Your Invincible Years are Over: how to stay strong, fit and pain free as you age

Old Superman #famousoldies

I used to beat the hell out of my body when I was in high school.  I played soccer, basketball, rugby and a variety of other sports on almost a daily basis.  I would bang and crash and hurt myself, but it never really slowed me down because I just took it for granted that within a few days or a few weeks my body would heal up and be ready for more.  In University I tested my body with little sleep, more sports and a lot more alcohol, but I still always bounced back and kept going.  Around my mid-twenties to early thirties a few things happened that started changing my perspective on life.

By the age of twenty four, I had completed two university degrees and was officially a registered physiotherapist.  I’d like to think I was a lot smarter after six years of university, but I learned much more in the following six to ten years than I ever did in school.  It was a time when my body seemed to start getting less and less invincible and I started gaining more and more perspective on the importance of physical health.  I still played soccer, hockey and squash, but my body started taking longer and longer to recover; things that used to take days to feel better, starting taking weeks and I was forced to consider the physical consequences of my activity choices more than ever.

As a physiotherapist, working with clients from nine to ninety years old, I started recognizing that I was not alone in the weakening of my invincibility around age thirty.  I would hear an average of ten ‘getting old sucks’ complaints a week, equally spread amongst the thirty, forty and fifty year-olds.  The sixty and seventy year-olds tended to phrase it more around ‘this old body is falling apart,’ and the eighty to ninety year-olds just seemed to be happy if something actually didn’t hurt.  Thirty seems to be age where people’s cognitive self-awareness improves, responsibilities grow, financial and emotional stressors hit new highs, all at the same time their physical bodies are starting to decline.  It is a perfect recipe for things starting to hurt or get injured.

The following is the typical mindset I try to create in my clients to help take them from a place of pain and stiffness to a place of comfort, control, awareness and health in their bodies.

Principles to understand:

  1. Understand what genetics has given you to work with (Nature)
  2. Appreciate what you have done with what genetics has given you (Nurture)
  3. Analyze other people’s postures and movements and reflect on your own
  4. Think about what you like doing physically and make time for it, then stop feeling bad for not doing things that you hate (going to the gym)
  5. Learn how to live physically by paying attention to how you stand, sit, walk, bend, lift and move
  6. Understand that your body and your brain need some maintenance: develop a network of people around you to support you with this
  7. Nutrition is important: what you put in your body will affect how you feel

Understand what genetics has given you to work with (Nature)

Some people win the genetic lottery and others get the short end of the stick, unfortunately that is just how it goes.  Some people are naturally gorgeous while others ‘have a good personality.’  Some people naturally have an incredible metabolism and can eat whatever they want while others manage to get fat eating salad and dry toast.  Life is not fair, but you can make the most of what you have, if you actually understand what you have.

Life has a blunt way of letting you know if you happen to be hot, or not, or fat or skinny, but it can be harder to understand how your body is genetically held together.  As we grow up we all just assume that we are built the same, but this is only partially true.  For the most part, we all have the same pieces, but how they are all held together can vary significantly from person to person.  There are about 360 joints in your body.  Imagine how your life would change if I immediately made all of them significantly looser.  To stand up and move, your body has to coordinate all those joints, do you think it is easier or harder to move with loose joints?  Now imagine I immediately made all of your joints twice as stiff; some things would probably be easier and some things would be a lot harder.

You are genetically somewhere on a spectrum of hyper or hypomobility (Click here for more detail).  It has to do with the amount of a protein called elastin that you have in your tissues; some people’s soft tissues become genetically very stretchy and some not so much.  As you can imagine there are pro’s and con’s to being on either end of the spectrum, but most people are best suited to be right in the middle.  Unfortunately, as is the case with genetics, you don’t really get a choice so you need to learn how to make the most of what you’ve got and make good decisions on things like the sports and careers you choose.

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Appreciate what you have done with what genetics has given you? (Nurture)

Just like a good personality won’t get you very far in your modelling career, being hypermobile doesn’t do wonders for your dreams of being a pro football player or a desk jockey for that matter.  Hypermobile people excel in sports and jobs that allow them to move freely, but quickly fall apart when asked to sit at a desk, carry heavy things all day, or tackle moving targets.  Conversely hypomobile people are good a staying still, but shouldn’t really set their sights on the Boston Marathon.

