Every former competitive athlete’s worst nightmare is that moment when you lose to a younger person doing the sport you love. When the cocoon of invincibility and superiority you’ve erected around yourself comes crashing down and a piece of your self-identity shatters. It can truly feel like the end.
I know the feeling. Several years ago on a family ski trip, my son challenged me to a downhill snowboard race. We’d been doing these races—and I’d been winning them—ever since he was old enough to board. It was tradition that we race, and that I win. It’s just how it played out.
This time was different. I was a newly minted member of the 6-decades club. He was a young man, fully grown, years of sports under his belt. He smoked me. It wasn’t even close. And suddenly I realized that despite being in the best shape of my life relative to my age, that upper limit was trending down.
Luckily, the existential crisis was short-lived if it ever really happened. A few moments were all I needed to realize this wasn’t a tragedy. It was the opposite: the graduation of my son into manhood, the passing of the torch.
Our snowboard race also highlighted a simple fact of human biology and aging that we all have to face. Performance inevitably declines. Michael Jordan in his 40s can’t beat Kevin Durant one-on-one. Usain Bolt won’t beat his WR 100M run from 2009. Arnold will never regain his Mr. Olympia title. It transcends physical output as well—the Rolling Stones won’t ever match “Sticky Fingers” or “Exile on Main Street,” the concluding books of “A Song of Ice and Fire” (if they ever come) will probably be worse than the first two.
And that’s okay. I’m fine with it. You should, too. Denying reality never goes well. It’ll ruin you. You can’t win.
But we still fight it.
A reader passed along a link to a paper entitled “Early and extraordinary peaks in physical performance come with a longevity cost.” The researchers tracked top Olympians from the early 20th century, recorded during which phase of life they attained “peak performance,” and recorded when they died. Those who peaked early tended to die younger than those who peaked later. The relationship was stronger the bigger and earlier the achievement.
They propose a few potential mechanisms, including excessive early mTOR activation or lopsided growth hormone/IGF signaling on the part of the early achievers.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that were part of the story. But I have another idea. This was the early 1900s. There weren’t million dollar endorsement deals with Nike or Gatorade waiting for them. They weren’t famous after weeks of ceaseless media coverage. Jim Thorpe, one of the greatest Olympians of the early 20th century, died penniless. Olympians were true amateurs who, after the glory faded and the medals rusted over, had to figure out what to do with their lives. They often failed.
I’ve talked about peak performance before, about wringing out every last drop of performance and realizing your full potential. Well, peaks come and go. Once you hit it, you either have to keep pushing onward and working harder and harder, which isn’t sustainable for long, or you trend downward. You can’t stay there forever.
Some of the best athletes I’ve known haven’t figured it out. Either they try in vain to hold on to their past glories, maintain their output, and fail miserably or burn out, or they flounder aimlessly. Maybe that’s what happened to those Olympians in the study.
There are people who figure that out.
My good friend (and dad to my great friend and Primal Blueprint colleague Brad Kearns) Dr. Walter Kearns is probably the world’s top 90+ golfer, who at 94 is on his third round (pun intended) of golfing buddies. He’s always complaining about not being able to see the ball and track its flight. Well, it’s because he hits the ball so damn far. He knows he’s not going to beat top guys fifty years his junior. He’s okay with that, but he’s also not hanging up his clubs anytime soon. That’s edge living, and it carries over into all areas.
When he was in the hospital recovering from emergency bowel obstruction surgery, Walter refused pain meds to avoid being drugged up and immobile. This allowed him to walk right out several days ahead of schedule. A nurse later pulled Brad aside and said most people his father’s age never recover from a surgery like that. Many never even leave the bed. She was convinced refusing the meds made the difference.
My chief marketing officer, Aaron Fox, a man who’s been with the company from the very beginning, has a great-grandmother who turns 100 this year. She’s avoided doctors and meds all her life and still lives in the same house she shared with his great-grandfather. After a check-up this year, her blood panel came back pristine, but she had high blood pressure. The doc recommended blood pressure meds—”With your excellent health, it could extend life another five years”—and she’s considering taking them. Even if she goes for it, it’ll be on her terms and only because she decided to. It’s really an attitude or spirit that seems to have kept her in good stead: It’s her life, her home, her body, and she’ll be damned to hand over control of any of it.
I’ve often said that retirement kills only because people waste their free time. A buddy of mine has a father-in-law who retired several years ago. Rather than sit around watching bad daytime T.V. and getting angry on Facebook, he started a fledgling eBay business. A former mechanic and all-around automotive expert who had to give up his shop when he had a series of bad heart attacks and couldn’t maintain the rigorous pace of running a business, he now goes to L.A.-area swap meets and hunts for old car brochures, rare automotive tools, engine parts, and other collector’s items, then sells them for big profits to people across the world. He’s arguably more engaged and in better health than he was before retiring, and he’s doing it by repurposing his talents.
What’s this have to do with health and wellness?
Living life on your own terms isn’t just a quaint turn of phrase. It has huge effects on your health.
A large body of research shows that the less control you think you have over your life, the higher your mortality risk. That persists even when you control for other health variables and biomarkers. It’s even true for animals. Self-agency—or even the illusion of it—appears to be a requirement for healthy, happy aging.
And unlike some of the characteristics shared by centenarians, like good genes, control is malleable. You can’t change the structure of your DNA. You can, however, wrest control over your own life.
Pay attention to that voice inside urging you onward. If something speaks to your soul, answer the call. Check it out. See where it leads. It’s usually guiding you to a good place.
When something feels right, stay with the moment, even if you can’t articulate what’s happening. Suss it out. What are you doing? Who are you with? What were you thinking about? That feeling of “this is right, this is good” is a physiological hint that you should pay attention to what you’re doing—and maybe keep doing it.
Ignoring the call, however, is an abdication of control.
How do you move on and keep going through life while maintaining and indulging that edge? How do you ride the edge?
In reading this blog, eating this way, questioning conventional wisdom, heeding the science, and listening to your body, you’re already doing it. You’ve made—or are in the process of making—some major changes to your lifestyle, changes that will pay dividends.
Moving through life along the edge isn’t necessarily about fitness training. It’s about having a good reason to get up in the morning. A business, a hobby, a project, a job, a family, a physical pursuit, or yes, a workout—anything that calls to you and provides meaning. And whatever that thing is, you go after it.
Keep the fire going, but don’t get into battles you can’t win. Acknowledge and accept your weaknesses. Repurpose your skills and passions. Ride the decline into something new—and maybe better.
Challenge yourself. Maybe not every day, but often enough that you’re always excited about and engaged with something.
Think about ascending a mountain peak. You’re there. The view’s great. It’s frankly exhilarating being on top of the visible world. But you can’t go higher. There’s nowhere to go from there but down. How do you do it? Do you just head straight off, tumbling down over loose gravel to arrive at the bottom, bruised and disheveled? Do you plunge headfirst over a cliff, totally giving up? Or do you ride the edge, walk the range toward the horizon, gradually descending while remaining on a pinnacle?
I know what I’ve chosen. How about you?
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care and be sure to let me know if and how this post resonates with you.
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