I have two hours left of being forty-seven. I committed to writing this blog for a year and that year also ends tomorrow. I haven’t decided whether I will continue to post regularly, post intermittently, or focus all my writing time on my fiction. I’ve been reasonably satisfied with how this has gone. I think one of my gifts is writing, but you’re not a writer unless you write. This has been a good step toward being a writer. A writer writes.
Originally I thought I would write a post each day; that turned out to be a little ambitious, but it looks like I’ve published one hundred twelve, which isn’t bad. Fifty-four of them have some connection to grace (at least according to the search bar). I’m glad that some people have felt encouraged, challenged, or have experienced a little more grace here. If reading these posts has helped anyone with their marriage, aided them in coping with depression, helped even one person to face their addiction or just wrestle a little more honestly with God, I’m gratified and count it more than worth my effort. May it be so.
So what will my final post of the year be about?
Yep, sports again. Specifically, continuing to be an athlete as I grow older.
If that doesn’t interest you, may I recommend looking through the older posts in case you missed that one on The Lord of the Rings or would prefer to start reading my novel or want to know what living in Nicaragua is like for us. Plus, there’s a bunch of posts on Grace.
If you’re still in, say you’re also in your forties and want to keep playing sports or realize you’re going to be in your forties someday or would just like to be a little healthier, here we go.
The throw was deep and I immediately went after the disc. It was going long and I was last person back on defense. I knew I had the best angle on the disc. I knew he was coming up behind me. If it went slightly long, it would be out of bounds. If it came down at all, I would knock it away. I gave one glance back to make certain of my read then raced as hard as I could for where it was coming down. Just as it came in reach, he got past me and I lunged, diving forward and up as far as I could…and plowing into the ground empty handed as he caught the score.
“You okay?” the twenty-three year old, recent college ultimate player asked as I lay chest-down, tasting grass.
“Yup,” I said, taking the hand to get back to my feet, looking at the stretch of mud from my ribs down past my knee.
He scored on me. Not my man, I switched to help, and he made a great catch, all true; nonetheless, he scored on me.
And I know this for certain: there was a time when I would have gotten to that disc first.
I’m not a great athlete but I really like playing sports. I’m not an ironman, I’ve never competed at a high or national level, and except for that time I won a disc golf tournament (and briefly set the amateur course record) I’ve never earned any money from sports. However, facing forty-eight I can still play ultimate and basketball against people of my level who are a lot younger than I am and hold my own. Sometimes I do better than hold my own. The key is finding a small enough pool to look like a big fish.
Just kidding. The key is not dominating against five-year-olds.
Here’s what I’ve learned about staying active into my late forties. The first section is general suggestions on getting (or staying) active and the second is a few ways I’ve adapted to having an aging active body…while refusing to give in.
Find the Thing
Figure out what activity you enjoy. I think if you only marginally tolerate exercise, it’s a struggle to make yourself work at it hard enough to stay in shape. I’m fortunate that I love the sports I play. I don’t have to convince myself to play them, to make the time, to go all out. But I’m not a runner, for example. If I had to stay in shape by jogging I would get very unhappy in about two days. I can run 3-5 miles, but if I run hard enough to push myself, mostly my thoughts go like this:
“Wow, this hurts.
Huh this still hurts.
Would you look at that? it hurts.”
Someone very dear to me recently took up kick-boxing. I would never have pictured it, but she likes it enough to be more active. Another wonderful friend recently started Orange Theory Fitness and says it has changed her life. Find the thing. If you haven’t found the thing and think you hate activity, I’m suggesting you have yet to try the right one. One more amazing woman has a passion for roller derby. Roller freaking derby! And she’s gotten into fantastic shape and it has made her life better and more full of joy and community (and slamming into people). My happy place is throwing or chasing a piece of plastic. What’s yours?
Some of you know the sports you like but just “don’t do that anymore.” I want to go on record as saying it’s not more adult to stop playing sports. Yes, there are times when adult life requires us to prioritize some things over others, but there is nothing responsible or mature about not taking care of your body. Granted, if you played American football in high school and you’re in your sixties now, you might need to find a satisfactory alternative.
Some folks are very happy going to the gym four times a week, lifting some weights, running on the treadmill, and I say more power to you! For me, being able to continue playing competitive sports motivates me to stay in shape. I simply need a goal to keep me focused, to keep me working out. Keeping up with 16- to 25-year-olds (and certain 30- and 40-somethings) on a field or a court does that.
Also, and more importantly, I have a 9-year-old son. I committed, when I became an “older father,” to stay active for him and for my daughters. Doing the math, I will be 58 when he’s 19 and I’m determined still to be able to run and play sports with him then. My personal goal is to be able to play him one-on-one in basketball when he’s 18 and not embarrass myself. If he doesn’t like basketball, the general idea still applies to whatever he does like.
My point is, what motivates you? I work out and keep in shape because I love ultimate and I work out and keep in shape and play ultimate because I love my children and my wife and want to stay active and healthy for them.*
Gimme a “Y!”
