Thursday, September 26, 2013

Fit at Fifty

Of course, I'm not fifty - I finished 57 years on planet earth this July. But this title is easier on the ear and year..

Last Sunday, I went swimming with a group of people, all around 30 years old. One of them sent me a facebook message that afternoon - I hope I can be as fit as you at 57. How do you do it?

I thought it was a question worth reflecting on, and this is what followed:

Fit at Fifty – and beyond

      1.   It’s got to be important to you. If not, our urban lifestyle, with its sedentary work and mechanised transport, makes it easy to live comfortably without moving the major muscles of the body, or driving the cardio-vascular system to levels which cause it to remain in fine tick.
     2.  Find sports you enjoy. Learn the techniques of the sport as early as you can, so the return to effort is high – whether it is the most efficient stroke in swimming, the right form in running, or how to optimise gearing and saddle height on a cycle. Once the muscle memory is in place, you will be able to pursue the sport well into your 60s and 70s, without huffing and puffing like a grampus, and without too many muscle pains and sprains. And since you enjoy it, the impulse to pursue it will not be dampened by the ups and downs of life.
      3.       Seek out like-minded friends. Research has shown that your levels of fitness are seriously influenced by the company you keep. So, if you have friends who are strong swimmers, you will at some level, strive to keep up with them. And, you will also learn about technique and equipment from each other. It also helps if you occasionally compete. Preparing for a race or match is a great motivator – not so much to beat the others, or the clock, but to do your best.
      4.       Measure it. Nothing works like tracking your own progress – speed, time spent, distance covered. Cumulating these on a monthly basis shows you how much time and effort you’ve put into the sport, and reduces the room for self-made excuses. It also helps you to push your fitness/sports time to the front of the queue of competing demands for your time. And gradually, you’ll learn what I have learned, that there is rarely a time when you don’t return from a ride, run, or swim feeling better – much, much better – than when you set out. Irrespective of how lousy or demotivated you felt before you set out!

      5.       Be well! I can’t stress enough the importance of keeping illness at bay. Every time one falls sick, and has to take time off from sports activities, the curve of improvement droops, and there is a huge setback to one’s fitness levels. In fact, a double whammy operates – firstly, you have lost several days of practice, which always results in a drop in performance; secondly, the body is struggling to repair itself, rather than build on itself. This obviously raises the question of how to keep well.

     6.       Listen to your body. I have learned a lot from the broad principles of Ayurveda, which tell you that food is the best medicine – and the worst poison; and that there are no universal principles of good food and bad food. Each of us is unique, though Ayurveda tries to classify us according to the ‘doshas’, or essential characteristics of our body types. And while I have read some of the detail of what food works for the ‘vata’ types, and what for the ‘kapha’, I think the most important take-away is, if you observe your body carefully, it will tell you what it needs to eat, and more importantly what it most definitely doesn’t.
This self-awareness does not come easily. The lessons and sensitivity develop slowly, and have to fight against widely accepted stereotypes (for example, if you want strong muscles, you must eat lots of animal protein) as well as the culture of our upbringing. But listen carefully to your own body – what food makes it feel strong, what makes it feel light, what makes it feel sluggish. Some foods will cause your body temperature to rise, others will make your intestines go cold. Listen to the effect different forms of food have on you.
Sleeping late suits some, waking early suits others. Monitor how you feel in the morning, especially if you have changed your sleep routine. Allow your body to tell you when it is feeling thirsty; and don’t eat when you aren’t hungry. Try not to let the mind interfere in this signalling. If you learn to listen to your own body, you will become much more resilient, with a highly developed immune system.

      7.       Be flexible. Flexibility of the body prolongs your active years. It needs to be cultivated. Though many sports will engender flexibility of the joints used (swimming for example), others tend to lead to stiffness – running is one. Cultivating a practice that enhances flexibility – yoga and tai chi are two of the best known – is hugely helpful, and reduces the chances of injury or strain as a result of intense sport activity.

      8.       Push yourself, but not too hard. In general, we are too soft on ourselves, and stop well before we reach the limit of our potential. One has to keep pushing the envelope, of distance run, passes scaled, or time in the water. This does not mean exhausting oneself or ending up with muscle strain, or cramps. Often it means slowing down, quietly observing one’s own ‘form’, the unnecessary exertions that do not add to speed. Whenever you find yourself gasping for breath, straining, or over-heating, ask yourseIf if you can do it slower, more easily. Usually, you can; then your breathing slows, your movement is more fluid, and you find you can run that extra mile!

Surprise Yourself. Run those extra miles.

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