After I turned 35, I got into a bad habit of attributing any kind of physical shortcoming to “getting old.”
I won’t bore you (or embarrass myself) with a list of every ailment I decided was age-related in the last 4 years, but I will tell you that in almost every case, I was completely full of shit.
It’s easy to confuse “getting old” with “being out of shape.”
I’m not saying that aging is all in your head, because eventually I know that I am going to get older and physically weaker.
What I mean is that age provides an easy excuse for poor performance, and sometimes an ache or pain is just an ache or pain. Sometimes you’re just fat or out of shape. Sometimes your cardio just sucks because you haven’t done cardio for a year. Sometimes your body needs time to adjust to new stresses. Some of my favorite quotes from Sam Sheridan’s book The Fighter’s Mind are from the ultrarunner, David Horton. At 55, he ran 2,650 miles in 66 days. He said, “The body can always do more than the mind thinks it can.” But the quote I remember the most is, “It never always gets worse.”
I’m not a professional athlete. I just work out a lot, and I try to vary what I do over the course of a year, so I’m always trying new things.
I often say that the best thing about not being athletic when you’re young is that when you start getting serious about it in your 30s, like I did, instead of getting worse, you get keep getting better.
When I first started CrossFit a few years ago, for the first few months of doing ballistic movements like kettlebell swings and Olympic lifts, I had to keep Ibuprofen and Aleve in the console of my truck because of the throbbing joint pain afterward. Now I almost never get that. My body adapted.
Last fall I “experimented” with my bench press form with 245 on the bar. A nerve in my right arm was funky for 6 months afterward. I was lifting at 70% on a good day. Now it’s fine.
I stopped doing CrossFit when I went to learn powerlifting at the best powerlifting gym in the Pacific Northwest — Elite Performance Center — and then I did nothing but lift for the next year or so. (Truth be told, that’s what I’d rather do. Lifting is more fun than burpees. But being able to outmaneuver the zombies is as important as being able to throw boulders at them. Balance, kids.)
When I bought a package of CrossFit classes this spring for the hell of it, I felt like Redd Foxx on Sanford and Son. “This is the big one!” A month later, everything gets easier and easier. Box jumps get faster. My cardio threshold gets higher. I actually bested an 18 year old training for the Marines on one workout. He is strong and fast, and usually he’s way ahead of me, but on this one thing — 50 135-pound shoulder presses for time — I made it look easy. He called me a “monster.” That was sweet.
Our expectations about the aging process are based on a lot of cultural conditioning. You see athletes retire in their early 30s. When you are young, you see 30 as the benchmark for “getting your shit together,” and 35 as “kinda getting old.” At almost 39, I’m basically too old to join any branch of the military but the army, and even that would require a lot of special exceptions and waivers and especially desirable qualifications. We constantly hear that our testosterone reaches its peak early, and declines fairly rapidly after our early 30s. There’s definitely a psychosomatic element to aging.
Here are 5 things to think about before you start crying about getting old:
1. The News is Wrong. At best the news tells people what they want to hear, and at worst it is actually an advertisement. The demographic that reads and writes the news wants to hear that coffee and red wine are good for you, so of course they are. I am confident that if white trash gamer neckbeards wrote the New York Times, you’d be reading fluff about the hidden health benefits of Mountain Dew Red Zone and Cheetos. The news reflects the biases of it writers, editors and advertisers. (Remember the smear treatment the paleo diet got from the mainstream media and “health experts” before it got trendy and you could buy gluten-free everything?) Also, the media will go to “trusted” sources to validate the biases with their “trusted” data.
2. The Data is Wrong. OK, so “studies have shown” that x, y, and z happen to “most” men between the ages of 30 and 50. The “studies” are all based on data collected in the past 50 years or so. Men’s testosterone has theoretically declined in developed nations over that period, for reasons known and unknown. In First World countries, over the past 50 years, many men men between 30 and 50 have lived lives of relative ease — but they’ve also been sitting behind desks eating crappy food. Do the things that we “know” happen to men between 30 and 50 happen because they “have to” happen — because they “naturally” happen — or because modern men decrease physical activity, become increasingly sedentary, and lose muscle mass during that period? No one really knows.
3. History is Wrong. Well, it’s not that it’s wrong, so much as that we live in strange times, and certain aspects of the historical record may not apply. If you choose to, you can probably eat a healthier diet than the majority of our ancestors. If you choose to, you can optimize your workouts, instead of just working yourself to the bone and grinding away at your body doing trade-related tasks. You have access to supplementation and a vague idea (thanks to the data that may or may not be accurate) of ways you can experiment with rare and specialized substances to improve your health and performance. You have access to clean water, and vaccines, and sunscreen. Our ancestors had none of this. Globalization and high technology are probably bad for us in a lot of ways, both mentally and physically, but why not take advantage of the positives while you can?
4. You Are Wrong. As I said above, you are biased. If you are looking for a “reason” or an excuse, age is an easy one. It seems perfectly logical, and you’ll get plenty of validation from other guys who have let their bodies go to hell and want to blame it on age. But there are also guys who seem to age at a much slower rate, and they are able to do amazing things, because they take care of themselves.
5. You Haven’t Considered All Of The Variables. Oh really, you are wheezing because you are old? It’s not that 5 years you smoked a pack a day and damaged your lungs. Or the accumulated damage from alcohol or a crappy diet. It’s not that you haven’t been training for 6 months. Or that you played sports when you were younger and now you sit at a desk all day. It’s not anything that YOU actively did to yourself. It’s because you’re getting old. Because that’s easier than taking responsibility for your own bad decisions. It’s simply “beyond your control.”
Getting old is a real thing that happens, sure. And it’s going to happen to you.
But we don’t really know how men age under the optimal conditions that are available to them at this strange moment in history. Stop assuming that x,y, and z are going to happen to you, until they really do. Start assuming that you can still get better, that remember that sometimes an ache is just an ache. Abandon your preconceived idea of what you’re supposed to be able to do at 30, 40, 50, etc. Keep living and pushing yourself and see how gently you can grade that downward performance trend.
You have a body. Collect your own data. Make informed decisions, and talk to other men, but don’t let their decline influence yours.