Last week I took up the subject of health through the varying stages of life. What does health mean to us? How should we develop it or live it within the scheme of the different stages we go through as logistical events and developmental maturity shift the focus and parameters of our lives? How do our major milestones challenge our approach to well-being? Let’s pick up that topic again and finish off the discussion. I hope you’ll share your own thoughts on how differing stages of life influenced your thinking about health and what approaches fit the times best for you.
Busy Career (a.k.a. Learning to Accept There Will Never Be Enough Time)
For some people, this happens straight out of college. For others, the sensation might not settle in until a decade or later when they’re further along in their careers—or it resurges when they switch professional tracks. Whatever the timing, it’s when you find yourself in the thick of career demands, and the old ways of organizing your time do not meet your needs anymore. Because the unfortunate fact is, the earth doesn’t slow down and add hours to its daily rotation simply because you’ve got a bigger workload.
This is the one stage of life when I particularly advocate time management strategies. The more legitimate tricks you can employ, the better off you’ll be.
Depending on your individual schedule, ask yourself what times of day you could “mine” for more workout, food prep or meditation opportunity. Are you utilizing your mornings to an effective end? Are you organized enough on the weekends to make sure you begin your week with Primal choices in the refrigerator and workout clothes clean? Do you come off of the weekend well rested? Are you maintaining a consistent sleep schedule?
It’s time to establish something of a routine if you want to not only prioritize healthy, Primal behaviors but make them sustainable choices that can fit into your now busier schedule. When circumstances change, we can either moan about them or figure out a way to make our lives work for us in the midst of them.
Some people balk at any suggestion of structure, and I’m not saying everything in your life needs to be set up like clockwork, but running helter skelter throughout the week is a recipe for crappy convenience food and little workout time—and/or eventual burnout.
This is the time of life (and, let’s be honest, most of us hit up against this challenge at a variety of points in our careers) when we are obliged to take responsibility for what we need. In some cases, the answers might feel good (e.g. advocating for treadmill desks or using full break times for short activity breaks at work). In other cases, we might not appreciate the answers (e.g. committing to an earlier bedtime, giving up T.V. or dropping certain social commitments).
Finally, we might even hit up against major life-changing decisions (e.g. leaving a certain job because the commute is too much, forgoing income to take a less demanding schedule that allows for better life balance). The ultimate point of this stage (realizing there will never be enough time in a day) is coming to personally value our time as our most precious and limited resource. It’s up to us to ask ourselves how we will best spend it for our own health and well-being and for the opportunities and connections that matter to us.
Having/Raising Kids (a.k.a. Tired, Tired, Tired…)
It’s hard to overestimate the toll these years can take, and I’d say the pattern isn’t necessarily the same for everyone. Some people might struggle the most when the kids are wee ones. The middle of the night feedings, the early mornings, the extra household duties, the constant vigilance, the entertaining and cooking for multiple ages—the sweetest years of parenting can also be a major slog.
Sure, some people cruise through the early years with fairly adaptable young ones—miraculous outliers who sleep through the night after a few months, love the jogging stroller, nap well, eat anything, avoid perilous behaviors and tolerate the gym childcare. (I’ve heard these children exist.) And then these people have a second child….
Parents too often unconsciously try to white-knuckle it, push their way through to the next break or developmental phase that’s supposed to be easier—illusions that, I hate to break it to anyone, mostly evaporate like cruel desert mirages as you finally approach them.
With good intentions and love for their adorable and needy offspring, parents put their workouts “on hold” until the intended temporary hiatus becomes a couple/several years. They fall back into old eating habits, maybe turning first to caffeine, which then becomes a gateway drug to some sugar here or there. Convenience food starts to look more appealing despite the nutritional void.
They legitimately lose sleep but often exacerbate the problem by staying up late after the kids are finally asleep in a bid to reclaim their lost personal time each night (or catch up on bills and laundry). They stress themselves over being the perfect parent, comparing themselves to the “expert” books, to friends’ Facebook postings, to family Pinterest utopias.
(Even those who sidestep or at least survive the early trials might bump up against their Achilles’ heels when the activity years hit with the temptation to overcommit to hosting, driving, fundraising, coaching, or even just attending every single event, practice, game or other function.)
Having given away unsustainable amounts of time and energy, too many parents run themselves down, their resilience becoming further eroded.
There’s enough advice for raising healthy children to float the entire continent. Information for parents maintaining their health in those early years? Not so much.
Of all I’ve witnessed (and experienced) in this department, I’d offer this nugget above all: embrace the principle of “good enough.”
Because just when you think you’ve got the whole “life” thing down, here comes the parenting tsunami to wipe out most if not all of your finely tuned system. When I said for the previous stage that I recommended time management strategies primarily for handling a busy career, I wasn’t being coy. (Sure, if you’re wasting hours in parenting chatrooms or following Pinterest, you need to get honest with yourself and give up the time sucks.) That said, parenting puts us in unchartered waters. The challenge in these years isn’t to see how much can be done but how much can be left undone.
