My daughter, The Boss Mare, called me from Michigan this morning to report that she’d had a flat tire on her way to some horse-related function an hour-and-a-half away from her college apartment. It’s not that she needed advice on how to change a tire (I just assume she orders the tire to change itself); she just needed some dough, as usual. The call interrupted my zazen session, from which I normally segue into my workout, and it woke My Lovely Wife, who requested information. Bottom line: no workout.
It reminded me how easy it is to avoid exercising — especially for older persons like myself. I mean, let’s face it: Spending hours hoisting serious iron or logging miles on the dreadmill isn’t going to radically transform those parts of our anatomy that have succumbed to gravity over the years. And, really, when you get to a certain age you’re not in the habit of taking your shirt off in front of strangers, anyway. It’s not about building a beach-ready body.
In fact, it’s kind of hard to know what benefits all the sweat and soreness actually deliver. Conventional wisdom tells us that when you get old it’s simply inevitable that your body is going to break down, so what’s the point in fighting it?
Well, new research from the University of Pittsburgh suggests that a regular fitness regimen does make a difference. Indeed, those who maintain a regular fitness regimen into their 60, 70s, and beyond can enjoy the kind of strength, energy and vitality of people 20 years their junior.
It’s long been thought that aging brought an inexorable loss of muscle mass and an inevitable infiltration of fat, but this latest study found that, with a regular exercise program, participants as old as 81 could retain the same level of muscle mass as folks in their 60s. “We think these are very encouraging results, lead researcher Vonda Wright, MD, told The New York Times. “They suggest strongly that people don’t have to lose muscle mass and function as they grow older. The changes that we’ve assumed were due to aging and therefore were unstoppable seem actually to be caused by inactivity. And that can be changed.”
While the participants in the University of Pittsburgh study were competitive athletes with intense training regimens, Wright noted that there’s no reason to believe that a more moderate program wouldn’t have similar effects. The key is simply to get up and move your body everyday in whatever way is most satisfying and sustainable. You may find that once you overcome your inertia, exercise will get easier and more enjoyable.
And by maintaining muscle mass you’ll be more mobile and, thus independent, well into your 80s. Because you never know when somebody might need help changing their tire.