The trouble is, that we want to do what we want to do, regardless of what hand genetics has dealt us.  It is actually a lot of what keeps me busy as a physiotherapist.  I regularly see loosey-goosey accountants, receptionists and lawyers that are just having trouble sitting at their desk all day, as well as a surprising number of shapes and sizes deciding to take on the Ironman triathlon as their new challenge.  I get the task of trying to fix the damage they may have done and then help them use what they’ve got more efficiently to do what they want to do even though they might not be really built for it.

Only a few times have I told a client very bluntly that they should just pick another sport or career because their body just won’t tolerate the punishment they are giving it, but on a daily basis I challenge my clients to stop taking their bodies’ for granted.  You become the cumulative effect of everything you have done or experienced up to the current moment.  Genetics gives you the platform that you have to work with, but your body reacts to the forces and stresses you put on it.  Your current pain, posture and flexibility are a reflection of your past and how you choose to sit, stand, walk, breathe and move today will determine how you feel in the future.

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Analyze other people’s postures and movements and reflect on your own

It is hard when someone challenges how you do something that you have taken for granted as long as you can remember.  I like to say to people: ‘just because you can stand, sit, walk and breathe, doesn’t mean you do any of them very well.’  I know that doesn’t sound very nice, but the truth can be harsh and a key ingredient to change.  The first time I start picking on a person’s posture, I try to encourage her to see what I am talking about in a mirror.  I don’t ask her to go out and try and change everything about how she holds herself, instead I ask her to be aware of what I pointed out and start analyzing other people’s postures around her.

Most people just stand how they stand and walk how they walk without much thought about it, so it becomes hard to change something that they don’t have a strong awareness of.  Start watching how people stand in line ups, bus stops and coffee shops.  Look how people walk in flip flops, running shoes or high heels.  You will start to notice that some look and move like you and some look much different, yet they are all able to function in this world…some better than others.

You’ll start to notice that some people stand with their feet crossed, some people stand with their pelvis in front of them, some peoples’ butts stick out way behind them and others have their head way in front of their body.  These postures have developed from how each person developed a strategy to hold all his/her 360 joints vertically together as a kid and have been molded by watching their parents, anxieties and stresses at school, the muscular demands of sports, and the injuries they have suffered along the way.

You may have been a hypermobile girl that started dance classes at age 3 and developed a big sway back, then where embarrassed when you developed breasts earlier than your friends in school and slouched your shoulders and trunk forward to hide them, and later in life became a lawyer that likes to run.  All of those things will have molded how you subconsciously move today for better or worse.  If you are experiencing pain and stiffness that you just can’t seem to resolve and/or treatments like physio, chiro or massage only ever seem to yield temporary relief, you most likely need to reflect on what you are doing with your body all day because ‘you are what you do repeatedly.’  It’s never too late to change things in your body, it just takes awareness, persistence and a little help.

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Learn how to live physically by paying attention to how you stand, sit, walk, bend, lift and move

Remaining vertical all day is a form of exercise because gravity is constantly trying to flatten you into the ground.  There is a reason that all of the other animals on earth don’t walk erect like we do…because it is hard!  There are mechanical advantages to being vertical but it also makes us more susceptible to the unrelenting forces of gravity.  I regularly tell people that ‘sitting at your desk all day can be harder on your body than a contact sport,’ and I believe it to be true if the person has no awareness of how he is holding himself for 8+ hours a day.

Some people are very sedentary and would probably gain the most benefit by someone encouraging them to just move more.  Most people move a reasonable amount and would gain the most benefit by learning to move more efficiently.  Still others actually move too much and could take a lesson from African lions on lying around and doing nothing once in a while.  Some times less is more.  I like to focus on the bigger middle group that thinks they need to do more, but stresses that they don’t have time, when all they really need to do is start living physically.

There is ample opportunity in a day to get some exercise in what you already do.  Getting up and down from chairs, bending to pick things up, sitting on the toilet, lifting your kids, climbing stairs, carrying your groceries, I could go on and on.  The trouble is, your body is inherently lazy and will always cheat to take the plane of least resistance in how you move.  Your subconscious brain will allow you to move in a coordinated way, but your conscious brain will do a way better job if you learn how to use it.

