Perceiving Growing Older
By Mark C. Gómez
Have you ever observed an athlete over the course of his or her career who, after retiring from competition, gained a good amount of weight and became quite obviously out of shape? One day, you might have noticed a photo in the newspaper and remarked, “I can’t believe that’s the same person.”
It’s sad to see someone so robust succumb to nature’s insidious pull.
But does it have to be this way? Is our gradual decline really how nature operates, or is it just what we collectively accept?
The answer lies somewhere in between. Human beings do naturally deteriorate with age, athletes included. Over time, we lose lean muscle tissue (sarcopenia), flexibility, and cardiorespiratory capacity. But we also adhere to a belief that the decline is just part of life’s process, and this significantly contributes to the problem.
Upon retiring, many athletes lose the support, structure, and routines that helped them stay conditioned during their playing days. They also find themselves amongst real people—not necessarily chiseled athletes. Once mainstreamed, the retired athlete’s perspective becomes similar to everyone else’s—that is, they look around, see woefully de-conditioned people, and accept that as the norm.
Researchers recently reported that people who had friends who were overweight or obese tended to become overweight and obese themselves. The authors of the study suggested that people often allowed their own weight to rise if the norm was perceived to be heavier rather than lighter. If a friend was overweight, then the norm for body weight was, at least subconsciously, perceived to be higher. Everyone gained weight together.
This is unfortunate because the scientific evidence for the past 30 years or so has clearly demonstrated that we have a proven way to fight this natural decline by exercising. Even overweight elderly people who have never exercised can achieve significant health gains by beginning a well designed exercise program.
So what do we need to do to change how we think about fitness and growing older?
First, we should acknowledge that fitness is for everyone, not just athletes during their playing days Our culture persists with the false notion that fitness is only for the athlete or, at least, for the young. That’s nonsense, of course, but we really need to own this ourselves. Say it with me: Fitness is for everyone—from children to seniors, from thin people to large.
Second, we should begin meeting people where they are on their journey of change without judgment. Health care professionals need to be especially conscious of this admonition.
Third, we should acknowledge that everyone’s fitness and nutritional goals are different. There is no one-size-fits-all program, nor should we judge ourselves by someone else’s fitness ideal. Fitness standards and guidelines are important, yes, but we also have to accept that every single person will be at a different point in his or her development.
Fourth, we should drop the quick-fix, “magic pill” mentality that the weight loss industry regularly promotes. Instead, we can begin striving for small yet progressive, incremental gains. This is a realistic recipe for success.
And finally, we should lose the old style, “drill sergeant” method of behavior change that many of us experienced playing sports as children. Motivation by intimidation has never had much lasting effect. For behavior change to endure, we all need maximum support and encouragement.
For most people, a gradual slide toward frailty and infirmity doesn’t have to be inevitable. It certainly doesn’t have to be imminent. For starters, we need to collectively believe that we’re capable of doing better.
Mark Gómez, MHSE, MA, ACSM-cPT, NSCA-CPT, is a health educator and personal fitness trainer. He is the owner of Four Seasons Health and Fitness, a private fitness studio in Fort Collins, Colorado. You may contact him at (970) 556-2920 or via e-mail at Mark@FourSeasonsHealth.com.
Copyright 2007, Mark C. Gómez, All Rights Reserved. Republished with permission.
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