Aging Gracefully…Aging Athletically!

Lately I’ve been in a rabbit hole studying longevity versus quality of life, and comparing performance to basic functional abilities. I’ve been examining the available literature on these topics as well as trying to be an observant human in the midst of every person in my circle existing as a case study.

The research is quite interesting to say the least. There are many observational studies based on various surveys and questionnaires. These are associative in nature and we have to recognize that they represent correlation as opposed to precise causation. And there are some interventional studies using double-blinded, randomized, controlled trials on human subjects which show specific outcomes in a variety of contexts. 

I’d like to approach the topic of optimized aging by highlighting some societal perspectives and then rolling into what is nothing more than my opinion (albeit one which is well-supported by a healthy dose of science and common sense). 

Length and quality of life aren’t the same things. Let’s refer to them as lifespan (length) and healthspan (quality) since the data suggests that health is strongly correlated with productivity, success, and life satisfaction. In the presence of our advanced medical system, life expectancy (barring unforeseen accidents and illnesses) is more standard across the population than not. But there is a huge difference in health status among our citizens. The healthiest (and fittest) among us may not live much longer than anyone else, but if you ask them they usually say they live better (or best).

Performance and function are pretty much the same thing. Or at least they describe a similar category. This is the answer to the question “Can you do what you want or need to do and how well can you do it?” When you hear the word performance you might think of high skills and winning on the playing field. Of course that’s peak athletic performance but it also includes (or should) work output, relationship participation, and daily engagement on every level. Function sounds more basic such as being able to bathe and feed yourself, live independently and safely, and get from day to day with little calamity and relative ease. 

Movement, activity, training, play, and competition pertain to what we do with this organism, or beast, in which we take the journey of LIFE. In many ways this is no different whether the critter in question is a youth athlete, an Olympian, a middle-aged fitness enthusiast, or an elderly recreator. It’s just scaled appropriately to the individual’s needs. The very same characteristics we attempt to develop in the young person are the ones we wish to preserve (or retard their declination) in advanced maturity. 

The 5 capacities of human performance – or athleticism – are strength, power, speed, agility, and endurance. They are of equal importance and can be presented in any order. They are required, in varying degrees, for every athletic output but they are also necessary for the common aspects of daily life. These 5 capacities form the backbone of not only the training system, but the ethos of TLA.

The problem, as I see it, is twofold. As a society we may not be developing the traits of athleticism optimally in every young person (excluding the most motivated and well-coached athletes). Then, we tend to take for granted the abilities that are available…until they are not there anymore (and it’s arguably too late). Those points are going to require some explaining. 

What I’m not saying is that the world and life are perfect, everybody can live super-healthily to the age of 100, and then die painlessly in their sleep. That’s not realistic. But what I am proposing is that we can do a better job population-wide in developing athleticism, and this can have a profound impact on health, performance, and function. This applies less to our circle of Lifetime Athletes and more to those around us whom we need to pull into our inclusive community. But honestly, we can all do a better job in creating, maintaining, and promoting athleticism as a means to aging more gracefully.

Many folks will bristle at some of my suggestions. They’ll say “I’m not an athlete, never was one, and either can’t or don’t want to be one.” I say bullcrap. Everyone is, can, and should be an athlete. It just depends on definitions. If your goal is peak performance in sports…awesome. But if your wish is to be able to play with your grandkids, engage in recreation, work in your garden, and have a hell of a lot of fun without getting injured, exhausted, or destroyed…that’s equally important. Athleticism is the route. Wouldn’t you like athletic, plaque-free blood vessels? How about athletic, dementia-resistant neurons? A robust, durable, and athletic digestive system? Athletic sexual function? Who’s gonna say no to any of these?

Health and fitness aren’t the same thing, but they are well-linked. You can be quite healthy but in the absence of practicing and training your fitness (use it or lose it) you won’t be as fit as you can be. Conversely, you can be extremely fit but filled with inflammation from living an unbalanced lifestyle and actually end up jeopardizing your health in the process. It’s a game of rights and responsibilities. Everyone deserves (and has the right) to be maximally healthy and also optimally fit. But it is honestly our personal responsibility to pursue and maintain these properties.

