One of my clients recently had an old friend from university come to stay with him for a few days. Leading up to the visit, my client was pretty excited – he had planned all sorts of things for them to do together, including concerts, museum and gallery visits, and a trip to Jasper to see the mountains.
When he got back to the gym after the visit was over, I asked him how his week had gone. He scowled and told me that although it was good to see his friend again, the visit was frustrating. “It took him ten minutes to get into the car and ten more minutes to get out, with my help,” he said. Apparently they only did a few of the outings he had planned and they didn’t get to the mountains because his friend wasn’t up to the physical challenge. “He’s in terrible shape,” my client ranted. “He can’t do anything.. I spent the whole time looking after him.”
Now, to put this story in context, both men are 74. One has been going to the gym three times a week for the past five years and is in the best shape of his life, and the other one…well, you read the story. The moral here is, of course, use it or lose it. If you don’t get some purposeful activity almost every damn day, your body will break down on you and you won’t be able to do the fun stuff you want to do.
So why oh why are there so many doctors, physiotherapists, and other highly-educated health practitioners out there who tell their older patients not to exercise, or more specifically, not to strength train? WHY?
That’s a rhetorical question, of course; I know the reason why: it’s because they don’t know. They don’t know what the benefits are and they don’t want to be responsible for sending an older person into the weight room when they themselves wouldn’t know where to start.* And they are afraid of the anaphylactic reaction that will happen if they admit out loud that they don’t know something…(wait, was that out loud? Sorry. But not really.)
My first experience with this phenomenon was many years ago. I was working with a lady who, at 62, was in great shape – she was at a healthy weight, no joint problems or underlying health conditions. She stepped in a gopher hole at the dog park and sprained her ankle. She went to a physiotherapist for help with recovery, and the guy asked her why she wanted better function in her ankle. She replied that she wanted to get back to walking in the park with her dogs, she wanted to be able to squat and lunge in the gym again, she – “hang on,” he said. “Nobody your age should be squatting or lunging. And you shouldn’t work with a trainer who asks you to squat or lunge.”
The happy ending to that story is that eight years later she is still working with me. And squatting and lunging like a boss at seventy years old.
These are not isolated incidents. Just yesterday one of my seventy-year-old clients was told by her physiotherapist that she shouldn’t try to reach over her head. Another was told by her doctor recently that she shouldn’t exercise; that she should just “take it easy” instead of walking every morning with the group of ladies that she’s been walking with every single morning for forty years. (And can I just say how amazing I think it is that there is a group of neighbors who have been going for a walk together every day at 6:30am for forty years? How often does that happen?)
It comes down to this: when you start treating your body like it’s delicate, it will become delicate. Age doesn’t matter – you can be fit and strong and healthy whenever you damn well want to (although if you start when you’re eighty it may require some patience, let’s be real). If ANYONE tells you that you shouldn’t be doing something basic like walking or squatting or reaching overhead, they better have a good reason why you shouldn’t do it. And doctors? Stop writing off my older clients – they’ll kick your asses.
*To be fair, there are lots of really great docs and physios out there who do lift and they are slowly changing the field.