The Anti-Frailty Instinct

The first time I saw Andy I was warming up for a circuit class. He wasn't in front of the mirrors with the young guys in tight-fitting compression tops grunting and grimacing, who would lift too much weight for thirty seconds with poor form, then spend a minute admiring their puffed up pecs and biceps as they recovered.

Andy was towards the back of the room, moving slowly and quietly from weight machine to machine, like a bee working a flower bed. His white long white hair and beard contrasted sharply with the black sweatsuit and shoes that covered him from head to toe. He would do a set, very slowly, sit for a moment to catch his breath, then get up and move to the next machine. When he got up, he wobbled a little and sometimes reached out to steady himself with his hand, especially if he had to wait patiently for someone to vacate a machine. Standing there, you could see he has a severe curvature to his upper spine, called kyphosis, that is common in old age.

One day when the weight room was crowded, I found myself stretching between two of the machines. I met Andy when he sat down on the calf machine, set the pin and with a quiet exhalation, started exercising.

I said had a question to ask him that I had wondered about for weeks: "How old are you?"

Continuing to exercise, he glanced at me with twinkling, small round eyes peering out from under bushy eyebrows, and answered: "I'm 90 years old."

This TOJ told him how impressed he was seeing him there and how hard he worked.

He shrugged and smiled. "I just want to be able to take care of myself. When I can't, it'll be time to go." He told me his father had lingered for a year and a half after a stroke. He would avoid that if he could. He said his daughter kept an eye on him, but he had specific instructions to not attempt anything dramatic if something happened to him. He said he'd already had his share of pain in life. When he was in the Navy, he broke his back. The doctors said he'd never walk again. He shook his head as he talked about this, "I was 19 years old. I had to get out of that wheelchair. That pain was..." He just shook his head as his words trailed off.  

I asked if he'd always worked out. He said that for many years he was an electrician and truck driver and didn't. It wasn't until he was in his 70s and fifty pounds heavier that he started to exercise. He felt bad, had some medical problems, and figured out he needed to do something and asked his doctor if it would be okay. She said yes, and he'd been lifting weights a few days a week ever since.

I told him I'd just finished a course on senior fitness and from what I had learned, he was doing everything right. He's an inspiration to others, including me. He smiled slightly, saying he figured it had something to do with living so long. He said his balance wasn't what it used to be, but other than that he was hanging in there.

The trainer called us to gather to prepare for circuits, but one day I'll talk more with Andy. Something got him out of that wheelchair and kept him in the gym five decades later. I'd like him to tell more.

He's living proof that resistance exercise is a key to a long, happy life. A  harsh fact is that we lose muscle mass as we age through a process called sarcopenia. The process starts in middle age and accelerates as we pass age 50. The muscles shrink and neurons die.

However, though it cannot be stopped, it can be significantly slowed  by resistance exercise. Other types of exercise for endurance and balance are also important, but strength enables the other two. Strength keeps you upright, mobile, and able to continue with activities of daily living. It's the key to remaining independent for as long as possible.

Andy discovered the elixir of life and the antidote to frailty. It's not in a pill. It's good old-fashioned sweat.

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