Fitness and athleticism aren’t quite the same thing either. When we think of fitness we tend to think of basic endurance that’s tied to cardiorespiratory vitality. We appreciate strength and its relationship to lean body (muscle, bone, and organ) mass and density. And we recognize mobility in measures of range of motion. These things are all good, but they aren’t all there is. Endurance, strength, and mobility are the mere foundation of athleticism. They are the slow properties which basic exercise develops. But the fountain of youth(fulness) lies in the other components of athleticism: speed, power, and agility. 

Speed is the ability to move fast and it is the territory of an optimized central nervous system and Type 2 (fast-twitch) muscle fibers. While there are genetic determinants of speed, they can be heavily influenced by training. They are also quite subject to atrophy with disuse. Watch almost any sport, and for that matter any kid on a playground and you’ll see speed. It’s what winners have. The age-old (couldn’t resist) question is “Do we simply get slower as we age because that’s an unavoidable part of the maturation process or do we get slower because we don’t nourish our speed?” A little of both might be the answer but quite frankly it’s a lot more of the latter than the former. People don’t train true speed enough, and there is a way to do it safely at any age. I do it all the time with people from their teens to their 80’s. #noexcuses #findaway #gofast.

Power is sort of the love-child of strength and speed. Power exists on the force-velocity curve across a broad middle between max strength (1RM) and max velocity. It is the ability to move explosively. Power demands are different across sport and life tasks, but they are of critical importance, both in terms of performance and also injury prevention (a lack of power is often a culprit in tissue overstress).

Agility is another amazing athletic property. It includes that mobility (the ability to move through range) mentioned earlier but it also includes stability, fluidity, and reactivity. Stability necessarily intermingles with mobility to allow for economical, efficient, and effective movement. Fluidity is the artful suppleness that poetic, graceful movers possess. And reactivity is necessary to adjust and execute agile movement in the presence of environmental factors such as surfaces, opponents, and desired outcomes.

Strength-endurance-speed-power-agility come together when you are a MOVEMENTSMITH. This is someone who owns position and has mastery of motion in every direction. Being a movementsmith is one of the key underpinnings of any Lifetime Athlete and it is the expression of being Hard to Kill – on the playing field but also in the game of LIFE. The better you move the better you perform in everything. You keep on winning and having fun in your sports and recreational activities. You keep kicking ass in your daily tasks. And you are less likely to get your ass kicked and wind up with a shorter healthspan. 

I use several critical principles in my work with clients of all ages. We develop athletic fitness. This means we make sure that you don’t just “get in shape or lose weight”…you really develop well-rounded competencies across the movement spectrum. We create athletic longevity. We put in place the knowledge and programming so that you can perpetuate your athleticism through that long healthspan. The secret to this lies in customization and adaptation. You gotta meet yourself where you are (love thyself) and also realize that what got you here (your current condition) probably ain’t gonna get you there (your goal or potential).

Helping people to age MORE gracefully, by aging ATHLETICALLY, is my mission at TLA. It’s the long-term view I take with every coaching client in the consultations, subscriptions, and on our team (The Training Tribe). I use The Lifetime Athlete 5-3-1 System to apply the 5 Components of Lifelong Health (food, movement, sleep, ergonomics, and awareness) to the 3 Essential Elements of Peak Performance (training, recovery, and mindset) to help you become the 1 Lifetime Athlete for which your genes are programmed and that you so richly deserve to be.  I explain the secrets of figuring out who you are as an athlete, what you can be, and how to adjust your exercise and training over your lifespan…in my book AnimalFIT. 

Long term athletic development (LTAD) has been my life’s work and it’s my crusade, both personally and professionally. I hope this discussion has inspired you in some small or even major way. If my services and products can help you in your journey toward aging athletically…all the better. Thanks for joining me today!

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