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Fitness Along the Happiness Curve
How aging can change the way we think about wellness.
About a decade ago, I came across an article about the “happiness curve.” According to researchers at Brookings, our subjective levels of happiness hit their low point in our 40s and then steadily rise from there, creating a chart that quite literally resembles a smile.
Like seemingly all research, this notion has since been challenged by other researchers, but the concept has always stuck with me. And now, as I leave the midlife doldrums behind to enter my 50s, I increasingly find the pattern rings true. I AM happier now than I was at 40 or 45, and I am most definitely happier than I was in my teens and 20s (I was pretty emo back then).
“You have to put in the work to be happy. It could mean therapy. It could be having passions. It could be having a career that really speaks to who you are and that you’re contributing to the world, or that you’ve made your money.”
Nonetheless, I have found that many of the concerns I had in my 20s, 30s and 40s are sliding into the rearview mirror as I turn 52 this month.
So what does all this after to do with fitness? Well, in addition to making me happier, aging has changed the way I think about health and fitness in a few key ways.
I care less about how I look and more about how I feel. Selling also points out that as you get older, you just generally care less about what people think of you, and this has been scientifically proven to make you happier. I can 100 percent attest to this concept. Like many young women, I was miserably self-conscious in my 20s, 30s and even 40s, feeling and I could never measure up to societal standards of thinness and beauty. I still don’t meet these unrealistic expectations, but I also don’t care. I work out because I enjoy it and want to stay strong and active for as long as possible. I eat plants because it makes me feel good.
I give myself more grace more often. This has been a hard lesson to learn, because I like to push myself. Aging, however, has a way of forcing you to take it a bit easier on yourself. My body doesn’t recover as quickly from a hard effort, so sometimes I have to take an extra rest day. I’ve also come to recognize that choosing to prioritize some aspects of your life—like work or time with friends and family—means letting go of other expectations. I wrote about this a bit in a blog post about running. I don’t always get the mix right by any means, but I’m getting better at it.
I’m more mindful of functionality. Along with needing more time to recover, aging has made me well aware that strength, flexibility, balance and even range of motion are a “use it or lose it” proposition. In a recent podcast episode, Joan Maiden, an author and personal trainer, talked about the importance of maintaining functionality as we age. She said:
“I never want to get to a point to where I’m afraid to take a step or go up the stairs or be able to do the things I want to do. And I would challenge people: What do you want to do? Don’t let your body be a prison.”
I’m willing to try new things – and fail at them. While I have never been a world-class athlete by any stretch of the imagination, I used to go into any endeavor with the goal of mastery. If you can’t be good at something, why bother to even try? What I’ve come to realize is that the trying is the most important part. I tried Taekwondo and failed miserably. When that stopped being fun, I switched to boxing and am having a blast. Last weekend, a friend took me out to learn how to two-step (yes, I’m from Texas and can’t two step). We were both pretty bad at it, but we had fun trying and vowed to go back and try again.
Has aging changed the way you think about health and fitness? Drop us a note in the comments or email us to share your story.