Training as a Senior: Overcoming Fear, Forgetting Age
Written by Timothy Niedermann
Three years ago, after many years of sporadic attempts, I was finally able to get into a regular exercise program. I was a serious long-distance runner throughout my twenties, but afterward, mostly due to job and family, I found myself unable to get into a consistent program of exercise.
By the time I turned sixty, I was frustrated by my lack of fitness. Walking up a moderately steep incline burned my thighs, and I slumped in chairs. I had body aches for no good reason. Though I didn’t exactly feel weak, I knew I wasn’t strong. Then, in 2013, a CrossFit gym opened nearby. I had no excuse not to join. So I did.
It was only as I began to exercise that I realized how out of shape I really was. It wasn’t just age. In fact, it wasn’t even mainly age. What I came to understand was that, although age takes its toll, it is the sedentary lifestyle—spending years at a desk for work, lounging in front of the TV for relaxation—that is the real culprit. Sitting for long periods year after year stretches few muscles, constricts most others. Everything gets weaker and out of balance, to the point where even standing up straight is not a natural movement. Training at an advanced age, therefore, has two elements: building strength and fitness while at the same time undoing the distorting effects on the body that the sedentary lifestyle has inflicted.
In the beginning, I only went to the gym twice a week, but my muscles hurt for days afterwards. But I kept at it. Gradually, most of the pain stopped and I slowly increased my visits to the gym. I began to push harder, and lo and behold, I started getting stronger. A lot stronger. I now often work out six or seven times a week, one of which is solely weightlifting. I am now easily in the best muscular shape of my life, and my strength is far more balanced than when I was a competitive runner.
The lesson is that even if you are over sixty, you can drastically improve your fitness. But I also realize that I had a certain advantage. Most seniors have never trained their bodies athletically. They haven’t experienced the regular pattern of bodily stress and recovery that athletic training consists of. As a result, they often are hesitant to push themselves in the right way. They tend to hold back, and this of course will only delay the desired training effect.
Part of this is understandable prudence, but part of it is also fear. Fear of pain. Fear of injury. Fear of going beyond their physical comfort zone. Never having trained seriously when they were younger, most people don’t know how to adjust mentally to the strain of exercise. They don’t know how to differentiate between discomfort and pain. Every type of training involves some form of discomfort. The idea is to train and get fitter, stronger, until that discomfort disappears. Along the way, yes, things hurt. Good pain, aches that result from pushing your body beyond its comfort zone, is merely a sign that your training is having a positive effect. Bad pain, usually more acute and lingering, is evidence of injury or potential injury. This distinction must be learned. It is a necessary rite of passage.
In the course of my efforts, I have observed a few things about training as a senior that I thought I would share.
- If you are in it to lose weight, you have to do a lot of cardiovascular exercise. But if you really want to get stronger, you’re going to have to lift weights. Weight machines are OK, but to truly get the benefits of weightlifting, use free weights. They improve balance and coordination much more effectively. You don’t have to go heavy but the weights have to weigh enough to be uncomfortable.
- Don’t exercise alone at a gym. To me, the best thing to do is to join a class. Getting one-to-one coaching is fine, but the advantage to working out with a group a class is that you share the experience with others, many of whom have the same issues and goals.
- Do get a good coach, one who is flexible, encouraging, and experienced in dealing with seniors. Many gyms offer this for free.
- A seniors-only class may hold you back. You want to see others at the same stage as yourself, of course, but you also want to see how people who are farther along, to get their encouragement, comradeship and advice.
- Ideally, get in with a mixed bunch. A mixed group aren’t hyper-ripped gym rats any more than you are. Gives you something to talk about as well.
- You will probably discover that you do some things just as well as people who are much younger. That will encourage you to push a little harder than you might if you were only comparing yourself to other seniors.
- Understand you are dealing both with age and the effects of being sedentary. They are different. You need to restore balance as well as gain strength, though you end up doing them at the same time.
- Don’t focus on how you look. There is no one single body type for exercise success. If you need to lose weight, fine. You will. But that’s not the main goal. Fitness is the goal. Embrace the feeling of health and strength it brings. It is liberating.
As a senior, you can indeed make remarkable gains in fitness and revel in the invigorating, even rejuvenating sense of feeling strong and active. Don’t expect to gain fitness or strength as fast as you did when you were younger, but don’t worry about it.
As long as you are committed, the improvements will happen.
Timothy Niedermann is a professional editor, who over his career has dealt with a wide variety of subject matter—including international law and public policy as well as general fiction and non-fiction. He has also taught writing at Yale and McGill. A native of the state of Connecticut, Niedermann moved to Montreal in 1999. He reviews books for the Montreal Review of Books and the Ottawa Review of Books. A graduate of Kenyon College, Mr. Niedermann also attended the University of Freiburg in Germany and holds a J.D. from Case Western Reserve University Law School. He recently published his first novel, Wall of Dust, with Deux Voiliers Publishing.