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Changing our ideas about exercise as we age

Staying active can get harder as we get older, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on exercise, writes MARIAN BRENNAN.

Ageing might be inevitable, but that doesn’t make it easy! It may seem like only yesterday that you were at the top of your exercise game when, in reality, decades have passed. Where did your budding inner-athlete go? Whether the memory of our past sporting prowess is accurate or not, it can be deflating to realise that the sort of activity we once found easy is now physically out of reach. It can be easy to slip into the ‘all or nothing’ mentality when it comes to sport and physical activity. Do these inner thoughts sound familiar?

“I’ll embarrass myself!”

“I’m too slow. Everyone will be faster than me!”

“I’ll be the worst in the group! I have too many injuries, I can’t play anymore.”

“I’m too old to do that…”

This common internal dialogue is fixated on how well we will perform and how our egos will cope if we don’t meet the (very unfair) expectations we put upon ourselves. To overcome this, we need to shift our mindset to remember what really made us so fond of being active in our youth.

It is not uncommon to hear people become nostalgic about their experience of sport and exercise in their youth. But that nostalgia is usually about more than just kicking goals or achieving personal bests.

When I think back on these times, I remember feeling fit and strong, making new friends, socialising, a strong sense of belonging, and generally having fun. These are probably the things that we are actually feeling nostalgic about. The good new is they are still very attainable – at any age!

When it comes to exercise, it can be difficult to let go of expectations (based on past experience) and accept our present physical limitations. Some may even find this process similar to a grieving process. You may be grieving the loss of a lifestyle you once enjoyed or grieving the identity and sense of belonging sport once gave you.

Just as grief has several stages, you may have moved through different stages of processing your changing exercise capacity over the years. This is completely normal. One of the final stages of this process is accepting that we simply may not be able to do what we used to do when we were in our prime! And that’s OK.

For some, this is a very difficult thing to come to terms with, but there are some key things that might help you find your love for activity again.

  • Focus on the elements of physical activity that might bring you joy – socialising, meeting new people, having fun.
  • Set new goals that are more achievable and aligned with your current ability.
  • Try using SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timebound).
  • Use the opportunity to try new things!
  • Take some time to reassess what is important and meaningful to you right now.
  • Talk to others and share experiences.
  • Consider getting involved in sport in other capacities, for example, organising committees, refereeing, scoring, or coaching.

Adjusting to any change in life takes time. Finding your place in physical activity again is no different. Reframing how we think about activity when we live with complicated health conditions can help us find new meaning and fulfilment from physical activity and get us back to the most important part – enjoyment!

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