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Beyond COVID19 : Building fitness at any age

At  71, I am an advocate of active ageing and staying fit at any age. I am rebuilding fitness with outdoor workouts after several months break due to pandemic restrictions, tough for a seventy plus.

My cycle stood forlorn and dusty for months at our home in Delhi. Abundant precaution was necessary during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, mindful of high risk family members. We learned as the weeks rolled by, and when restrictions of movement on the roads was lifted, the time had come to give in to the nagging urge to get back to cycling.

It was an exhilarating feeling to be back on the saddle, albeit for short, easy paced rides with the necessary COVID-19 precautions.

I jog/walk for 5 to 10 kilometres twice a week and cycle at an easy pace for 25 to 35 kilometres twice a week and do strength/flexibility workouts also twice a week and take a day of well-earned rest each week. This has been my routine over the last couple of months as I eased into my usual fitness levels after the enforced break due to the pandemic. Working out on the same course each time helps me monitor improvements in cardio fitness and recovery. I’ll build endurance as time goes by.

I am doing well so far and happy with the progress.

Physical fitness routines are such an important part of staying fit as one ages that it hurts if one cannot use favourite modes of staying fit. There was, naturally, a fear that it will be a long haul getting back to the right fitness if the lockdown continued for much longer.

The COVID-19 is leading to a re-accessing of life and drawing up fresh goals as we face the new normal. Income levels are changing and so also life styles. Adapting, adjusting and seeking fresh challenges are the need of the hour for us elderly people. No time like NOW to start anew.

Building an invincible mind

A pre-requisite for building fitness and continuously challenging oneself, at any age, is to build a strong and unwavering mind. I built mental strength as I participated in cycling events and trained for them. Last year, at the age of seventy, I completed a cyclothon from Chennai to New Delhi, cycling 3000 kms over a period of 58 days. A strong mind that refused to be swayed by any obstacle helped me complete an endeavour of this magnitude.

Here are a few suggestions for building an invincible mind :

On long, taxing cycling expeditions there are lonely stretches with just you, the cycle and the road. At such times, the journey into the inner recesses of your mind comes to the fore. These periods of relentless effort in solitude are pristine. You face the multitude of fears that hankering for the materialistic side of life brings and torments you. These inner explorations lead in mysterious ways to the wisdom to cope and even set them aside.

Our sages teach us that fame and momentary glories are only illusions. Genuine happiness lies in cultivating a mind that is not swayed by external circumstances. They advice a few prerequisites for building an invincible mind. One is the courage of conviction. Another is to have self-belief. Yet another is to live life just as we are with no pretensions.  Making a habit of reflection and introspection helps build these prerequisites.

There are little tricks that train you to keep your mind in check. One of them is making it a habit to decide what you wish to do every morning and do every one of them. In the unlikely event of a spill over, do it the very next day. Savour the joy and accomplishment of doing what you set out too. You cultivate unshakeable resolve in this way.

Preparing for a sporting event or following a fitness routine is a good training ground for controlling the mind.  Never fall short of what you set out to do in each session. The mind has insidious ways of taking hold of your life. It offers several perfectly logical reasons to interfere with your training routines and preparation. Over time, you develop not just your fitness but also a mind that works for you.

At the Desert 500 ultra-cycling event in 2015 I was unsure if I should take part in the 250 kilometres ride or the less taxing 150 kilometre ride to be completed in one stretch. Well-meaning friends suggested that I opt for the less taxing ride considering my age and fitness level.  I kept wavering between the challenge of 250 or the safer 150 kilometres. My mind deliberately kept me in this quandary till I firmly resolved on the bigger challenge. Gurus call this the ‘power of positive intention’.

On the event day, I set out to complete 250 kms, come what may. You are asking for trouble if you waver in intent. Our fears and self-doubts limit us. My mind continued to torment me with various reasons to stop ahead of 250 kilometres, I just brushed these distractions aside. At the finish I was in pain and exhausted, but I savoured the joy of accomplishment for a long time.  Through similar challenging events, I developed a mind that assisted me in challenging times.

Slow down to go faster

Finding the right balance between the work load necessary to get health benefits and staying comfortable is important. Each one of us can find this right balance, appropriate to our needs, with conscious effort. The positive emotional state that comes from working out at the correct intensity level goes a long way towards re-enforcing a superb feeling about regular exercising. Uniting body and soul as we find the right balance in life and in our workouts, brings us the greatest benefits.

In every aspect of life, we benefit by slowing down. Slowing our mind helps us navigate the stressful twists and turns of life. Reducing the frenetic pace brings better balance in our life, good health and emotional well being. Even in our physical fitness workouts, slowing down brings greater benefits. We can make a conscious choice to live a better, more fulfilling, and accomplished life.

‘Slowing down to go faster’ is the mantra that Mark Allen, the six times world Iron-man champion, uses for developing a fit body and a fit soul. I learned from his book, “Fit Soul-Fit Body”, the benefit of training at a heart rate at or below the Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate. This is different from the way I trained.

In the past, I was mindful of speed, effort and duration of each workout and felt I had to keep pushing the bar up at regular intervals. Training meant that I needed to take myself up to the limit at each session, and the ability to perform better indicated progress. I used the heart rate monitor and the cycle meter to gauge performance. Mark Allen made me do things differently. Here are some principles behind his successful training methods suitable for those seeking to lose weight and staying healthy as well as those training for competitive sports.

Training at or below the maximum aerobic heart rate ensures that we burn fat and not carbohydrates. At low or moderate heart rate we burn fat but beyond a point we switch to burning carbohydrates. This is not desirable in our physical fitness programmes. Training at high intensity above this heart rate takes us into the adrenal zone, which is not recommended for sustaining health and fitness. We lose the zest for doing things and the enjoyable feeling about life. Mark Allen places a lot of emphasis on feeling relaxed and at a comfortable level as we workout. He advocates speed and high intensity training only at measured intervals.

Building cardio-vascular fitness and strength are the twin pillars of success in losing weight, improving health, and increasing longevity. Over emphasis of one at the expense of the other is not recommended in the long run. Increasing muscle strength through weight training twice a week is necessary to maintain lean muscle mass and strength which we lose rapidly as we age. Allen does not recommend weight training more than twice or thrice a week as it is counterproductive.

Fitness goes viral in India … but!

A creamy layer across all age groups is taking to sports and adventure activities in our country. However, the vast majority of our countrymen don’t take part in physical fitness activities. The Indian Council of Medical Research-India Diabetes (ICMR-INDIAB) study shows that less than 10% of adults in India meet the recommendations for physical activity. The good news is that as restrictions on opening of retail shops were lifted, most bicycle shops reported record sales and a complete sell out of stocks. It is good to see many more people out cycling early morning, just to stay fit, along with family and friends.

You can be fit at any age if you make up your mind to be active and this will help you lead a vibrant life, till the very last days of your life.

Watch Dr Anjana’s tips for maintaining your fitness…

About the author :

Hari Baskaran is an advocate and a champion of active ageing. You can read about his life and his views and suggestions on leading a vibrant and active life and being fit at any age in his book, Celebrating Active Ageing. The book is available at the links given below.