A reader writes:
I’m 42 years old and I won’t be able to retire for five more years. I see that you surf. I do Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and I love it. I’m interested in how your body and health are holding up. Can you still surf reasonably well? How do you feel?
The context is that I want to retire early and train more often but I’m worried my body will be a mess earlier than what I think.
I used to surf as well, but I live too far from the coast to surf regularly unless I retire and move. I have three kids and I really don’t want to move too far away from my family.
The military insisted that I stay fit during my 20s and 30s, and during military retirement that habit has persisted to my 50s. I just turned 55 years old.
I started surfing at age 41 and taekwondo at age 43. Both turned out to be great father-daughter activities. We’re surfers for life and we both earned our black belts. I see guys in their 70s surfing all the time (I hope to be one of them) and I know a few in their 80s. Rabbit Kekai surfed and paddled canoes into his 90s.
I do these activities despite torn ACLs in both knees. Instead of surgery, I’ve opted to strengthen the quads & hamstring muscles around the joints (which I’d have to do anyway) and my knees are stable enough. I won’t ski moguls or skydive because I’m not willing to risk the consequences, and I avoid running because I don’t have much meniscus cartilage left, but I’m fine for surfing 15-footers or doing ten-mile hikes.
However, physical performance does decline with age. Effort and perseverance (and obstinance) will only get you so far. My experience indicates that you’ll be good with BJJ at least until your 50s, but do as much as you can while you still can.
When I went up for my taekwondo 2nd dan test at age 51, I was struggling. I passed with flying colors, but I was pushing my endurance limit. During the year after that, I had to gradually cut back on the TKD training and spend more time recovering.
At first, I stopped tournament sparring, and then I gave up clinics, and then I stopped dojang sparring. I got down to two classes per week and I was barely recovering in between them. I took a six-month break and then came back for another six months, but it was no longer fun. I grudgingly realized that it was time to hang up my belt. I was smart enough to give away my uniforms and gear so that I wouldn’t be tempted to “try just one more time”.
I still miss taekwondo every day. I feel an atavistic testosterone-poisoned challenge in competing against someone who’s taller and heavier. I also miss competing against myself with more complicated kicks and spins. However, I’m finally responsible (“mature”?) enough to feel the diminishing safety margin in my capability (and my knees). Overtraining on a sore knee, or an instant of inattention, would have ruined what’s left of the ligaments and cartilage.
Part of the aging decline is brutally physical: human cardiac muscle gets stiffer every year and can no longer achieve its hypothetical maximum heart rate. It’s linear: “MHR = 220 minus your age” or “208 – 0.7(age)”. In my 30s my MHR used to be routinely up in the 180s, but these days I’m rarely over 160. Lung performance also declines with age. The diaphragm and the alveoli stiffen and don’t expand as much. Six months ago I had a pulmonary capacity test and learned that my lungs are operating at 70%. Most humans can survive at as low as 30% but the trend is unmistakable.
The other age-related insult is recovery. My body does not flush out lactic acid and repair its muscle damage as quickly as it used to. TKD taught me how to endure significant anaerobic exertion, and I can still do that, but I know that I’ll pay for it over the next 48 hours. When I was in my late 20s I used to swim a mile in the morning, play racquetball at lunch, and lift weights before dinner. These days I have to limit myself to just one workout every other day, with maybe two-mile walks during off days. Anything else hammers me into spaghetti arms, rubber legs, and even respiratory infections.
Advancing age can be countered with a healthy diet. I take daily vitamins, antioxidants, and supplements. (Even the placebo effect is better than nothing.) I eat more protein and raw veggies and very little sugar, bread, dairy, or simple carbs. I’ve completely cut out alcohol. My big thrill is a small daily handful of chocolate chips with my yogurt & nuts.
The “good news” for older athletes is that I didn’t have any of these issues in my 40s, and they suddenly popped up around age 52. I’m frustrated by this age-related betrayal. I remember what I used to be able to do, but now I pay a much higher price for it. I start the day with a fixed amount of energy, and if I burn through it then I’m chewing into the next day’s quota as well. There’s no magic supplement, although Thai massage helps. However, even surfing for five days in a row during a long-lived swell carries a price of 800 mg of ibuprofen… two or three doses a day.
Your physical condition may be different. Your genes may help you go longer. You may age better than me, especially if it turns out that my recovery issues are symptoms of early-stage arthritis. Or maybe I’m hypersensitive to submarine nuclear radiation or atmosphere-control chemicals. Unfortunately, I’ve checked with guys in their 70s, from semi-pro golfers to Navy SEALs, and they all have declining performance with longer recovery times.
The irony is that my surfing skills are better than ever. I pop up smoothly. My knees can easily handle sharp cutbacks (thanks to squats & lunges) and I can hang five on a 9’0″ longboard. I’m much smarter about choosing a wave and reading it as I ride it. But as soon as I paddle in I take a dose of ibuprofen.
When I had to make a choice, I realized that surfing is more important to me than TKD. I still miss martial arts, and I’m looking at yoga and kendo. But if I want to keep surfing two or three times a week then I should probably just stick with bodyweight exercises, vigorous yardwork, and brisk neighborhood walks.
My advice is what you’d expect: focus on what’s important to you. I’d suggest that you keep up with BJJ as long as your joints can handle it. Train hard until you bump into a limit. Watch out for injuries and don’t train while you’re sick. If you maintain a fitness baseline and watch the junk calories then you should be fine for at least another decade!
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Exercise With A Purpose
During retirement: Healthy lifestyle
Lifestyles in Early Retirement: Habits And Getting Things Done
Book review: “Lean Body, Fat Wallet”