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Tue April 13, 2004
Just Do It
As we get older it's not that easy to remain physically fit. Or is it?
By Catherine McCall
Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Catherine's commentary.]
Not long ago I overheard a man talking about his tennis game. I was hovering near the hors d?erves table at a party where I didn?t know many people. As I reached over the plate of brie, he lamented a loss of power in his forehand. He looked to be in his late forties, maybe early fifties, with ruffled dark hair and rounded shoulders. He was describing how frustrated he gets on the court because he can?t hit the ball as hard as he could when he was younger. I slabbed some brie on my plate and kept listening.
As a young man he?d played lots of tennis until life interceded, I guess, as life has a way of doing. Now, in mid-life, he?d reclaimed his racquet and was playing in a league, all the while burning with a frustration at his perceived loss of prowess.
What is it about our approach to aging in this country that we focus so much more on what we?re losing than on what we?re gaining?
So he can?t hit that same smash forehand down the alley as reliably as he once could; I bet he?s smarter these days about keeping the ball in play, about not having to kill it to win a point. Or if he?s not, he could be.
I considered butting in to offer an unsolicited curbside consult on sports psychology, to direct him toward inspiring seasoned champions like Andre Agassi and Martina Navratilova, and to the countless other people who enjoy playing the game no matter how hard they hit the ball, but in the interest of party etiquette, I wandered toward the spinach dip instead.
Actually I was in no position to lecture him on the value of gaining perspective. For years I completely avoided swimming because, once the glory years of competing were over and I couldn?t swim as fast as I once did, it felt too frustrating to swim at all. At least this guy was back on the tennis court, he could figure out the secret--maybe he already had.
By our forties most of us know someone who has suffered a life altering injury or disease, one who has battled cancer or a car accident or a chronic back problem. Maybe we?ve tackled these mountains or at the very least endured a torn ligament or the morning ache of arthritic fingers.
In other words, by our forties most of us have been humbled by life in some physical way, large or small. The same was not true in our teens and twenties.
Then we could take luxury in neglecting our bodies. We could run if we wanted to run without paying the faintest attention to our heart rate. Or we could crush a forehand cross-court a hundred times without the slightest twinge in our shoulders. We were quick and nimble and young, which meant we took our bodies and our health for granted. That?s what young people do.
Then, like for the man at the party, life intercedes and washes us onto the shores of a brave, new world called mid-life. The voyage comes with the gift of a wide angle lens, complete with a lifetime guarantee to keep working as long as we keep using it.
Like tennis for the stranger, swimming has come back into my life in a whole new way. So what if I can?t swim as fast as I once did, I?m still a little amazed that I can swim as well as I can. The best part is that swimming makes me feel good which is much more important than how many laps I swim in thirty minutes.
I wanted to say to the man at the party that sport and fitness and aging and health are all about perspective, that it?s good for our bodies and our souls, not to mention the old cardiovascular system, to get out and move, regardless of our skill level. Since I missed my chance to tell him I?ll tell you instead: If you?re forty or older (thirty-five if you?re precocious), forget the critique and just do it.
Catherine McCall is a psychiatrist who lives and works in Wilmington.