When I was in my early 20s, the fitness movement was just taking off. At the time, I was working as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, which is my hometown. In those days, San Francisco didn’t have many health-club options outside the YMCA. As the baby boomers (we’re the generation that refused to grow up) signed up for the fitness revolution, membership at the Y began to swell.
So much so, that the weight room had to be moved from the Y’s dank basement to a sunny, warehouse-sized space on the fifth floor. I remember when the new fitness space was unveiled. It had something few gym-goers had seen before: Nautilus machines, rows of them, shiny and new, like Cadillacs in a showroom. During the Y’s busy hours, members queued up five-deep to use them.
In the early 1970s, the face of fitness was indeed changing.
I don’t know what happened to the gnarly old Russian power lifters and disgruntled Korean War vets who worked out in the Y’s cramped, free-weight basement. They never came upstairs to use the new fitness area. It was during this time that the Y became a co-ed facility, which put an end to nude swimming in its Olympic pool.
As the fitness craze continued to explode, more and more health clubs began opening in San Francisco. It wasn’t long before I said good-bye to the Y, and joined a snazzy club that had opened in the financial district. It offered aerobic classes, then a novelty.
Since the early 1970s, there’s never been a period of my life that I didn’t belong to a health club. Back in my San Francisco days, I never thought that would be the case. I used to think that working out and looking good wasn’t something older people were into. Unlike today, you didn’t see many older people at the health club. If you were older and wanted to look younger, you got a facelift.
I use to reason that when I got to be an old man of 50, I wouldn’t have to take out another health-club membership. Or carry a goofy gym bag. My youth would be gone. As Marianne Williamson says, after 50 the grace period is over. Might as well sit back and let gravity and dehydration do its thing. Yes, I reasoned, there’d be an upside to getting older. By not having to rush off to a gym after work, I could join my co-workers for happy hour at the local bar. Instead of lifting weights, I could be lifting martinis. Life in the 21st century would be easier.
But when I finally did turn 50, I encountered one of life’s many ironies: I needed to exercise more than ever.
I didn’t know that when I was in my 20s or 30s. Not many people outside of Jack LaLanne knew that then. We didn’t have all the anti-aging research we have now. We didn’t have Experience Life magazine to inform us about the lifelong advantages of staying fit.
As research continues to show, the body doesn’t have to wave a white flag to the march of time. Breaking into a sweat on a regular basis is the best anti-aging medicine there is. Since coming to work for Experience Life last February, I’ve learned a few things: To do nothing — to not work out or eat right — is to risk losing 10 percent of your bone mass per decade after the age of 40. Weightlifting and resistance training not only slow muscle loss, they can even reverse it. With each decade after age 30, inactive people lose 10 percent of their VO2 max — that being the maximum amount of oxygen a body can take in during exercise. Working out can slow that loss by as much as half.
Being able to retain oxygen gives you more stamina. This is especially important as we get older. We all know that life puts a lot of demands on our time. As we get older, though, those demands — job responsibilities, family, social engagements — tend to become less. That gives us more time to do fun things like ride bicycles, kayak and roller blade. To never grow up! Isn’t that why we baby boomers started the fitness revolution in the first place? Sorry, Tinkerbell. You don’t need fairy dust to stay young. You need stamina.
For me, stamina is best taken in the form of treadmills, group cycling, yoga, kettlebells, circuit training — just some of the cool things that health clubs offer today.
Now that I’ve passed the age of 60, I still carve out time for the gym.
Here’s why: Daily exercise prevents such age-related afflictions as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and arthritis. And even though I have arthritis, I find it better to go to the gym and deal with my discomfort rather than surrender to it; I know that inactivity would only make my condition worse. When I think of doing nothing, I see my grandmother, who also suffered from arthritis, sitting in an easy chair in front of a Philco TV set rubbing her swollen joints. In my mind, she was always old. The irony is, she was younger than I am today.
Here’s another one of life’s ironies: When I was a really young man, I got my induction notice to be drafted into the Army. Because I knew there was no way a wimpy kid like me could survive boot camp, I wrangled a medical deferment from my doctor.
Who could have predicted that 45 years later I’d willingly enlist in a boot class camp at the Life Time Fitness facility in St. Paul? But last week I did just that. It’s an incredibly tough workout, and not just physically but mentally, too: When I think I can’t do another pushup, I have to stop my brain from tweeting my body: “Give it up. Your grace period is over.” Instead, I have to think, “You can do this because you never stopped doing it.”
– John Stark, Experience Life Executive Editor