A midlife reincarnation through exercise changed everything for me. And here’s some good news: A new study shows that even people who don’t start working out until middle-age enjoy a longer life, similar to those who start younger!
My “getting fit” story starts about 6 weeks after my 40th birthday and hasn’t ended decades later.
We had a freak April storm that dropped 18 inches of wet, heavy snow. My car had broken down, so I trudged the mile and a half to my daughter’s elementary school, where I was working with the children to publish a school newspaper. I rode the school bus home. The next morning, I hurt all over and could barely roll out of bed. As I dressed, I caught a glimpse of something in the mirror. Whoa! That pale, bloated, ungainly, creature was me! I call what happened next my “good-animal moment.” Seeing, really seeing, my physical self for the first time, a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson popped into my mind:
First, be a good animal.
In a flash of awareness, I realized that I hadn’t honored my animal self, the essential foundation of the mind and spirit that I’d been cultivating. A bit later, I came across another line from the great runner-
cardiologist-philosopher George Sheehan that explained my situation to a T:
“Everyone is an athlete. But some of us are training, and some of us are not.”
Starting workouts in middle age tied to longer life
A 2019 U.S. study suggests that even people who don’t start working out until middle-age reap many of the same health benefits as their younger peers!
The study first looked at youth through middle age and found that those who exercised were “36 percent less likely to die of any cause” than people who were inactive.
But here’s the surprise! The longevity benefit was similar when inactive people got moving only when they were between 40 and 61! When previously sedentary people started exercising in middle age, they were 35 percent less likely to die of all causes during the study than if they remained inactive! To quote a study leader from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland:
“We were very pleased to see that individuals who increased their exercise participation only later in adulthood still enjoyed the health benefits associated with exercise participation. These findings suggest that if you’re active in early adulthood, stay active. If you’re in your 40 to 60s and you have not been active for a long time, it’s not too late to start exercising now.”
Training for life
That April, I started walking a mile every day, then two, then three. (Tip: Being careful not to do too much too soon and gradually increase exercise.)
I didn’t trust the slug within, so for the next 4 months, I slept every night in shorts, T-shirt—even my shoes—and headed out the door before I got busy with anything else.
(Tip: If you don’t want to sleep in your clothes, commit to getting your exercise clothes out for the next day and then setting your alarm to wake up 30 minutes earlier. Perhaps that first morning, you don’t even exercise. Just practice prepping your exercise clothes the night before and exercise 10 minutes the second day. It’s all about establishing a behavior.)
In late May, I taught myself to run a mile, one telephone pole at a time. I remember the day when I arrived at the stern No Passing sign half a mile from my house and ran right by.
(If your motivation wanes, change it up. If you stumble, pick yourself up. We all fall. As with everything in life, identify the problem and and take action. Get those healthy habits ingrained.)
I began resistance training with weights at the gym where my daughter took gymnastics lessons. By the end of that first year, I’d lost 70 pounds, gained a set of shapely muscles, and found a running partner who became my best friend. Every Saturday for 16 years, we slipped out while our families were still asleep and ran together for a couple of hours.
The following spring, I bought a cheap 12-speed bicycle and a helmet and vowed to work up to riding at least 50 miles a week. I joined a running group. I sewed myself a bathing suit from a remnant of hot-pink spandex and trained myself to swim for an hour at a steady speed in the pond behind my house. That June, I entered my first triathlon. Over the next decade and a half, I would enter 60 more. What a blast!
As I got fitter, I had more energy for daily tasks. I didn’t get colds. I needed less sleep. My intuition sharpened. I felt smarter and more alive. I found that I could split wood for 6 hours straight. Shoveling compost and snow felt easier. My bicycle turned into real transportation; my commuting miles often added up to more than 100 a week.
When darkness or weather prevented my getting out, I ran stairs, jumped rope on the porch, or turned on the radio and danced around the house. I bought a used bike trainer and pedaled away indoors during the winter, reading books and magazines perched on the bike’s aerobars.
A few years ago, pains in my knees brought me to the orthopedic office, where Dr. Fox diagnosed osteoarthritis. No more knee cartilage. No more running. No more triathlons. I continued to bike, walk, swim, garden, and split wood. I took up serious snowshoeing and water running (either with or without a buoyancy belt). It’s much tougher without the motivation of training partners and summer competitions.
But long before the triathlons, in my chubby days, when running a whole mile had seemed a major life achievement, a guy came up to me at the local corner store, a little smirk on his face. “Seen ya out there runnin’ every day. Whatcha trainin’ for, anyway?”