More on Exercise and Aging

This week I read an article asking the question “Do We Expect Too Much of Our Bodies as We Age?”  You might read that title and think it gives you a license to get complacent.  “Yup”, you might think, “I’m too old to do ____________ (fill in the blank) anymore.”   But the article presents a different picture.  It is for all of us over-achievers who keep comparing ourselves to each other and to our former selves.  The article discusses our hope that we can reverse (cure?) the aging process by exercising.  This naturally creates frustration with the limitations we continue to encounter as we age.

The fact is, we are all aging.  Every day we get a little older, like or not.  Despite the fantasies of science fiction writers, time only moves in one direction as far as we know.  And with that direction, change happens.  None of us like change. Yet change is inevitable and constant.  One of the few constants in our world – like death and taxes.

So we know we’re getting older and we know we can’t do some of the things we used to do.  Or at least we can’t do them in the same way we used to do them.  So what are our choices?  We can sit and lament the things we wish could still do and beat ourselves up for our own incompetence.  Or we can celebrate the things we can still do.  Some of that inevitable change can be positive.  No matter how much you’ve lost, you can still make gains.  Maybe you won’t get back to where you were when you were 20, but you can improve.  All it takes is a little effort.  The more consistent that effort is, the more gains you will make.

According to the National Institute on Aging, it’s never too late to start and the benefits are numerous and ongoing.  Here are a few:

Being physically active can help you continue to do the things you enjoy and stay independent as you age.  . . In addition, regular exercise and physical activity can reduce the risk of developing some diseases and disabilities that develop as people grow older.  In some cases, exercise is an effective treatment for many chronic conditions. For example, studies show that people with arthritis, heart disease, or diabetes benefit from regular exercise.  Exercise also helps people with high blood pressure, balance problems, or difficulty walking.

In fact, “in most cases, you have more to lose by not doing anything.” (from “Exercise & Physical Activity – Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging”).  Consistency is the key, though.  Start slow and give yourself time to adapt.  Your muscles make gains from the rest between exercise sessions.  That’s why we sometimes get sore when challenging our muscles.  But that’s how your body gets stronger – by recognizing the need to address the new challenge.  To sustain those gains we need to create that muscle memory.  The best way to do that is like any other memory we want to promote – that is, by providing reminders.  In this case, reminders come in the form of continuing to engage in these activities.  That’s why we call it practice.  The more you do it, the better you get at it.  But getting better doesn’t mean becoming 20 again.  Start where you’re at and move from there.  Fighting with reality will only make you miserable.

Returning to the National Institute on Aging, it’s never too late to start.  Even if you have difficulty, you can still benefit from exercise and movement.  The four types of physical activities recommended include those emphasizing endurance, strength, balance and flexibility.  The good news is both Pilates and yoga incorporate all of the above.  Both disciplines can also be easily modified to accomodate physical limitations.  Also, both will help with whatever other physical activities your life requires – like climbing stairs or gardening or putting the groceries away.

So don’t wait . . . just get moving!  You can do it!  But be kind to yourself.  Compassion begins with yourself.  Idea Fitness Journal recently printed an article on “How to Help Middle-Aged Women Improve Body Satisfaction“.  One reader (Karen Geninatti of Geninatti Gym and Fitness in Carlinville, Illinois) responded to this article by describing her “no negative comments about yourself” rule in her classes.  She also tells participants “never to say anything to themselves or about themselves that they would not say to their son or daughter”.  Amen to that.

Overcoming the Need to be Perfect

As we launch into the New Year, some of you may find that you are already faltering in your resolve to leave 2013 behind and find the new you in 2014.  There is no doubt that change can be difficult.  In part this is because any change involves loss.  Change implies letting go of something in order to embrace something different.  That means the loss of something even if that something is just an attitude.  In fact, sometimes an attitude can be the most difficult thing to let go of.  Especially if it is something that you believed in.

Trying something new often awakens a fear that we might not do it right.  Even if the new activity is designed to help us relax, like yoga or meditation, we worry.  Suppose we’re not doing it right?   Won’t I look bad in a class setting?  I will stand out and everyone will sneer at me.  This fear can cause us to set up road blocks like “I need to be in better shape first” or “when something outside myself changes, then I’ll be able to start”.  You know the drill.  We’ve all done this.  The problem is when you depend on something outside of yourself to change before you can change, then you are at the mercy of situations you cannot control.  Of course, there isn’t much in our lives that we can control (contrary to popular belief), but one thing we can control is our attitude.  Until you make a decision that you really do want to change, it is unlikely that it will happen.  Regardless of what happens in the world outside yourself.

If your desire to change is conflicting with your belief that you need to be perfect, perhaps you might find some solace in a recent Yoga Journal article by Sally Kempton entitled “Making Peace with Perfection”.  After describing herself as a “recovering perfectionist”, she provides some insights into the meaning of the term itself.  Here are some excerpts:

“In Sanskrit, one of the words for perfection is purna, usually translated as fullness or wholeness.  .  . . Contrast that to our ordinary idea of perfection. In our everyday speech, the word perfect means flawless.  . . . When we can’t make things perfect, then there must be something wrong with us or the world.

The irony is that our ideal of perfection—which arises from the ego’s need to explain and control—inevitably keeps us from the experience of perfection. Like any construct, it clamps the lid on the bursting, chaotic, joyous mess of reality, substituting a rigid, artificial notion of what is appropriate or beautiful.  Conditioned as we are by our upbringing and culture, most of us can’t help living under the tyranny of perfection. Yet perfection itself is not the tyrant. It’s our notions about perfection that tyrannize us. When we’re outside the experience of perfection, we long for perfection while idolizing a standard that separates us from it. When we’re inside it, the question “How can I keep this great feeling?” instantly removes us from the feeling we’re trying to hold onto.”

Although Ms. Kempton admits that not all perfectionism is destructive, for example, there are musicians, scientists and athletes striving for excellence, this is not the case for most of us.  When creating road-blocks to change, our notion of perfectionism is often “driven less by the pursuit of excellence than by the fear of what might happen if [we] fail. [We] measure . . . performance by the approval and validation [we] get from external [sources].”

But take heart – there is hope!  Ms. Kempton goes on to describe a path for even the most determined perfectionist:

“Perfectionism is a deeply ingrained way of being. And since it affects our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions, getting rid of negative perfectionism requires work on all these levels. It helps to have a quiver of strategies, so you can experiment and work with the one that works for you in the moment. Negative perfectionists nearly always hold themselves to unreachable standards. Then, when they fail to meet them, they beat themselves up. So remember, the first line of defense against perfectionism is to learn how to give yourself permission to be who you are and where you are. That level of permission, ironically enough, is often the best platform for change.”

Here are a few of the suggestions in the “quiver of strategies” she provides:

1)      Retrain Your Inner Critic – Find a positive counterstatement for every negative statement the inner critic makes. It may take a little time, but in the end you’ll retrain him.

2)     Allow Yourself Not to Be the Best

3)     Give Yourself Permission to Do the Minimum

You are all encouraged to read the rest of the suggestions in the article itself.  But I will add something that is incorporated in all of the ideas presented – recognize that you are enough just as you are and that everything you need to succeed is already within you.

It may not be easy to remind yourself of this, but as obstacles arise in your plan to implement change, rather than just accepting them as inevitable, perhaps you can undermine them and find a way to follow your intentions.  Just think how good you’ll feel when you actually begin to see – and be – the change you want to happen.