When I grow up, I want to be like my Mom. At 84, she walks her dog, goes to the gym every day, and works out with a personal trainer twice weekly. In good weather, she’s busy in the garden. Spring through fall, she swims outdoors in a freshwater lake. She reads and has an active social life. We’re planning a trip to Paris, so she’s working on increasing her walking endurance to see the city by foot as much as possible.
Having goals helps us all guide our fitness choices, and for me, actual activity goals are best, like having quicker foot speed and smoother movements in tennis. Tell me I’ll look better in a swimsuit and my motivation plummets.
So, the fitness question I love most is: what do you want to be able to do that you can’t do now? Your answer will guide your training, and step by step, rep by rep, you’ll get there.
I’ve got decades to go before my 80s, but the things I see as life enhancing for my elders are crucial to cultivate at every stage of life. Fitness is about having the capacity for activity. The challenges may vary, but we know this: Our bodies work better with use, and we feel better, think better, laugh more, do everything better if we move quite a lot every day.
As I’ve moved through my life, my fitness and play activities have changed in somewhat predictable ways. In my early years, I danced all year, swam and rode my bike all summer, and was once the tether ball champ at our nearby park. (I was so proud!) I learned to play tennis at ten, and still play weekly matches. I loved playing varsity lacrosse in high school, but left it behind in college. All through college, my bike got me everywhere. Instead of going to the massive graduation at Camp Randall stadium, I commemorated the day with a long bike ride into Wisconsin’s countryside with friends. In grad school, I briefly took up squash and raquetball, but never liked them as much as tennis. Strength training became important when I learned how quickly women lose muscle mass as we age, and I became a gym rat hitting the weights starting in my late 30s.
What started with a somewhat negative motive (fear of impending weakness) switched to positive motives once I engaged. I still keep regular appointments with a trainer who helps me meet strength goals, but I don’t spend as much time at the gym as I once did. I realized I couldn’t afford that kind of time.
One thing that has stayed constant is my belief in the importance of maintaining 4 equally important capacities: strength, endurance/cardio capacity, balance, and flexibility. These last two are too often ignored. I often hear gym buddies say they are fitness fiends, and all they do is cardio. Or they lift, but they only do enough cardio to warm up. Except for yoga classes, I almost never hear people say: “I just love to stretch” or “I’m so happy to be meeting my flexibility goals!” And there’s an issue: the gym is as balkanized as the high school lunchroom, with people tending to keep to their zones and routines, and forgetting the importance of the whole package of activities we need. I get it.
I’m guilty too, at times. Lately, I’m at tennis or in the weight rooms. I love cardio when I do it, in fact find it addictive, but getting started is always hard. The call to stay at my desk is deafeningly loud and when I’m at the gym I want to do things that are available only there. I make excuses like, “well, I walked 3 miles around the lake with my dog today, so that counts.” Yes, it counts, but my heart rate never spiked and stayed up, so it doesn’t count enough for my own goals. Running sprints on that walk would make a huge difference to my cardio fitness and to my speed ‘off the blocks’ in tennis. (Note to self!)
Balance and flexibility are crucial for athletics and for life. They become even more crucial as we age and face the various physical degradations that time throws our way. So, go ahead, love cardio and weights, but I want to encourage more mindful attention to balance and flexibility for their power to stave off injuries, and keep us moving more fluidly through our days.
My understanding of the need for balance and flexibility was ingrained early, in serious ballet classes starting very young and lasting until I was about 14. There’s so much feminist critique of ballet that I want to explain its virtues without opposing those critiques. Yes, ballet tends to promote unhealthy body image problems, demand thinness, and instill an aesthetics of ‘the line’ are absolutely unrealistic for most girls and women. My beloved aunt, a ballerina, used to say she could tell a woman’s weight to within 2 lbs with a mere glance at her thighs. A dubious skill, acquired through a lifetime in ballet. As a skinny little kid who just loved to move, these messages just blew by me. What I learned was the importance of the barre, that warming up well meant moving well when it counted, that strong legs and a strong core meant everything. Also, in ballet, I learned to leap and spin and use my eyes and head to stay upright. My favorite was the grand jete entrelace, a big leap with a half turn to the back. You cannot do a pirouette without learning to balance on your toes, and maintain proper head balance so you don’t get dizzy. What I learned about real discipline in ballet made it a breeze to understand Brandom’s “Freedom and Constraint by Norms” when I got to grad school, for without the discipline, the invigorating moves are unavailable…But I digress…
With ballet, one must be flexible, maintain balance, and have aerobic stamina. One learns to stretch effectively and this can change your body for years to come; the range of motion I developed in my youth is still with me, a surprising bonus decades later. It has surely helped keep me injury-free in my sports. Ballet requires a strong and flexible core, amazingly strong legs and don’t let the flexible arms fool you: holding them in that soft graceful line takes strength. So for me, ballet was a great start to understanding the ways that stamina, strength, balance, and flexibility are all crucial components of fitness.
Some people talk a lot about their sports or fitness activities and goals. I don’t. For me, it’s personal. Writing this has been a challenge. I know how much I can deadlift, and I know how many miles I can run. Others don’t need to know these things about me. But for those who do like to share such info, I say, good for you for inspiring others to get moving. And as we move, let’s all be mindful of improving our balance and flexibility as complements to our strength and stamina. If we keep developing all four capacities, we will, indeed, be fit for life.
Lynne Tirrell is a professor of philosophy at U Mass Boston, where she also teaches in Women’s Studies. She plays tennis, trains in various ways, and loves long woodsy walks with her wonderful dogs.