What Seniors Can Teach Us About Fitness and Not Giving Up

When Elinor and Bob walked into my class, I thought, “Ugh, time to babysit.” I thought this because they were in their 70s. But working with them taught me valuable lessons about my own perspective.

At some point I’ll have to hang it up. Thankfully, It’s still a ways off (knock on wood) but the reality is there is an endpoint for all of us. One by one, I’ll have to put the running shoes, the road bike, and the boxing gloves up on the shelf. Sometimes I think of those glory years down the road – maybe a few rounds of golf here and there, watching Wheel Of Fortune every night, and of course, naps every afternoon. In time there has to be a cut off from being fit and participating in vigorous exercise. I’ve always assumed that cut off to be around 65, but who am I to say?

A few weeks back an elderly couple came into my group fitness studio to sign up for some classes. We’re not talking about SilverSneakers classes; we’re talking about intense heart rate interval training. This couple, in their early seventies, are here in Colorado visiting their son for the summer and wanted to try their hand at the exercise classes their son as been doing. Their son, Wes, is an internationally competitive ultimate Frisbee player, is super fit, and absolutely kills it in class. At the sight of an elderly couple walking into the studio, I had to chuckle – then I realized they were serious.

Elinor and Bob came in armed with questions and thankfully their son, super-fit Wes, was there to help answer those questions and show them the ropes. I was happy to help coach them through their hesitation and questions but honestly part of me thought, “Oh great, here we go.” For me, when an elderly person, or for that matter a person very out of shape, comes into the studio, I put on a warm and generous smile, but inside I’m thinking, “Ugh, time to babysit. I have a class to run here.” As a trainer, exercise instructor, and boxing coach, I liken myself to be tough and demanding. I aspire to coach people who bring their A-game to the gym, every time. I do tough workouts. You aren’t going to find me running a Curves any time soon.

However, the tough guy and drill instructor approach doesn’t work for everyone, and everyone who shows up to exercise is afforded respect. Bringing our A-game is all well and good, but it means a very different thing for Wes than it does for Elinor or Bob. We should indeed bring our best each and every time we step between the lines, so to speak, but we are all on a continuum of health, fitness, and aging, and we have to know where we are in order to know how to respond to the task in front of us. Overtraining when you are out of shape or injured is simply arrogant while continuing to show up in an intimidating environment when you are out of shape or way older than the rest of the group is gutsy – really gutsy. What tremendous courage Elinor and Bob displayed by even attempting class, let alone continuing to come back for more, which they have.

I used to have a quotation taped to my mirror: “Never, never, never give up.” Winston Churchill certainly helped rally Great Britain against the tyranny of Nazi Germany with such resolve. I used to think it meant never quit or surrender, under any circumstance, no matter what. Such perspective got me in trouble and I have now realized that knowing when and how to fight (or play, exercise, participate) is a better piece of wisdom.

Indeed, the most important thing we can do in our fitness and wellness journey is to know ourselves and do our best within that construct of that self-knowledge. Sometimes knowing ourselves means knowing when to quit and sometimes it means still showing up when we are tired, uncomfortable, or old. In the boxing gym it took me two ruptured eardrums before I learned when to say when. In life, it took a divorce before I learned that never giving up could be disastrous. There is indeed a sweet spot between never quitting and not wanting to get uncomfortable or even try. Muhammad Ali probably should have retired after beating Joe Frazier, the first time. Of course hindsight is always twenty/twenty.

Giving up as it relates to age is a different matter. Human bodies are meant to move, even at seventy. I intend to move mine until the end. That said, I also intend to be smart about it. I’ve had enough injuries and setbacks from pushing too hard. I am resolved to have no more ruptured eardrums, or divorces for that matter. Avoiding injury physically and emotionally is about finding that balance between getting ourselves in the wrong situations (pushing too hard) and knowing when it’s time to keep pushing or push even harder.

aging, mature athletes, masters athletes, getting older, aging athletesSeniors teach us a lot about fitness. When I taught SilverSneakers back in the day in Seattle, I was always struck by the warmth with which they exercised. I never saw a senior pissed off that they couldn’t move with intensity like they perhaps used to. When I exercise, I tend to have a scowl on my face, as if I am almost mad at the world.

As I rounded the corner past forty, and suffered some of those physical and emotional setbacks, I started thinking a little more about that. I even put a little Sinatra on my gym playlist, just to make me smile every once in a while. It’s okay to smile and express warmth and compassion at the gym. Seniors are happy to be at the gym, because they are still moving. Instead of looking at life through the lens of what’s lost, comparing themselves with what they used to be able to do, here they are still showing up. We are all going in that direction – getting older, that is. Accepting our limitations and yet still showing up is half the battle. Maybe that’s what Churchill meant.

The reality is the world needs more Elinors and Bobs – those with the resolve to face an unfamiliar and challenging environment even though the mind and body perhaps say it’s time to relax. So, Elinor and Bob keep coming back for more, at even at seventy-something. Every day is a new day to face our health, our fitness, our challenges. Yogi Berra famously coined the phrase, “It ain’t over til it’s over.” Exactly, Yogi. Exactly.

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