Parenting, particularly if you have young children, multiple children, challenging children, children with special needs or if you’re parenting on your own, often obliges a total slate cleaning. In other words, lose your attachment to how your life worked before.
It helps to begin with a bit of acceptance. You will never be able to do everything right. You will never ward off their experience of every cold, every negative peer interaction, every junk food intrusion, every picky taste, every irritable day or sleepless night.
Resolving to create a “good enough” life can finally set you free to take care of yourself and even enjoy parenting (ironically, often letting you do a better job of it). You toss off the manic, frantic dash to give away every particle of energy to make everything perfect for your child and everything else consistent with the way it used to be.
When you decide to live by the principle of “good enough,” you prioritize certain choices that you feel will make the most difference for your child, you use hacks and tools where you can (e.g. baby wearing), AND you decide what you’re willing to let go of for the chance to invest in yourself. That will entail disappointing just about everyone a little on a daily basis—and that’s a good thing. This is the point. I promise everyone will live.
What self-care matters the most to you? What do you need the most? Do it. Keep carving away at your responsibilities by simplifying your life, recruiting help and letting the other non-infant people in your life become a little more self-sufficient, and make your self-care happen.
Don’t be shy about organizing your kids activities around your health endeavors either. They can hang out in the kitchen while you put together a salad that will last you three lunches. They can tolerate the stroller for thirty minutes (or more) a day while you enjoy a walk or jog. The dishes can wait while you take a nap.
The fact is, for a while, you might have to do certain aspects of Primal half-@$$%&, and that’ fine. Grok’s mother had a lot more help and a lot fewer expectations than many mothers today. This is the perfect time of life to practice not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. There are worse things than going a few months or even years eating a “good enough” diet or being in “good enough” shape. This stage, as intense as it is, doesn’t last forever.
And don’t underestimate the power of offering your children an example of a sane, balanced, healthy adult who takes care of him/herself.
Middle Age (a.k.a. Seeing the Possibilities in Transition)
Everybody has their own impression it seems of “middle age” these days. I think this reveals our culture’s resistance to or at least ambivalence about this stage. On the one hand, we’re shown impressive models of 40- and 50-somethings who look fitter and more stunning than anyone we know who’s 30. On the other, we see the statistics about risk factors for this and that and recommendations for tests after 40, and suddenly it feels like a more vulnerable age than the media images suggest. Which is it, or is it both?
If we’ve kept ourselves fit and well nourished, we may not feel vulnerable at all. In fact, having gotten past those early parenting years and finally returned to the gym, some of us might feel in better shape than we have in a long time. We feel on a psychological and maybe professional level that we’ve earned our stripes. We’re more balanced as people, more saavy, more successful, more compassionate, more comfortable with who we are.
And yet even in the midst of this contentment, we know change is afoot. Over the course of these two decades or so, we notice subtle changes in clothing fit or body contours. Even if we’re doing the same workouts with a mind toward appropriate progressions, we can see and otherwise sense minor modifications evolving. We can be strong and trim, robust and healthy, but we acknowledge on some level that this is the end of the Teflon years. We can be hale and hearty, but we’re no longer invincible.
The fact is, raw “age” numbers don’t matter as much as the physical changes that happen during this time. For women, peri-menopause and eventual menopause set in. In both sexes, certain hormone levels shift (although not as much—particularly for men—as we often assume), metabolisms begin to downgrade, and it simply takes progressively more effort to maintain the same shape and strength as you had in more youthful days.
This doesn’t mean by any stretch, like conventional thinking suggests, that everyone is doomed to grow spare tires, lose insulin sensitivity and relinquish active—let alone athletic—endeavors. It just means we need to invest more wisely to get the same results we’re used to getting. Maybe a moderate carb diet for us used to mean 90-100 grams of carbs a day. Now we may have to dial that back to maintain the same body composition. Likewise, we might need to step up or choose an alternative exercise program (in addition to some additional, well-timed protein) to maintain our muscle mass.
While age brings perspective and even patience, we might not have the same physical resilience to stress we once did. Adding more self-care and some kind of relaxation routine can help us fill that gap.
In other words, the push into middle age tends to be the time when we need to step up our discipline and hone our overall health regimen. More specialized support can be an answer, as might a tweaking of supplementation—or switch to something more comprehensive (I might know one—wink, wink) as might new complementary practices. Maybe, for instance, it’s time to hire a trainer or begin that meditation practice.
If we find ourselves at this stage without having taken care of ourselves, this is probably doubly true. While building health from the ground up is entirely possible at midlife, we’re wise to gather additional support, and we likewise might need to check out some hormonal health indicators to see what physiological factors we’re working with (or against).
Still, against this hard health backdrop, bigger themes at midlife are often playing out and influencing our overall well-being. For my part, I felt like I hit my stride personally and professionally during these years. This stage was the time when I grew my vision of the Primal Blueprint. I applied it first to my life, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Just when I was told by some that I’d be dealing with chronic pain and digestive issues for the rest of my life, I found a different way. I’d pushed my body into territory and conditions that were characteristic of those older than myself, but I didn’t let that stop me.
