Lessons From the Gym for the Over-50 Crowd

Two years ago, I lost 50 pounds. I've gained back about five or six, which doesn't make me happy, but isn't a tragedy. About a year ago, I decided to start a personal training regimen -- not to keep the weight off, because I fundamentally believe that has more to do with eating less than with exercise -- but to feel stronger and more competent at physical activities. However, my training regime has had some unexpectedly positive results.

Twice a week, I use kettlebells, do squats, lift weights and generally engage in a number of activities that make me feel sore and aching, yet strangely young. My muscles are still working, I have hitherto unsuspected skills, particularly in strength moves, and I love my gym, a gritty third-floor walk-up space, where age doesn't seem to matter. I'm one of the oldest people there, but I don't feel old there. I feel vital and even a little cool.

Thinking about it, I realize it's not just the physical challenges and endorphins that have enhanced my life. I have always believed that goals and dreams are crucial to maintaining an optimistic and youthful outlook, and at the gym, I can establish a constantly shifting set of achievable goals. I can try and hold a plank position for two minutes instead of a minute and a half, do 25 push-ups instead of 20 or grasp 15-pound weights in each hand instead of 10-pound weights. These small victories give me confidence and provide immense satisfaction.

And then there are the new perspectives I gain at the gym, or "mental gymnastics" as I like to think of them. In my daily life, most of my friends are my age or even older, and while we have had different trajectories, we share many similar traits: We have children who are out of the nest; we are slightly bewildered by modern technology and thrilled if we have mastered Facebook; we are contemplating retirement and how to stay relevant; we often have had parents who have been sick; and we are very aware of our mortality or at least of the fragility of life and health.

At the gym, I interact with a variety of people whom I would never have met in the ordinary course. Adam, the mid-thirties owner of the gym, is also an actor, an engineer and is constantly exploring new technologies and new ways to connect with the world. He has introduced me to codecademy, Seth Godin's podcasts about startups and music that I've never heard before (some of which I wish I hadn't heard, but that's another story). Talking to his clients, I have met shoe designers, salesmen, journalists, yoga instructors and Broadway actors, a fascinating group of people whose ages generally range from 21 to 50. As we all sweat and strain, I am taken out of my typical routine and circle of friends. People talk about their interests and share their stories; I find myself open to ideas that are surprising and sometimes over my head (particularly in terms of technology) and to people's concerns that are often outside of my personal experience. I listen, I learn, I am listened to, and I hope I am somewhat helpful.

I know that many people my age are very comfortable with the worlds they have crafted, and I understand if someone is perfectly content to keep to the same patterns, people and places. And of course, it is vitally important to maintain old friendships and have a loving relationship with family members -- there is nothing more important. But deep down, I guess I also feel that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and staying abreast of what's happening in the world is a good thing. It's a way to look forward in a positive fashion, and not worry about mortality or sickness or the nagging concern, when you feel an unfamiliar twinge or can't remember the name of a book or a person, that some part of you is breaking down.

I'm not suggesting that everyone can or should pick up a kettlebell or join a gym. But what I have gained from my gym experience is the feeling that I'm always in training. Training my body to achieve a new level of fitness, training myself to set goals and training my mind to be welcoming to new ideas and people. Most of us have opportunities where we can expand our physical capabilities, gain a new perspective, develop new goals and learn about this fascinating fast-paced world we live in. Why not be open to those possibilities?