Baseline bodies

Loving your aging body and fixing a sedentary life

One of my resolutions for 2021 is to get serious about maintaining mobility.

Maybe it’s only in my imagination, but I definitely feel like my body is getting less elastic and stretchable in my late 20s. I remember reading that a human body typically reaches its physical peak capability of adding muscle around 28 years old. Other studies show lean tissue loss and body fat increases begin at age 30.

Personal experience also indicates that I am reaching a critical junction in my body’s latent recovery ability. A few years ago, I was doing donuts in a jet ski and threw my partner off the back (on purpose, for fun). He almost broke his thumb trying to hold on, and his hand was sore for weeks afterwards. When he went for a medical evaluation, the doctor told him he could try physical therapy or get it surgically repaired but she didn’t recommend it. As the doctor said, “you are at the age now where things will start breaking and it won’t be worth fixing it.” So his thumb will forever hurt a little bit from now on.

It’s alarming to think that my body will no longer be youthful and healthy by default. I mentioned to a friend who is the same age that I was going to start stretching every day, in a concerted effort to maintain mobility. She was offended. If I had to guess from her reaction, my friend didn’t like being reminded that we were getting older. She was also dismissive that a stretching regimen was needed, viewing it as something only for the elderly. I think this attitude is by no means uncommon; most people my age still imagine their bodies are infinitely resilient. It’s a major mental shift to acknowledge that this is changing.

Maintaining mobility is an especially hard problem because there is little to no feedback. Human brains perform best when there are direct results from our actions. Maintenance, by definition, does not create noticeable change (positive or negative). I won’t get the gratification of seeing my body “improve” like in weightlifting or running. If I’m doing it right, I should be slowing or preventing the rate of bodily decline. But how do you measure the effectiveness of your preventative efforts looking forward? It feels impossible to set a standard baseline for how much an optimally healthy person’s body is not degrading.

The best way of thinking about success for body maintenance comes from visualizing concrete outcomes. Peter Attia coined the Centenarian Olympics, which is an imaginary athletic event that takes place when you are 100 years old. This event is made up of specific skills that a person wants to be able to achieve at that age. For Peter Attia, he wants to be able to:

  • Get up off the floor with his own body strength
  • Pull himself out of a pool
  • Pick up a child that is running towards him
  • Walk up and down three flights of stairs with 10lbs of groceries in each hand
  • Lift a 30lb suitcase and put it in the overhead bin

Attia encourages others to set their own targets and then build a maintenance and improvement routine to achieve these targets. This is such a genius framing because he has transformed the vague goal of “maintaining bodily function” into specific skills you can evaluate against. Also, the scenarios you imagine for your Centenarian Olympics require different exercises and techniques than the sexy achievements that most fitness trends popularize, emphasizing instead stability, balance, and total body coordination.

In addition to the Centenarian Olympics, Movement Matters by Katy Bowman and Pain Free at Your PC by Pete Egoscue are two books which fundamentally changed my understanding of body mechanics and maintenance. The important takeaways for me were:

  • Our current baseline is extraordinarily sedentary: Science is culture and context-dependent. It’s hard to understand how healthy someone can potentially be at a certain age because most experiments are run on people living in Western countries who live very sedentary lifestyles. It’s easy to see the findings and draw the conclusions that our range of movement today is the “normal” baseline. For example, Bowman was taught that the standard range of ankle dorsiflexion (toes towards the shin) is 17 degrees. But studies on a different group of modern day humans who frequently climb trees (the Twa people, Ugandan hunger-gatherers), found their average range of dorsiflexion to be greater than 45 degrees.
  • The human body is hyper adaptable to a variety of environments, including very intense activity: It is silly to say “humans were not built to be at their computers for hours.” In terms of physical stress on the system, sitting at a computer is actually very easy for our bodies. Egoscue makes the good point that these are the same human bodies that can do hard physical labor (like mining) for hours in a day. But because in our modern societies we are generally inactive and have bad posture/alignment, sitting at the computer becomes painful. Additionally, humans ability to be hyper adaptive can actually be a weakness in our sedentary lifestyles. Our bodies are very efficient, reducing muscles and range of motion for movements we don’t use. Effectively, “you don’t use it you lose it”. This can lead to a vicious cycle where we become weaker because we don’t move, and we move less because we are weaker.
  • Treatment needs to fix the underlying cause (and not be a band-aid for a bad lifestyle): Both Bowman and Egoscue note that most solutions to physical issues is to treat the symptom (pain) rather than the underlying problem. For example, the root cause of elbow pain could be a general core body weakness which causes the person to lean more heavily on one side. The wrong solution is to treat the symptom (elbow pain), usually done through ergonomics and isolation (like using a brace), which restricts the range of movement for that joint. However this doesn’t fix the underlying problem (imbalanced core). The joint itself weakens, making it harder to move in the future. Plus the body works in concert, so isolating one part of the body inevitably puts more stress on another part, like the shoulder joint. The better treatment is actually to fix the underlying cause. A further great point by Bowman: “Medicine is what you need when a rare issue arises in your life, not what you need to compensate for your lifestyle.”
  • Restrictive, not just repetitive movement, is bad: People who try to prevent pain think that you should rest that body part and limit movement. This is the exact wrong thing to do. Most of the time, the problem is not only that the movement is repetitive but also that it’s restricted to one thing. It is better to do a wider range of movements and overall strengthen that body part. So for people like me who work at their computers a lot, playing an instrument is a great thing to do because it uses your hands and arms in a different way.
  • Mindless pursuit of efficiency leads to less movement: Perhaps my favorite takeaway from Bowman’s book. Modern society is so obsessed with productivity, and it often comes at a cost to our everyday health and activity levels. I used to think it was so much better for me to optimize the way I moved, making sure I only went up the stairs once and carried everything with me. Bowman notes that we become blind to the real cost of that myopic focus on time efficiency, namely that we are moving much less than we can (and should). So now I actually am not upset when I forget where I put three things around the house and have to walk up and down the stairs several times to find them, because I have reframed it as a positive way to increase my activity throughout the day. “Well, at least I get to walk around a bit” has become a frequent refrain for me when something annoying or frustrating happens.

I would highly encourage you read these books yourself since there are so many useful takeaways beyond what I have detailed. It may feel counterintuitive, but doing the reading and research has really helped me embrace the idea of getting older. I feel more in control of my future and can start creating a plan to resist aging.

Other actionable resources I’ve used to create a maintenance routine include:

How have you developed a stretching or maintenance routine? Share them with me on Twitter @vivqu or send a note here.

As I began to offer movement solutions for seemingly mundane things like foot pain and pelvic incontinence, many people responded, detailing why, for them, these movement solutions just weren’t possible. Their inability to fit foot and hip exercises into their day was the result of the larger immobility of their situation. School, or work, or relationships, or work distribution within the home, was preventing their body parts from moving. They were immobilized by the expectations of a society, of their culture.

– Katy Bowman, Movement Matters

Luckily, though, we have a nearly flawless musculoskeletal system. Nearly. The flaw is that our environment is no longer harsh and unforgiving. We tamed it by eliminating most of the constant working motion. And before you shout hurrah, let me point out that that’s what’s causing your wrist to hurt or those other symptoms attributed to “computer pain syndrome.” The correct term should be “environmental pain syndrome.” If motion is the price of muscles, pain is the price of lack of motion and muscle. The computer is not guilty!

– Pete Egoscue, Pain Free at Your PC

This article was last updated on 2/16/2021. v1 is 1,637 words and took 4.5 hours to write and edit. Thanks to Steph H. for the recommendation to read Movement Matters.

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