aging · athletes · body image · Dancing · fitness

Guest Post: Lynne on being “fit for life”



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. 

8 thoughts on “Guest Post: Lynne on being “fit for life”

  1. Really love your philosophy on this Lynne. It’s funny, the more I get into being fit, the less I see myself as a fitness buff. This comfortable feeling we eventually get when we learn how to “live fit for life”, just making it a habit, a normal part of our day, and then move on, is hard to achieve. Think that’s where I am now too, with quite a few ladies who lived until their 90s as the inspiration. Thanks for coming out of your shell to write this!

  2. Thanks, Robin! My excessive gym-rat phase might have been developmentally important for where I am now, and I sure learned a lot about good form and process and managing goals. But ultimately, we really do want to integrate the habits and they need to support the rest of our lives. Thanks for commenting!

  3. I am a 56-year old woman for whom fitness became both a passion and a way of life in only two short years. It’s never too late to get started! I am in the best shape of my life in all ways. I highly recommend group fitness classes for those who have a gym aversion, as do I.

    1. Lisa: Yes, group classes are fun, and can give you a great workout in a social setting. Just follow along and in an hour you feel great! Also, most clubs have classes that suit all levels, so no reason not to try it.

  4. Thanks for this great post about the way you’ve woven your balanced approach to fitness into your lifestyle. I like that you keep it personal. One thing I have realized just recently (though I do share my goals and activities a bit, as anyone who reads the blog or is FB friends with me is aware) it how much I love what I’m doing in this area of my life right now because I feel it’s an area that belongs 100% to me and no one else. The idea is just formulating in my head in recent days, but it’s definitely going to give rise to a blog post soon. Thanks again for guest posting, especially since it was a challenge for you to “go public.” And your mom sounds amazing. I’d like to be like her when I’m 84 too.

    1. Great Tracy! Write that up! So much of what the fitness industry targets at women is about remaking ourselves for the gaze of others. Sure, beauty is wonderful, but really, fitness is about capacity-building, and as women, we have always worked, always been capable, so why not strengthen that message? 🙂 Yes, that’s the message: sustainable capacity building!

  5. Thank you! This is what I teach every weekend that I travel. I try to ingrain in trainers the need for teaching so much more than weight lifting and cardio routines and when I teach at the college level I require my students to experience elements of balance and flexibility training (different from stretching). It’s very nice to hear someone who gets it!

    1. AmberLynn: Thank YOU for teaching these lessons! I know I didn’t invent them, but get frustrated by the monotone approach I see in some of the folks I encounter. I’ve learned these lessons through a lifetime of different kinds of fitness and sports, and wonderful coaches. So I am happy to hear that you’re teaching this!

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