Hiking out west

Active Aging: Lessons from My Younger Self | Healthy Aging Series: Part 1

I’m old, or at least that’s what gerontologists tell me. I turned sixty-five this past year and that means I’m in the “Young Old” category. I was actually proud of myself when I turned sixty-five. When I was in Air Force basic training, forty-seven years ago, I called home for the first time and was told my maternal grandmother had died at the age of sixty-four from colon cancer. I’ve been holding my breath for these past forty-seven years, and now I can exhale, at least a little until I’m seventy, the age that my paternal grandfather died.  I’ve been holding my breath, while at the same time, preparing for old age, if that makes sense. 

What I’ve proclaimed to people over the past decade is this: “You have to prepare for the last ten years of your life.” The average age of my parent’s deaths is eighty-five years old (Dad died at 82, mom at 87). And so, that means the last ten years of my life will be 75 to 85. How well have I done preparing? Ten years ago I began training to be a Certified Personal Trainer, and more specifically, a Senior Fitness Specialist. I read a lot about fitness and nutrition. I cannot tell you the number of books that I’ve read on these topics, seriously, hundreds. What lessons did I learn to help me as an aging man in his sixties? I’m now reading many, many books on aging, but what lessons did I learned during the past decade that I can teach my present self?

Lesson one from my past self: I’ve learned to take more days off from working out, especially after a very long hike or intense workout.

In other words, I’ve learned to let my body recover. I’ve decreased the intensity of my workouts. I’ve learned that I need to continue to do resistance training 3-4 times a week, but I keep the volume low by using lighter weights, and maybe increasing the number of sets and reps. Sometime, I take a week or maybe two off from resistance training. Live to fight another day.

Lesson two: I’ve learned that I need to cut out sweets and added sugar from my diet.

Thanks to my Fitbit, I’ve learned that sugar and alcohol affect my sleep and I’ve cut back on both. I don’t worry as much as I used to about my weight. I just want to stay strong and keep my percentage of lean muscle mass as high as I can. A little fat is a good thing as you age, but sugar affect everything, including your blood pressure, your immune system, and maybe contributes to illnesses such as cancer. I eat sugar as a luxury: small amounts and occasionally. 

Lesson three from my younger self: I’ve learned to work on my mobility and stability.

In the training world they call this functional fitness. Some call it training to be “fall proof.” I do this by incorporating instability into my workouts.. I’ve learned that the more unstable the surface, the more stable my ankles and legs. I don’t use trekking poles unless I’m doing lots of elevation, like the Incline Trail in Manitou Springs, CO where you gain 2000 ft of elevation in 1 mile. I see older adults wobble when they walk. My mother wobbled as she walked to the Hardees every morning. She fell several times that resulted in serious injuries. Not good. 

Lesson four: I’ve learned that I need to take care of my gut. 

I learned that I need probiotics and prebiotics, and that I need to consider the colony of bacteria living in my gut as a separate entity. I’m eating for two, me and my gut flora. I’ve learned that feeding my microbiota involves eating lots of fiber. It also means that I need to be mindful of the antibiotics that I take and the water I drink. I’ve begun filtering my water to eliminate the effects  of chlorine and other chemicals on my gut bacteria. I haven’t done as well as I’ve wanted by increasing the variety of bacteria strains in my gut, but I keep working on it, because these little creatures affect every aspect of my wellbeing. 

Lesson five: I’ve learned that I need to take care of my brain. 

This is a big one. The two things that promote a healthy brain are: a good night’s sleep, and keeping your brain actively learning new things. I’ve recently asked my doctor to order a sleep study for me. I wake up in the middle of the night and sometimes I have a problem getting back to sleep. Sometimes, I do not get good restorative sleep, which is due to eating sugar or drinking even one drink during the day. I’ve learned that various kinds of mushrooms can promote neurogenesis. So, I drink a mushroom/cacao mixture every morning. And I read and study a lot! I’m in the middle of preparing to write 50 or so blogs on healthy aging by reading as many books as I can on the subject. It all promotes a healthy brain.

Ask yourself, “What have I learned from my younger self?”

What worked for you? What didn’t worked for you? The answers to those questions can serve as a road map for your healthy aging! 

This is part one in the Healthy Aging Series, written by Mark Neese, LCSW, BCBA. To see more entries in this series, click here.