Last week, I heard the following exchange in a class I was teaching:
Older student (in his 50s): “You think nothing of beating up an old guy like me?”
Younger student (in her 20s): “Well, why don’t you just stop being old?”
While both comments were made somewhat in jest, you might think that the younger student was failing to show proper respect for her elder. But the opposite was the case. She was showing him more respect than he was showing himself. You see, after you have seen octogenarians regularly defeat strong 20-something athletes, you are less likely to allow age to be an excuse. You are more likely to suspect such excuses of being verbal feints designed to sucker you in and open you up to a devious attack.
A few days later, as I was out for an afternoon jog, I was joined for 1 km by a 92-year-old former tai chi student of mine. I was reminded of the old maxim, “Move it or lose it.”
We have all heard people use their own increasing age as an excuse for exercising less. Seniors often think they are too old and out-of-shape to take up a new sport or exercise program. They ignore the fact that it is usually the lack of appropriate exercise that accelerates their aging process and decreases their fitness. Even those in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, will assume that their prime is behind them, so there is little point, or little time, for getting in shape.
Sometimes, people will take up an exercise, overdo it, and then use the ensuing discomfort as evidence that exercise is not for them.
As I approach mid-point (50), I am increasingly aware of the limitations of age. But I have long been more than familiar with the ability of people to overcome such limitations.
Decades ago, as an internationally competitive martial artist, I had my butt regularly handed to me by “little old ladies” half my size. I have been quite literally bounced off walls by octogenarians. One of my teachers is currently 103, and still improving. I know dozens who are formidable into their 80s, 90s, and 100s.
It is far too easy, in our increasingly sedentary world, to simply sit and rot. But gradual and consistent dedication appears to be effective in enabling one to both go with the flow of the current of time and keep afloat on it.
Getting started is a challenge. But sticking with it, aside from being its own reward, yields benefits that will amaze and astonish.
Tai chi is my livelihood and my way of life. But, while the scientific evidence of its age-defying qualities is conclusive, there are many other great ways to get in shape. Just start where you are. Be consistent. Make gradual progress. Don’t overdo it, but don’t let anything stop you. You will need to be creative in finding a way that works for you.
Exercise is the most important factor in almost all health conditions. Other factors like sleep, diet, and mental attitude are also important. But exercise affects these more than it is affected by them. If you exercise enough, you will sleep better, eat better, and will improve your mental state. A sedentary lifestyle leads to sleep deprivation, poor eating habits, and a poor state of mind. My favourite exercise is tai chi, because it is deep, profound, endlessly fascinating, can adapt to my physical and mental states, and can be done anywhere at any time. But I also enjoy kayaking, walking, swimming, hiking, jogging, nordic skiing, and any game played with my family. I did not always enjoy jogging, and did not always find walking fun. But as my understanding of my mind and body improves with age (and with exercise), my ability to enjoy these exercises also improves.
What exercise is best for you? I would suggest that any exercise you do regularly is a good bet. It stands to reason that you ought be able do it reasonably safely and should be capable of learning to enjoy it. If an exercise meets these two criteria, you are more likely to do it regularly.
Tai chi is a martial art that has become famous as an exercise for seniors. But I began learning tai chi when I was only 12 years old. At the time, I was the only student in my class under the age of 50. Over the ensuing 38 years, the art has become increasingly popular with younger martial artists. This is because the martial effectiveness and athletic potential of the art are becoming more widely understood. But the health-giving benefits for seniors are well documented. Seniors sometimes report feeling 10-20 years younger after only 2-3 months of regular tai chi lessons.
We are often very willing to make sacrifices in favour of earning a living. But we are too seldom willing to make sacrifices that favour our health. We will, essentially, sacrifice our lives for our livelihood. I’ve known too many people who collected their pensions for less than 1 year, or worked themselves into an early grave. I see too many people sacrificing their health on the altar of luxury, convenience, distraction, and delay.
I am personally guilty of letting my health deteriorate while I attempted to focus on other aspects of my life. But this has proven counterproductive in many ways. Recently, however, I have been able to make important changes in my lifestyle. This has had a major impact on my physical, mental, and emotional health in just a couple of months. Here of some concepts that have helped me.
- Time spent exercising is currency. It will pay off in ways both tangible and spiritual.
- Sleep is a weapon. Get enough. Use it to battle inefficiency, to energize your will, and to power your decision making.
- Keep track of your calories, both in and out. It is just like keeping track of earning and spending. Knowing what you take in helps you make decisions about what you put out. When I was a 140-pound 25-year-old training 6-8 hours per day, I could not get enough food. When I was in my 30’s and only training 1 hour per day, I kept eating like I was a full-time athlete. I not the first person to put on 120 pounds by not paying attention to it.
- Don’t set goals. Set standards. If you set a goal for yourself, you may achieve it. But if you set a standard for yourself, you will be able to maintain it. I have seen some remarkable recoveries by people who were quite sickly and out of shape in their 50’s. Some of them turned their lives around and became very healthy octogenarians. Tai chi master, Jou Tsung-Hwa comes to mind. But don’t plan to take extraordinary measures for just a little while and then resume your unhealthy lifestyle later. If you want to weigh 150 pounds, you will need to learn to eat for a 150-pound metabolism. You can’t just fast until you achieve that weight and then go back to eating for a 350-pound metabolism. Focusing on a goal can blind you to the joys of living according to standard. It is that joy that makes goals achievable and makes each day a blessing. If you set standards, you will live honourably and will get the most out of every moment. Achieving goals will be incidental.
I have heard people declare that they don’t have time to exercise. They try to put it off. Or they squeeze as little exercise as possible into a few intense bursts throughout the week. To them I say, “Think of all the time you could save by not being dead.”
Now, I have seen much evidence that it is never too early or too late to start taking action to improve your health. But getting an early start is easier and much more productive. This is because the earlier you set standards for self care, the easier it will be to maintain those standards as you get older. But the longer you delay, the more difficult it will be. So, start now.
Thinks of a car. If you regularly apply rust protection for the whole life of the car, beginning with the day you buy it, the body will be easier to maintain as it gets older. But if you wait until the rust appears, it will take much more work, and you will still end up with a lower standard of protection. If you leave it too long, you will need to consider replacing some parts, like the hood, or body, or engine. Likewise, people who set standards for healthy living when they are younger will usually have a better vehicle to work with later. Beginning a new exercise program as a senior citizen is easier if you have some experience beginning new things. Some think they can put it off. Perhaps they think that sometime in the future they will have the time, the technology, and the money, to do a complete overhaul and get a body that works like new. But this is not an efficient or prudent plan – not for cars and not for people – just like the lottery is not a practical retirement plan. Yet many people tend to delay. It seems that a lot of them are just counting on reincarnation.
If you see an immaculate 100-year-old car, you can be fairly certain that it was well cared for its whole life. But with today’s sedentary lifestyles and lack of care, there are too many 15-year-old rust buckets out there.
– Ian Sinclair
Sinclair Martial Arts, Orillia, ON, Canada.