This is Your Life

The Fountain of Youth is a myth. But take heart: Intelligent training and an adventurous spirit will keep you running, kicking, screaming at the peak of your potential for years to come. A decade-by-decade guide to perpetual fitness

May 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

28: Brett Young, runner, boxer and rock climber: "Your body is different every day, and you have to work it according to how it feels. Listen to it."

THE REST OF YOUR LIFE STARTS NOW. It's true you can shape your destiny. But it will require choosing one of two paths: 1) Muscles turn to flab in your thirties, you get clumsy in your forties, weak in your fifties, and by your sixties you're primed for heart attacks and cancer. At 74, it's sayonara, sucka; you've just hit the average life expectancy for an American male. 2) You're Vincent Carnevale, 86, of Glen Ridge, New Jersey, and you just ran your 500th race—your 500th race since turning 70, that is.

The choice is a no-brainer, right? So read on for our strategy to stay young while you're young and for the long run.

(Your) 20s
BACK IN 1999, 20-year-old John Grossman, a part-time ski instructor, kayaker, and all-around fun hog from Ketchum, Idaho, decided to take up boardercross, that nutty mix of motocross and snowboarding. But during the Swatch Boardercross at Colorado's Copper Mountain, Grossman fell and badly dislocated his left shoulder. While he endured a couple more seasons of downhill combat, he ultimately came to a rather mature realization. "In some sports, you just hurt yourself," he says. "It was too dangerous."

The Bad News "You have little concern about what life might look like after retirement," says Christina Geithner, Exercise Science department chair at Gonzaga University, in Spokane, Washington. Grossman's epiphany underscores your biggest liability during this golden decade of athletic prowess: your Superman-like self-image.

But pay attention: Your body's decline has already begun. Cartilage, that Teflon-like material that ensures smooth joint movement, is deteriorating. Flexibility-wise, you're over the hill: Males' biggest natural gains in elasticity come at about 13, whereas in your twenties, collagen, the protein-based connective tissue around your joints, begins to harden and make you stiffer if you don't stay active. Suffer a common injury like a blown knee, torn shoulder, or tweaked back and you hasten physiological decrepitude—often through the likes of arthritis. Alas, recovery from those injuries is rarely 100 percent.
The Good News "It's the charmed decade. You haven't faced your own mortality," says Geithner. And why should you? VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can process, peaks in your twenties. On average, muscle makes up a whopping 45 percent of a body's lean tissue. (The rest consists of bone, organs, and water.) Double bonus: Sixty percent of the horsepower in that muscle is generated by "fast-twitch" fibers, the ones designed for explosive activities like sprinting and leaping. With your body humming on all cylinders, you're more likely to take on activities—steepcreeking, BASE jumping, all-night Red Bull-and-vodka benders—that throw common sense out the helicopter window. Enjoy yourself.

The Prescription Keep your hamstrings and torso flexible by stretching them after every workout to ensure the muscles don't shorten and tighten up. "Make every third aerobic workout a cross-training day," says Lynn Millar, a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine. "If you're a runner, cycling, swimming, or rowing offers an excellent aerobic workout while giving your hips, knees, and ankles a rest." Swimmers, cyclists, and other low-impact athletes, take note: Since bones develop throughout your twenties, you'll need a steady diet of explosive movements—lifting heavy weights that fatigue muscles in no more than ten reps, trail running, shooting hoops—to buttress bone density and carry you up to and through middle age. Do nothing for your bones and you risk the early onset of osteoporosis.