At age 48, as I contemplated and dreaded turning 50, a crazy idea popped into my head: Run a marathon. Never had that one on my bucket list. In fact, I swore to runner pals that I would never, ever go there. But once the idea was lodged in my brain, I could not get it out. Then a wondrous thing happened. When I bumped up my training from running easy three times a week to long runs, hills and speed work, I learned this: The more I stressed my body, the younger I felt and looked.
When I ran my first marathon at age 49, I was leaner, stronger, fitter and faster than I was at 39. Was it possible to run my way into an even younger self? Could I enter the second half of my life with the wisdom of my years yet the fitness and energy of a 20 year old?
Giving myself that seemingly impossible birthday gift became the project for my 50th year and my new book, Older Faster Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer. I threw myself headlong into the adventure, delving into the science of aging and exercise and going on marvellous runs with fitness pioneers: A woman still teaching yoga at age 97, a nun running Iron Mans in her 80s, an 85 year old who ran a three-generation marathon with her son and granddaughter, a woman, 75, who can run marathons faster than men in their 20s to 40s. Thing one I discovered is that up to 70 per cent of the aging process is preventable. The prescription? Here are five things you can do to turn back your biological clock.
FIT AFTER 40: 5 STEPS TO LOOKING AND FEELING GREAT
#1 Make a workout a habit, and it’s tough to break. Hello Tuesday morning running group! Sometimes it’s rainy, cold, icy but there’s always the crowd of friends waiting for me on the bridge, the trail along the river, the sun scratching its way over Lake Ontario (or clawing through fog, rain, snow but always with beautiful long nails of light) and 13 kilometres that makes the rest of the day always right.
Minimum recommended dosage: 4 X 30 minutes of cardio a week.
#2 Know that lifting one weight is hard, repeating 8 times is easy. On weightlifting days, my brain resists going to the gym. But once there, my muscles love working to exhaustion. After, my brain buzzes on a creative endorphin high as depleted muscles suck into fat stores (making me leaner) and youth-enhancing growth hormone (released for up to four hours!) rushes in to rebuild muscle (making me stronger). It surges through my entire being – brain, muscle, skin, bone – rebirthing me at a cellular level. Brain know this: Body wins, you win.
Minimum recommended dosage: 2 X week (weights and or strength sports such as yoga, rowing, swimming).
#3 Understand that sex hormones are short-lived, flimsy protection against the ravages of living. Estrogen starts crapping out in our 30s, which leads to increased fat and reduced muscle mass, bone density, and heart, lung and brain function. But stress the body – push the pace, pump up the weights, pour out the sweat – and, at any age, the body gets the signal that you want to live, you need to live. And so it produces DHEA, which sounds like deity, and so it should, because this far sturdier steroid soldiers on, miraculously preserving our youthful superpowers long after our sex hormones have shot their wad. This evening, I’m going for a dose of DHEA at the clinic – my run clinic, that is.
Recommended dosage: Exercise for 60 minutes a day, 6 days a week, with a combination of cardio, strength and flexibility training.
#4 Rest, but do it actively. Oh delicious are my Fridays when I take my one day off from training to let my muscles repair, build, heal, rest and my brain bathe luxuriously in slothful thoughts. Training newbies may want to take two days off each week. But remember this: Rest is best done actively. Think of rest day as treating your body to a day at the spa and choose from the following menu: light walk or cycle or swim, gentle yoga, massage, stretching, wholesome food, hot tub, extra sleep. One of the biggest things I learned from 80+ marathoners? When not training, they’re still moving – gardening, walking, cycling or walking. They hardly sit down.
Recommended dosage: Listen to your body and give it the sleep she needs!
#5 Eat Like A Cave-mam. I hate dieting, counting calories, obsessing about what I can and cannot have. Is there a way to eat that does not pack my unfair share of the world’s calories into my middle-aged gut? Alas, there is, and it’s fun, political and tasty too. Cave-mam eating, as I call it, means eating closer to nature, like our hunter and mostly gatherer ancestors. Cave-mam ethics means waging war on Big Food. Rather than starving yourself on yo-yo diets, starve companies that make your body a dumping ground for cheap calories. Cut those simple carbs (bread, pasta, processed anything, sugar) and load up on complex carbs (mostly vegetables and some fruit). Give your body two weeks to adjust and you will soon crave healthy foods, with taste buds, brain, digestive system and energy levels all perking up. If you need a mantra to go cave-mam, try this: What fattens your bottom also fattens the bottom line of Big Food.
Recommended dosage: Minimum 5, preferably 10 servings of vegetables and fruit every day.
Margaret Webb is an author, journalist, screenwriter and avid runner. She teaches magazine writing at Ryerson University and blogs about running at margaretwebb.com. To learn more about her project and see a cool video of older women outrunning her, click here. Click here to buy a copy of Older Faster Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, and come join the Toronto book launch on October 14 at 7pm at Hart House.