Now I’m going to tell you a crucial non-secret to my still being able to sprint up and down a field for two hours in the Managua heat: I do yoga.
Sometime in my late 30’s, when I was spending more time injured than playing, it dawned on me that staying in good cardiovascular shape wasn’t going to be enough. Even having good muscle tone wouldn’t cut it. I had a nagging, recurring injury in both calves, just above the achilles, and nothing I did seemed to prevent it–until a sports therapy guy explained that my problem wasn’t in my achilles or calves but in my hips. They were very inflexible (there’s a political joke here somewhere, but I’m going to let it pass). I had done some basic stretching that I’d learned in school sports–some of which was wrong–but I got serious about yoga when I realized it was that or stop playing.
I know some folks are spooked by the spirituality associated with yoga. I don’t do any of that. I pray to Jesus, the same one I always pray to, while I’m doing yoga. In fact, doing yoga and praying is the one thing that, if I will take the 20-30 minutes, will always lift my mood. Even just sitting and praying doesn’t always do that for me. This makes sense to me, because we are souls and bodies united, inextricably intertwined. If I can make myself do it,** I can alleviate depression, cope better with anger, relieve stress, all through those thirty minutes of yoga. So yeah, I’m a big advocate.
But focusing on our topic, when I was in high school I could not touch my toes. When I was thirty, I could not touch my toes. Nowadays, after a few minutes of yoga I can palm the ground. I am absolutely convinced that I can still play sports because I took up yoga. Don’t be put off by perceived weirdness or spirituality you disagree with–there are many varieties of yoga and some of them have no hint of spirituality that might make you uncomfortable. And don’t write me off as a heretic–Jesus and yoga go together in my life.
This quote sums up what I’ve learned:
Aging is a deterioration of connective tissue. The stiffness, shrinkage, and drying up of aging occur directly in that great web of fiber that ties us together. What exercise does is resist this stiffening. Most of those complex physiological processes that we call training come, at bottom, to maintaining the lively resilience of our connective tissue. Age is what makes it tight, movement is what keeps it loose. If you can’t stay young, stay loose.
John Jerome, The Elements of Effort
I’m often childish and immature, yet this birthday still seems to be happening, so staying young isn’t working. Thus, I’m staying loose.
Eating To Be Active
Eating well is crucial to staying active. I’m not going to give you my exact eating habits, because I don’t think that’s the point. I’m figuring out what’s working for me. I think improvement in all areas of our lives usually comes through small steps in the right direction. Sometimes small steps have big results.
I live in a land with wonderful, abundant, inexpensive fruit. It’s not the fruit of the Pacific Northwest that we miss so much, but tropical fruit also rocks. Almost every day, one of my meals is a smoothie. I usually add almonds for protein, and will throw in pretty much any fruit we have on hand, fresh or frozen, meaning usually some combo of: pineapple, watermelon, banana, mango, pitaya (dragon fruit) cantaloupe (just “melon” here), lemon, papaya, calala (passion fruit), plus chia seeds, mint (big winner!), spinach, cucumber, and dates. Kim is much braver and will throw in veggies galore. Her smoothies are always good, I just don’t always watch when she’s making them.
Switching to having a smoothie meal every day has made staying in the shape I’m after much easier. Far from losing on nutrition, I’m doing better than I used to at getting all my servings of fruits and vegetables each day. I’m a big proponent of making the fruits and veggies the massive base of the pyramid.
I know a lot of people who used to eat terribly and have changed their habits. I would include myself in that crowd. When you eat so poorly, you don’t think you feel bad because it’s what you’re used to. In other words, you don’t know what feeling good feels like! A constant diet of fast food, for example, tastes good, gives the sugar and salt and (bad) fats high, and even though there’s the crash afterward, that’s just normal, right?
Changing eating habits requires enough time for your body to start recognizing how “good” actually feels. it may involve some withdrawal. Large amounts of processed sugar give a lovely hit! Losing that regular high feels worse…until it starts feeling a lot better. I’m talking from personal experience now. I still eat much more white sugar than is good for me, but I’ve also learned that if I try to be absolute, I end up in the abstain/binge cycle, and I really hate that. I’m learning moderation, which is coming late in my life (see above about “childish”), but I’m all the more grateful for it’s arrival. Also, I like chocolate as much or more than anyone else I’ve met, male or female. So, knowing that I will eat chocolate, I budget for that. I avoid desserts or snacks that I like less, knowing that I’m going to want chocolate anyway.
Here’s my testimony: eating poorly now makes me feel awful. A greasy burger and fries might smell and taste delicious, but my body quickly reports that was a bad idea! When I was visiting the States, I went with my best friends from high school to a restaurant specializing in big burgers and other massive sandwiches…and I had a salad. With chicken. And they mocked me, as I knew they would. And getting “the business” from them didn’t feel nearly as bad as digesting one of those sandwiches would have felt.
