The Fountain Of Youth

It's hard to write a post like this without either bragging or sneering, but I assure you, I am doing neither.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the grocery store. I opted to use the self checkout kiosks, but because I was buying wine, a store clerk had to come check my ID. When she saw my date of birth, she said, "Oh my god!" I asked her what was the problem, and she said, nothing, only that she was surprised that I was as old as I was. "I would have believed '89." In truth, she had thought that was more than ten years younger than I really am. In other words, she thought I was in my twenties.

Yesterday, we spent the afternoon in a local park. The park has a short trail down to what passes for a "waterfall" in flat Texas prairie country. It's a nice, short hike, and somewhat steep in parts. My GPS watch had it that the whole thing was 0.88 miles round trip. I checked it when we arrived at the waterfall itself, and it read 0.36. As you can see, this is not much of a "hike," but much more of a short walk down the hill and back up.

To be sure, it was hot outside, and the path is steep in some places, requiring us to choose our steps carefully in order to make it back up. But a 0.4 mile walk up the hill can only be so gruelling. I'd call it pretty much nothing.

So, I was surprised when I noticed that a solid majority of the other people in the park that day came up the hill panting and gasping for air, plopping themselves down in the nearest shady spot to catch some oxygen. I mean, they were really out of it. By all appearances, they looked as though they had just finished an 8-mile tempo run or something.

Later in the day, I went for a run. It was very hot outside, so I was running shirtless, with my hair pulled back under a bandana, and a pair of sunglasses on. As I crossed the street at one busy intersection, someone from a passing car called out a question to me: "Hey! How old are you?" I didn't have the impression that they thought I was extremely old. I didn't have a chance to answer, because I was running fast and in the opposite direction of the passing car, but I smiled to myself as I thought about what that person would think if they knew I was 40 years old.

A few years back, I was doing box jumps at the gym. A twenty-something fellow gym-goer came up to me between sets and told me, "I hope I can do stuff like that when I'm your age!"

"It's use it or lose it," I told him. "The only reason I can do this is because I won't stop."

Like I said at the outset of this post, I'm not saying this to brag about myself or to criticize other people. I take all of these situations -- and the many more I could list -- not as evidence of my great fittness, but rather evidence of how far people will let themselves go.

Ten years ago, I used to be amazed by the fact that most people my age had no idea what their own bodies were capable of; that most of them had no idea what their own bodies were supposed to look like, because they had never taken the time to get in really good shape. The human body performs differently, and of course looks differently, when it's fit. Overweight people, people with "dad bods," skeletal waifs, and the like have really never experienced things like agility, being sure on their feet, being able to lift heavy things with confidence and carry them across the room or something. And they don't know what their own bodies would look like if they did.

But nowadays, I don't really think about that anymore. Nowadays, I am struck by how much faster most people are aging than I am. I watch as friends and acquaintences slowly put on more and more weight, unable to tame their cravings or counteract them with physical activity. I watch as even young people give up on sports and fitness, except the few who go to the gym, mostly to look sexy, attract a mate, get married, and then ultimately do what they had planned on doing all along: let themselves go. I hear people talk about their aches and pains, their inability or unwillingness to walk any short distance, their struggle with having to climb a few flights of stairs.

It's the practical problems they all have that make the biggest impression on me. The atrophy of their bodies has made even the simplest aspects of life difficult. Small wonder so many of them drive their cars even when they're only going to the park a block away. Small wonder they all seem to be aging so much faster than me.

I spend a lot of time in the sun, and I have a chronic disease that is aging my body at an accelerated rate. It should be I who looks older than others. But I don't, and my best guess is because I have always adhered to the adage of "use it or lose it."

The fountain of youth is real. It is simply the act of sticking with a good diet and a high level of physical activity throughout your life. Don't stop. Don't let yourself go. Don't put on 15, 20, 50, 100... pounds and then turn around one day and realize that you look 40 or older when you're really 30 or younger. Keep yourself healthy, well into old age. Use it or lose it.

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