Now that I’m 64 and the aging process is noticeably changing my body, I’ve become profoundly grateful to have exercise in my life. I feel especially lucky that the workout I’ve been doing for the last three decades, the Bar Method, seemed to have assumed the role of protector against time. In my 30s and 40s I loved the workout (which was then the Bar Method’s predecessor, the Lotte Berk Method) because it made me look and feel good. Over the past few years I’ve been stunned to find that my workouts, while not exactly reversing time, are turning it back significantly. Now they’re not just making me more buff and toned. They’re also wiping away fatigue, mental cloudiness, grumpiness, aching joints and a host of other symptoms of the aging process. I can go into a class feeling exhausted and walk out of it almost magically energized. My muscles don’t as easily retain the strength gained from my workouts like they used to decades ago, but the classes always leave me calmer, more centered, and in a better humor. I hate to think how different my life would be at this stage if I didn’t have this workout to renew me on an ongoing basis.
Everything I’ve reported to you in this blog thus far is old news to the medical community. Doctors and economists have been all over this subject for decades, and their research has been sending up flags about the dangers of older adults not being active. A group of several hundred physiologists found that millions of Americans are dying prematurely each year from “Sedentary Death Syndrome,” or lack of physical activity. Meanwhile, economists have determined that the cost of these deaths to our country are somewhere around three trillion dollars a year due to life-style related diabetes, cancer, arthritis, heart disease, strokes, osteoporosis, dementia, accidental falls, and other lifestyle-related illnesses and issues. Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control estimates that if all these physically inactive Americans became active, we’d save “$77 billion in direct annual medical costs, and an estimated $150 billion in direct and indirect medical costs.”
There are signs that more and more of us in this country are beginning to understand the relationship between inactivity and illness. We see an increasing number of older people whose bodies remind us of cars that haven’t been maintenanced for decades, and their downcast, disappointed, and defeated-looking faces can’t but affect us. We might ask ourselves, ”what happened to those people? Could they have been in accidents?” More likely, they’ve lived the sedentary lifestyle that our society has made the norm.
Call me an optimist, but I believe that at some point in our future history, people will figure out a way out of this pitfall. The results have come in from our mass experiment with inactivity. We know that it hurts us, especially now that we’re living longer. Fortunately, as a species we’re ambitious when it comes to our right to enjoy life to the last drop, and we have the drive, ability and adaptability to reinvent ourselves when it serves our purposes. One example from the past is our dental care habits, which have evolved to become unrecognizable from the way they were 200 years ago. “Sedentary Death Syndrome” is actually a pretty recent problem. People started to become inactive in great numbers less than a century ago when enough modern conveniences were invented to relieve them of the necessary of exerting their bodies. We’re really just in the preliminary stages of tackling this challenge.
Already some Americans have been deciding to lead very active lives in their later years. Jack LaLanne lifted weight into his 90s. Cloris Leachman competed in Dancing With The Stars at age 82, and the wonderful 83-year-old photographer Bill Cunningham still spends his days riding his bike around Manhattan with the grace of a dancer shooting street fashion for the New York Times. I’d like to imagine that in a few hundred years these athletic late-lifestyles will no longer be the exception but our new norm.