In your 20s, 30s and 40s, you were often rewarded for taking bold steps. If you failed, bouncing back was hard work, but nonetheless do-able.
My sense is that at 70, though, I don’t have a lot of room for error. As the old adage goes, I need to be measuring twice and cutting once. Sally and I have coined a phrase that we use to remind ourselves of our new status whenever we face a choice with a potentially steep down-side: “Smart…not brave.”
So I put on sneakers before I climb a ladder instead of going barefoot. I use a cart to bring in the groceries instead of trying to make a single trip carrying all the bags in my arms. Although I normally walk the three flights of stairs up to our apartment, I’ll take the elevator when I’m carrying a package. Get it? Smart…not brave.
But nowhere is my new age-appropriate approach more visible than in my exercise routine.
I’ve been running/jogging on-and-off since I was fourteen. Up until now, my goal was always the same: run farther faster. That meant pushing myself in my workouts, running at an ever faster pace, and running greater distances.
My event in high school was the 2-mile. I was never any good at it, but I worked hard and earned the respect of my teammates. I scored enough points in track meets to earn my varsity letter in my junior and senior years.
In those days, it was all about guts and glory. Pushing yourself to go beyond your limits. There was a phenomenon we called ‘the rigs’ (short for ‘rigor mortis’) which occurred during the sprint to the finish when you had already given your all. Your arms and legs would refuse to respond to your screams to go faster. It seemed like you were moving in slow motion. You were helpless as other runners passed you.
It was a state of oxygen deprivation. Your heart can only pump so much blood to your muscles, but you had exceeded its limit…and you still had 100 yards to go.
If I were to exert that kind of effort today, it would probably be the end of me! Fortunately, though, there is no need to try because my purpose in running has now changed dramatically. It’s no longer farther faster. I’m now running to live longer with a high-functioning brain. That makes all the difference in the world.
I no longer need to work out at my maximum heart rate. Twenty to thirty beats per minute below that will more than suffice to guarantee a free-running and fresh supply of blood to my brain and thereby reap the cognitive benefits of exercise.
Consequently, the toughest part of establishing my new routine is to resist the temptation to add distance or to run faster in each workout. I have to keep reminding myself to be smart, not brave, and that the new goal is 150 minutes/week of exertion…not running a new personal best. In essence, the goal is now the workout itself and not my running performance on race day.
The new approach spills over into my weight training, too. Up until now, the goal of lifting was to support my running. There were certain muscle groups (e.g., the ones you use in the motion to pump your arms and to run up hills) that I wanted to be bigger, stronger, and to have more endurance.
The goal of weight training in a brain-healthy lifestyle, however, is not bigger and stronger muscles. The goal is to engage more neurons and to develop more synapses. You do this, not by lifting more weight, but by doing a variety of different exercises at a challenging but comfortable weight. There’s actually a study that found this approach to be more supportive of brain health than the traditional muscle-building type of workout.
As luck would have it, the upper body resistance machines in our fitness center are all constructed so you can do each exercise with both hands or with either hand separately, and there are usually two different grips you can use.
I take advantage of this design feature in order to engage as much of my brain as possible. I’ll do one set of 15 repetitions using both arms, and then 1 set of 15 each using my left arm alone and then my right arm alone. I’ll also vary the grip.
I’ve now been doing weight training for six months and this past week was the first time I increased the resistance. Smart, not brave, as I can’t afford to pull, tear or injure any of my body parts. I don’t even want to think about how long the recovery period might be. The beautiful thing, though, is that I don’t have to push the envelope anymore.
My final concession to my ‘smart, not brave’ approach is to work out four days in a row and then take a day off to let my body recover. I’ll be honest, though: I have to keep reminding myself that the goal is 150 minutes/week and not exercising every day.
So far, it all seems to be working. Once I finish losing all the extra weight I’ve been carrying (30 pounds gone; 10 to go), I know I’ll start thinking about running some 5k races in the spring. It will be interesting to see how I handle it. I hope I’ll be smart…not brave!
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