Discovering how to find and use the manual override function of your movement autopilot will help you to live physically.  Moving properly will likely be more physically and cognitively challenging for a while because you will be fighting against all of your old movement patterns and muscle imbalances, but if you persist through the initial frustration of it you will find that you become more flexible, stronger and things will hurt less without you actually doing more.  Learn how to use your legs and core to squat and bend.  Learn how to breathe well.  Learn how to use your skeleton to hold you up more than your muscles and ligaments in standing and sitting.  Discover what your feet do.  Reach up more.  Think and be aware.

Once you have a good understanding of how to use your body during day to day life, you are ready to push it further with strength and endurance training.  The best way to get hurt while exercising is to ignore your body all day and then try to get it stronger or faster for one to two hours of exercise.  In my experience, the fourteen hours of awareness in daily tasks trumps the benefit of one hour of fitness.  In fact, the one hour of fitness without the body awareness is commonly detrimental by further enforcing poor movement patterns and muscle imbalances.  I promise you, you will have a better long term outcome by addressing your daily movements and postures before pursuing fitness.

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Think about what you like doing physically and make time for it, then stop feeling bad for not doing the things that you hate (going to the gym)

Lack of flexibility is not directly proportional to how much you don’t stretch just as a lack of ‘fitness’ is not directly proportional to how much you don’t go to the gym.  If you hate going to the gym, don’t go to the gym, but find something physical that you enjoy doing.  If you hate stretching, learn to move well and you probably don’t need to stretch.

Health and well being are a lifestyle.  We tend to make time for things in life that we enjoy and tend to make excuses for the things we don’t.  If you want to be successful at improving your health, start by simply paying attention to how you already do the things you do throughout the day.  Look in a mirror more, think about how you get up and down out of your chair, take the stairs and start making some notes about what you are doing and turn those notes into goals about what you want to change.  There is ample opportunity in a day to live physically, but most people will migrate unknowingly to the lazy option.

Almost everybody will feel better physically and emotionally when they get some form of physical exercise, just find the one you like and go with it…..who cares what others are doing.

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Understand that your body and your brain need some maintenance: develop a network of people around you to support you with this

Preventative health is all about awareness and maintenance.  Consider your body to be a machine that needs occasional tune ups, both physically and cognitively and recognize that you can’t do that entirely yourself.  You have to do most of it yourself, but you will likely need some guidance and treatment to keep you going in the right direction; your doctor should only be a part of this team, not the leader.  A couple of allied health practitioners like a good physio, massage therapist and maybe a personal trainer should be able to handle the physical side of things while a naturopath or nutritionist would be very helpful to address your physiologic needs.

From the cognitive side, I think who you need, depends a lot on your past.  People with a lot of emotional baggage related to their family life can really benefit from semi-regular visits with a counselor to help them understand how their past is affecting their present and future.  Cognitive issues like stress and anxiety wreak havoc on your body, but are both things that can be addressed when a person is ready and willing to deal with them.  I also think people need a friend, relative or professional associate to play a mentor role in their lives to help give them some direction and set goals for the future.  I see too many people in pain that are mentally caught in the present or past and just need someone to help them look forward to break the cycle of pain and many times the depression that can come along with it.

I know that sounds like a lot of people, but you don’t have to utilize them all at once.  Build relationships with allied health workers so you can call on them when needed and if something goes wrong you will feel supported in knowing you will get through it.  Don’t rely on your doctor to fulfill all of these roles because he can’t and you will just resent him if you think that is his job.  Speaking from experience with my clients, the people that have built a network around them tend to live happier and healthier lives, with less stress and pain to interfere.

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Nutrition is important: what you put in your body will affect how you feel

I will be the first to admit that nutrition is not my area of expertise; that being said I have a growing awareness of how important a role food sensitivities can play in people’s pain, energy and overall well-being.  The further I delve into the world of visceral manipulation (physically treating your organs), the more I consider different foods as irritants to the body.  I have come to understand the connectivity of your digestive tract and your nervous system and now more than ever I question my clients about their diet.

Consider talking to a holistic nutritionist, naturopath or just start reading on the subject.  I like some of the work author Tim Ferriss discusses here on his blog and also one of my personal trainer associates Kyle Coventry discusses here on his.

In closing…

In the end, it is your body and you get to choose what you do with it, but trust me when I say it is never too late to improve things and you can teach an old dog new tricks!

This website is set up to help you learn something about yourself by reading and watching videos, but I hope it also inspires you reflect on your relationship with your body and start implementing some small changes.

Enjoy the journey!  Feel free to leave comments below.

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