My suggestion is start small. Make one change at a time. Do real research on nutrition. Watch a couple documentaries. Fed Up is excellent and gives you the indelicate truth about processed sugar. Then pick out something you could take out if you’re eating unhealthily and something you could add that you’d enjoy. I love the smoothies I make. As with exercise, I think if eating healthy feels like a chore or being robbed of something enjoyable in life, we’re much less likely to do it. So if you want to eat healthier, start with something you already like.
It’s also both…and. We’ve developed our current tastes and we can develop new ones intentionally, pro-actively. I used to gag on broccoli, but I knew it was healthy and I just set myself to learn to tolerate it. I now enjoy it, not even slathered with cheese but just straight up. I didn’t used to be a salad eater, but now I’d choose a hearty salad over a greasy sandwich nine out of ten times. Maybe eight. Most of the time.
Okay, that’s my encouragement on healthy habits. Change is hard. Always. But in the long run, positive changes are much easier than dealing with the consequences of bad habits.
Accepting (a Few) Limitations
Here are a couple of adjustments I’ve made with age: I now walk more than I jog. If I’m trying to get cardio exercise, I will not run on pavement. I mean almost never. I have to be extremely desperate to do that now. It’s just too hard on my legs and does more harm than good. Walking fast–I know, this sounds like I’m a geezer–does as much good for what I’m after and costs me much less, as in, I never get injured walking but I used to get injured somewhat regularly when I jogged. And I didn’t even like jogging, I just did it to be able to run for my sports. Turns out if I run in my sports, do yoga, and walk hard, I get the same bennies. And I’m happier. I find it easier to pray when I’m walking fast than jogging, because of the aforementioned mental dialogue.
I don’t lift weights as much as I used to because it’s too hard on my joints. I still lift some, I still do some push-ups and crunches and pull-ups and whatnot, but I’ve cut way down. I had to give up some vanity on this one for the good of my body. I could look more buff, but again, the frequency of pain and injury was too high. Yes, someone will quickly point out that I was doing it wrong if I kept getting injured. Probably true. If you have a personal trainer or belong to a gym with good instructors, awesome. I don’t and cutting back was a good trade-off for me. Again, my goal is to play the sports I love. I’d like the edge of being a bit stronger, but not at the cost of being on the disabled list for weeks or a month at a time, which had started to happen (especially from shoulder pain).
Keeping Up Is Not Keeping Up
Here is a grim truth: I have to work much harder to maintain what I can now do. I’m not as fast or as agile as I was, I don’t jump as high or bounce back as quickly. I gain weight faster and lose it slower. And for this current level of ability, I have to work about ten times harder than I once did, when I could get in shape in a week and all I had to do was show up to play. Now I have to eat right and do yoga and exercise with little impact on the days in between and do some more yoga and limit my bad foods and wrap my ankles and plan carefully for my pre-game meals and drink a lot of water and a homemade electrolyte/protein drink and did I mention the yoga?
But the alternative is to quit. I’m not quitting. I hope at fifty-eight I’m writing about how this can be done into ones sixties. I’ve seen guys do it (looking at you, Andy). I’m aiming for that. Having role models helps.
I was talking with a couple of guys near my age recently. We’ve all played sports a long time. Those discussions spurred this post. We all know we were better athletes when we were younger. We might be wiser and craftier and possibly even more skilled now (I can throw a disc much more accurately now than I could in my twenties) but we still can’t do what we used to.
The dynamic tension is this: I must learn to be content with what I can do now while still striving for my best and resisting the further degradation of my abilities with every fiber of my being. Bottom line, that’s the fire that keeps me running. I can still do this. I still want to do this. I want to do this as well as I can for as long as I can. I will not go gentle into that good night.
Yet the flip side is I am so much more grateful for every day I can play, for every chance to run hard and experience joy (for me, a way of worship God) in exercise and exertion, for the ability to push myself and test my limits and press a little beyond what I thought I could do. I’m so grateful to be able to play sports with my kids! I love coaching and helping young folks develop their character and all the strengths and healthy habits that sports can imbue.
So gratitude makes contentment possible, even as I’m striving for more. Even as I’m pushing myself harder.
I’ll end with this: I struggle with depression and playing sports, exercising all out at least a few times a week, is a crucial element of keeping myself stable emotionally. Those natural highs of my beloved endorphins that God designed into our systems serve as my leveling mechanism. My wife, who loves and understands me, graciously allows and encourages me to do what I need to do to be healthy (btw, she also does yoga every morning). I have the funny “advantage” of not only enjoying my sports but also relying on them for my emotional and mental health.
As I think about it, though, I don’t believe I’m different than everyone else in this regard,I may simply experience it to a greater degree: everyone’s emotional and mental health, long-term, depends on staying active. God made us this way.
And I’m grateful.
I’m also going to get to that disc next time.
*Through no fault of his own, and in spite of having been a great athlete, my dad was not able to be very active when I was growing up, especially as I reached my teen years.
**Everyone who deals with depression is familiar with the line between when I can do good things for myself and when I feel incapable of making those choices (or of caring).