Frank King, used with permission

The older I get, the more in charge I feel of the process of aging, as it should be

The second photo, above, is of a fellow professional speaker, a comedian, who takes on the issue of suicide. Yes, you can, he does, and he's so very good at it. Frank King and I met in 2020, my first year here in Eugene, when he was competing at a local all-natural bodybuilding show. I interviewed Frank for a story. We spent about an hour howling with laughter, as I share his love of the absurd. He's quite the story. And boy is he aging well, as you can see from the above.

We live at such an interesting crossroads. Western society -barring climate change and all the rest- in general allows us a longer life. At the same time, our sick attachment to youth and all the perceived trappings of youth such as body agency and beauty cause us to fear aging. In fearing it, we attack ourselves and others for the most natural process on earth.

On top of that, we have a fast-growing industry around preventing age, which, will you just please. Peter Pan we aren't. Will never be. The real question is whether or not you and I have the courage to ride  our personal aging journey and make the most of it.

This article was inspired by two sayings. Let's start with the classic by George Bernard Shaw:

We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.

Shaw also famously said that Youth is wasted on the young, a statement so profound that we really don't have the slightest idea what it means until we're old and creaky enough to appreciate it. I am old enough now, and I appreciate the hell out of that statement. When I was young I had no clue what I had. That, I think, is a universal journey.

The ability to be playful, and this is why I tagged Frank in this article, is what allows us to survive the sometimes unholy shitshow we find ourselves living. Frank has long dealt with suicide ideation. I have too, so the chance to befriend someone who makes a living making fun of the demons in our basement was such a gift.

Frank has found so many ways to thrive in the face of those thoughts which urged him to end it all. If anything, his puckish ability to poke those demons in the rib when they come calling is precisely his greatest superpower. That zippered scar down the center of his chest is just one testament to what he's been through.

Frank knows how to play. So many of us take life so seriously, like a burnt piece of prime rib, that we take no juice out of the joys of daily life. We stop playing, we lose our ability to make fun of the inevitable bumps and bruises. And get old far too young.

Attitude is where all that begins. Dr. Becca Levy's marvelous book Breaking the Age Code delves into the hard research about how attitudes about aging determine how well we age. So many of our assumptions about aging are not only dead wrong, they can cause us to start to die far younger. When you combine bad attitudes about aging with poor health habits, today's youth can die as old people before they turn forty.

Lousy messages around aging, the assumption that we are in for a swift decline the second we pass forty (or thirty or twenty these days) have a great deal to do with how we age. In his wonderful book The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Change Your World, David Robson spends a good bit of time discussing how what we expect to happen as we age is pretty much what we manifest.

Given that, it makes a lot of sense to expect a whole lot better than instant decline, doddering about with a cane, a limited life and far worse. That of course can happen to anyone; life gets in the way at times. Access to decent food and a way to move safely all come into play. Yet even for those for whom those things have been difficult can live long and happy lives, which is my whole point.

Attitude, the ability to be playful, can beat down a whole lot of life's worst monsters.

The other tower, which Frank also models perfectly, is our health. You most assuredly don't have to be a bodybuilder. Nor do you have to be an endurance runner like my buddy and Saga supporter Warren Nelson. The point is to find what we're willing to do, preferably because we love to do it. We then add on more time over time to make up for what Time can take from us.

The other tower is effectively a rewording of Shaw's famous line, which I lifted from another article I found this week. First the line:

You don’t train less because you’re getting old; you get old, to a surprising extent, because skipping that long Sunday run with your pals becomes a habit instead of a rare exception.

The article, from Outside Online, speaks to whether or not we slow down as we age. Interestingly, the answer is the same as play. Here you go:

Most People Get Slower with Age. But Is That Inevitable?
Age may be just a number—but so is your weekly mileage

For exercise, be it running or pickleball or anything else, the older we get, the more we need to train. Not by much, either:

All else being equal, the amount of aerobic fitness his athletes lost by getting a year older was almost identical to the amount they gained by adding an hour per month of training time. Want to freeze the biological clock from one birthday to the next? Find a spare 15 minutes per week and fill it with running. (author bolded)

Or fill it with walking or swimming or biking or hiking, makes no difference.

No matter how busy you and I like to claim we are, all of us likely can find an additional fifteen minutes per week to train to make up for what Mother Nature is slowly taking away. We can say to her, Not yet, Ma. Not yet.

Put the phone down, get up and move. It isn't just your body that feels better.

This is profound for me for several reasons. The article notes that we can be (and I have been) subject to periods of steep decline as the result of some big injuries. I've had more than my fair share of surgeries including a recent hip fracture, but my baseline is excellent. Since 2018 I've had eleven of them, each with its own period of recovery and PT.  I am eager to return to workouts as soon as possible. Yes, I have to ramp up all over again. But the baseline is there, and that makes it a lot easier, which is why putting the time in steadily through the years pays off big later in life.

Yet laurels rot, and we have to keep working on that fitness, and adding more time to what we already do if we wish to maintain the level we love.

For those who think they are already too old for this shit, kindly. The options are bleak if we don't start at all. The Outside Online article notes, as does a plethora of research, that you and I can begin at any time. Saga supporter Penny Nelson began her gym journey at 74, kicking and screaming, but she started it. To her surprise and delight she loved it, and not long afterwards was discussing becoming a fitness trainer herself.

Reading and sharing Penny's journey has been one of the best parts of writing online. Reader stories like that are why I do what I do.  

We are only too old if we decide we're too old. Penny's comment to me once, that she plans to "finish strong," is a mantra for all of us. Exercise- fueled by good nutrition, obviously- is life's synovial fluid for the aching body.

Humor, attitude, laughter, play and joy are life's synovial fluid for the brain, and the heart that's too heavy. Frank and Penny and Warren are the walking, talking, thriving examples of just that.

We get old fast when we stop laughing and playing. The body ages fast when we stop exercising.

Where will your journey take you today? Wherever it is, I hope it involves a bit of nature, a lot of fresh air, a bit of huffing and puffing, good friends, hearty laughs and the exquisite joy of simply being alive.

Kids chasing our van when leaving the town in Kisumu.
Photo by Blake Cheek / Unsplash

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