Just because the old methods weren’t working didn’t mean I was relegated to poor health and deterioration. I reclaimed my health with a totally new approach, one I think works well for anyone in any age group. I’d also call it an approach that can be easily calibrated as we need to ratchet up our efforts or take a more whole-body approach to maintaining our health. Developing our well-being will always be a multi-faceted, shifting and long-term vision. Middle age makes that more obvious.
Finally, I’d suggest that midlife is also the perfect time to set new goals. In part, it can open us up to new resources and opportunities. And it can also speak back to the common sense that this is a downward trajectory—that pushing past that midpoint fulcrum we’re headed downhill, which hasn’t been my experience at all and doesn’t need to be yours.
Claiming a second act—whether personally, physically or professionally can be the healthiest endeavor you can imagine for yourself. It situates us in pursuit, in play. Life as a grand experiment isn’t anywhere close to over. We’re still actors discovering our storylines. And everyone knows, of course, that all the main action happens in the second act.
60s and Beyond (a.k.a. It’s Anybody’s Game!)
Much more than any other stage, I think this one is truly a wild card. Increasingly, people come to these decades in poor health, with little ambition for an active, let alone adventurous path. There’s a preoccupation with getting to retirement, qualifying for Medicare and then hanging in there for as long as medically possible. From my perspective, that’s an incredible waste of possibility.
It’s true that if we find during midlife we’re not invincible, we understand at this stage that we’re not immortal. And yet there are people who embrace the transition to these later decades with an inspiring long-term commitment to their health as well as a calmness, clarity and vision that can make these the most fulfilling of any life stage. Anyone is free to makes these years the slouch to “old age,” but that’s a definite choice—not an inevitability. (Check out this video of Dick Van Dyke, almost 90 years old, if you need convincing.)
These decades involve in some regards a gradual slowing down, but that’s not the same as stopping and waiting to die. I have a friend in his mid-70s who preparing for his first trip to Antarctica next year. I have another who’s about the same age and climbs as many mountains as she used to three decades ago. When we get together she always revels in sharing this season’s plans for her climbs.
At 62-years-old, these people are always reminding me how young I am. I laugh but acknowledge that I’m as content and (nearly as!) active as ever. We’ll see what I’m up to when I’m as seasoned as they are. I’m forever inspired by their example of new endeavors, new adventures. I truly believe their positive attitudes and pursuit mentality keeps them as young as their activities themselves.
As for me, I’ve spent a good deal of time taking care of myself with exactly a vision for living well at the age I am now. I continue to prioritize maintaining lean muscle mass and organ reserve with body and free weight resistance training. I keep my core strong and work with full body protocols that keep me more limber and agile than I was when I quit racing in my 30s with chronic joint pain. And, of course, I play as much as I can.
I’ve taken care of my bones the same way—with plenty of physical stimulation of the musculoskeletal system, a daily dose of sunshine and a healthy balance of the nutrients like calcium, vitamin K2, magnesium, potassium in addition to vitamin D that support bone integrity.
I’ve devoted the last couple of decades to eating a Primal Blueprint diet with optimal multivitamin/mineral and fish oil supplementation to support my health from every angle—including my cognitive health. I eat clean and limit my exposure to toxins. My diet keeps my blood sugar balanced and insulin sensitivity strong.
My workouts haven’t changed much. I still do sprints—plenty of them. I lift, but I give more thought and generosity to recovery time, and that pays off.
The biggest change I’ve noticed—and addressed—is a need to rein in stress. I’ve noticed I have less patience for it, and I think that’s a good thing. From both a physical and mental perspective, I’ve felt the desire to reduce the impact of everyday tension. A relaxation routine has become a mainstay for me at this point, and at times I wish I’d adopted it sooner.
As a trainer, I’ve observed how useful professional support can be for ongoing fitness—for proper progression and for needed modification. I’ve always recommended extra protein for folks in their later years, particularly following workouts to maximize gains, as well as optimally comprehensive, higher dose daily multivitamins, since absorption of nutrients can gradually decline. The healthier you are and the fewer medications you’re on, the less of that decline you’ll see.
Finally, there’s the adage about making peace with your age in later years. Although some people misconstrue the thought as an excuse for overall complacency, I do think the concept—intended from the right spirit—bears some truth.
Rather, what I sense making peace with is a shifting sense of time, a deliberate deceleration of life’s pace even as my experiences go as deep into my long-term passions and my abilities still stretch into the same activities I’ve always enjoyed. I think well-being in that way takes on the dimension of time—a new perception and appreciation of it.
I’m just as likely to begin something new for the sake of my body’s health, my family’s enjoyment or my professional enthusiasm, but I offer it time with a generosity I didn’t seem to have before. Likewise, moving into my later decades hasn’t cut me off from the likes of intermittent euphoria or awe. It hasn’t deterred my gratification in pushing my physical limits. But I linger in the gains now in a way I never did. Physical recovery has integrated with a deeper sense of psychic processing that merges into attentiveness to the greater picture—that cumulative composite I’m grateful for each day.
Thanks for reading today, everyone. I’d love to hear your thoughts on health, wisdom and well-being in any of these stages. Share your comments, and enjoy your week.
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Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.