s the Darwinian code for aging. That’s how nature designed your body and that’s why decay becomes a little more insistent each year.
Exercise, the physical work of hunting and foraging in the spring, has always been the single most powerful signal we can send that life is good; that it’s spring and time to live and grow. In response to exercise the body becomes lean, powerful and efficient. Excess fat becomes superfluous because the energy supply is fairly constant. Your body keeps a modest fat reserve to guard against hard times, but more than this is just a liability because lugging it around takes energy and slows your reaction time. Bone strength and joint health increase to handle the repetitive shock load of the travel. Your heart and circulatory functions increase to supply the blood and oxygen to your muscles.
Your brain changes too. As it gets these consistent physical signals from your body, it develops a chemistry of optimism: the ideal mood for hunting. Life is good. However, look at our modern lifestyle, with junk food, too much TV, long commutes, job stress, marital stress, poor sleep, artificial light and noise, and worst of all, no exercise. In nature, this lifestyle sends signals of deadly peril, and your body and brain make deadly changes in response.
So, choices? You can push pause, pack pounds, check out and decay…or exercise, eat right, think positive and age gracefully. I wanna be like Phyllis O’Conner of Rapid City; ninety some years old and still teaching water aerobics, biking 17 miles twice a week, and walking every day. Now that; is ‘four on the floor and out the door.’ Appeal to you? Then gear down and step on it.