by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
It's not about the weight on the bar, it's not about how you look. It's not even entirely about health. So what is it? Why do we train?
I am fiercely proud of all of my athletes. Some of them are stronger than others, in either absolute terms or by virtue of some allometric or other variable (height, weight, age, etc). Greysteel athletes are all well ahead of their peers in general population for strength, but as a group they demonstrate a broad range of capacities and attributes. They all do their best, working as close to their potential as they can today. My intermediate athletes all know their 1-Rep Max, but I hope they all know they are not defined by it. The Athlete of Aging with a 150-lb press is no more an Athlete than the one with the 50-lb press. For each of them, the weight on the bar is important because it is what challenges and changes them. None of my athletes, so far as I am aware, have washboard abs. None of them is in danger of being a swimsuit model or making the cover of GQ. In a world where “fitness” is an industry dominated by images of half-naked young people, it is vital for the Athlete of Aging to encompass this: We are not trying to make you more “beautiful” (small-b). You are already Beautiful (capital-B). This is not cosmetic medicine. This is medicine for life and living, medicine to help you forge yourself into a truly authentic human being, rather than an idealized, sexualized, airbrushed image of perpetual youth. And neither I nor any of my clients are in “perfect health,” because nobody is. Every single one of us is a demonstration of the Second Law of Thermodynamics:
∂S ≥ ∂Q/T ∂S ≥ 0
These expressions are implacable. They put a hard limit on the conversion of energy to useful work, and say that the entropy (S: the “disorder”) of any system, including the universe itself, will always increase. That is why time goes forward and not back, why teacups break but never reassemble themselves, why it’s easy to get toothpaste out of the tube but not back in, and why tendons unravel, eyesight dims, genetic errors creep in, and our physical performance potential declines with age. This most pernicious Second Law is what imposes irreversibility on so many physical processes. Time flows toward disorder and dissolution. Thus, the playwright Agathon tells us:
“This alone is denied to God: The power to undo the past.”
Those of you who are still awake may object that you spent a good deal of time cleaning up your long-neglected living room today—an apparent violation of the Second Law. In the process, however, you metabolized fuels, burning them down to CO2 and water, reducing them from highly ordered compounds to simple gases that you exhaled into the environment to spread out in complete disarray. You also generated waste heat, which is energy that, from now to the end of time, will never again be available to do useful work. And, if you are like the rest of us mere mortals, you also transferred a good deal of the mess and clutter from your living room to the spare bedroom, probably while nobody was watching. The entropy in your living room went down. But the entropy in the spare bedroom is off the charts. It’s okay. We all have a “room of shame.” The point is that you decreased the entropy of your living room while increasing the total entropy of the universe. That’s what life does. Hey, I didn’t make the rules here. Lifestyle medicine, including exercise medicine, can reverse some pathological processes (sarcopenia, osteopenia, insulin resistance, deconditioning, systemic inflammation, etc). And it can definitely slow the degeneration of aging, but it cannot stop it. As I have said before many times, it will not restore our eyesight, cure established diabetes, fix our bald spot, or smooth our wrinkles. Lifestyle medicine makes us as strong and as healthy as we can be—and that is essential if we are to be as human as we can be, to live life as fully as we may, to be as useful and resilient as is possible for us. It is wonderful to put up an impressive PR, to be trim and muscular, or to glow with the sort of good health that makes one truly physically attractive. The Athlete of Aging may achieve any or all of these things with commitment, good genetics, and good luck. This is all commendable and salutary. But to my mind, none of these things are really the point. So it’s not about the weight on the bar—that’s just a metric that tells us where we are and where might go—useful for programming, gauging progress, and setting goals. That’s not nothing, but it’s not everything, either. And it’s not about how we look. Some of you are very pleasing to the eye, of course—especially Carson, who is just as devilishly handsome as they come. Good on you, but it’s not the point. It is rather more about physical health, which is the foundation of all our human enterprises and endeavors. But not entirely, for physical health waxes and wanes and will one day fail. I believe that, at its core, training for the Athlete of Aging is, like life itself, a defiance of entropy, a doomed but dissenting middle finger all up in the face of the Second Law, an affirmation that there is something about Being Human that transcends the finality of broken teacups, corrupted DNA base pairs, and frayed collagen fibers. To train is to affirm that the Stress-Recovery-Adaptation cycle is still operating at the biological level in defiance of local physical entropy, and that the Challenge-Renewal-Accomplishment cycle is still operating at the existential level, in defiance of spiritual entropy. If we can add a pound to a press…or keep that last pound on our press…or avoid losing more than a pound on our press, then we are still forging ourselves, and not just at the level of physical performance. Because if we can do that, we can also read another book, learn another language, acquire another skill, care for another fellow being, and discover new things about ourselves. That is what it is to be an Athlete of Aging: to be a blazing light of order in a silent, violent universe spinning down into heat death. The universe will unfold as it must. But the Athlete unfolds as he will.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.