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Old age and emotion prevail

by Frank Forencich on July 26, 2010

What does it mean when a supple, young creature gets up in front of a group of people and shows them how to move their bodies? Does it have any significance? Does it offer any motivating power or inspiration?

I suggest that it doesn’t really tell us a great deal. Of course the youngster can move. Of course he or she can jump, stretch and lift. Of course he or she is slender and beautiful. That’s the nature of young bodies. When you’re twenty or thirty years old, you look great and you can do almost anything. And thus, your exceptional performance doesn’t really carry much weight. We may be impressed or jealous, but we’re not truly inspired.

I have long believed that health and fitness credibility lies with those who’ve figured out ways to sustain their performance over the course of decades. These are the people who have the formula.These are the people that we should be listening to.

Paul Chek once suggested – tongue in cheek, I’m sure – that doctors should practice naked or nearly so, in order that patients could see how they managed their own health. If your physician is in terrible condition after all, it really takes a bite out of his credibility.

In a similar way, I’ve come to the conclusion that there should be a minimum age for health and fitness instructors. Let’s say 40. Or better yet, 50. If you can stand up in front of a group and demonstrate your long-term results in the flesh, then you’re qualified. No exams or certifications necessary.

Over the years, many of us have been struck by the powerful imagery of “Getting Old is Not for Sissies.” This cover photo stands as an enduring icon for what’s possible. At the time this photo was taken, John Turner was 67 years old. As a practicing psychiatrist, he spoke a refreshing philosophy: “I think physicians have a responsibility to sell health at least as much as they sell pills.” (He made this statement in the early 1980’s, before the medical industry dove headlong into techno-pharmaceutical fixes for every human affliction.) Who wouldn’t want this man as a teacher, fitness instructor or physician?

In this same spirit, I’ve recently discovered a powerful new book called Fifty Athletes Over Fifty. Author Don McGrath has interviewed a series of rare individuals, athletes who are still in the game, still living a highly physical life well into what some people call “old age.” The individual stories are fascinating, but it’s the core idea that really carries the quest. For McGrath and his lifetime athletes, it’s all about developing the right relationship with the body, the process and the sport. In short, it’s about falling in love with movement.

McGrath sums up his findings in a simple paradigm: Love it – dream it – live it – powered by feelings of joy, fun, sensation and accomplishment. It’s a powerful formula, one that has been obvious to young, independent athletes for a long time. Surfers, skateboarders, rockclimbers and free runners have built entire lifestyles, sub-cultures and movement disciplines around quality life experience. For them, no extrinsic motivation is required. It’s the experience and the dream that pulls them into active, committed participation.

Sadly, this auto-telic approach has been largely eclipsed by linear thinkers who seek to reduce human health to spreadsheet-ready numbers and formulas, as if emotion and spirit had nothing to do with physical engagement. On the contrary, emotion, spirit and aesthetics exert a powerful pull that lasts a lifetime. If you fall in love with your practice, your art or your discipline, the technicalities are just a sideshow.

Listen to Don’s interview with Frank Forencich.

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