My doctor came in holding the results from my physical. The physician’s report contained the detailed results from my exam. Although I was only forty-two years old, the document suggested the physical and emotional condition of someone almost twice as old I.
And why wouldn’t it? I was feeling lousy. On a near-daily basis, I suffered from general irritability; my blood pressure was rather high; for unknown reasons I was disturbed by loud noises; had a nagging and unnatural electric sensation in my hands; either was sleeping way too much or too little; had a reduced capacity for taste; and felt a sense of fatigue and weakness.
At the time, I was playing in adult soccer league which was coincidentally called “Over the Hill Soccer”. I thought it should be renamed “Down the Hill” to describe more accurately the condition of my teammates and me. We played 10 games in the spring and 10 games in the fall. Everyone was getting progressively slower and we thought the age was the reason.
Six years later, I made the first tentative step toward a healthier lifestyle: I started jogging without particular reason or goal. I certainly did not envision that this choice would be the single most important one of my entire life. But the results were immediate and inarguable. I ran my first road race; later I expanded to triathlon racing and long distance running including marathons.
I continually surprised myself, putting greater and greater challenges in my path, yet continuing to achieve them and subsequently achieving even higher results. I had become a relatively fast runner and triathlete for my age. I have continued to up the ante (I’ve run a 5K in under nineteen minutes; a 13.1M in ninety minutes; and a half-ironman triathlon at five hours, twenty-three minutes), and started increasing the volume and intensity of my training.
There are realizations, revelations, and self-discoveries I have been making ever since taking that tentative first step, all of them substantial and deeply rooted in changing certain core misconceptions I had about life and exercise. For one, I realized that my body was not strong and it would just break down if I keep my athletic intensity.
As I started to train and race more, my body stubbornly refused to mold itself into stable condition; the concept of a “gradual buildup” and a state of physical fitness seemed out of reach. I experimented and tried countless training approaches and plans—to no avail.
Bear in mind, I was still better off than before. Really, on the surface, I was fine. I was racing regularly and winning medals in local and regional competitions. But on the other hand, I felt that if I was unable to get my body into a physically consistent condition, I was going to seriously injure myself and/or lose interest in exercise because of the constant fatigue and pain.
The Elite Performance
There is a selected group of athletes with similar physical size and training methods at almost any competition who finish significantly faster and with less effort than the rest of the field. A common explanation is that they are simply younger and genetically talented, attributes and strengths with which they must have been born.
Another typical explanation of the elite athletes’ superiority is their much higher training volume. For example, professional and accomplished amateur runners attempt to run 100-150 miles a week and the majority of running world is mimicking this training approach. In the competitive and amateur world of running, cycling or swimming the athletic performance is revolved around weekly mileage or yardage completed. Feeling exhausted? ”If you do marathons and triathlons, it will hurt.”
The Conventional Wisdom
I always had doubts about school of thinking that makes the DNA and age the primary factors. If we are made from the same flesh and bones as the elite, why can’t we do what they do? At the heart of this question lies another query: Why do we start life at our most capable, and get less and less potent with time?
I found difficult to accept this philosophy: that because of different genes, with age my fate is linked to doom. For the rest of my life, I will always be deteriorating physically and emotionally? I was never afraid to challenge the established notions and disrupt the status quo. The quest to find answers to these questions is turning into my life’s mission discovering what the secret really is.
The Unexpected Revelations
My research and analysis of triathletes’ performance revealed a puzzling fact. Some triathletes are capable to run with significantly lower weekly running mileage an identical distance considerably faster than the full-time runners with higher training volume. This is after completing the swimming and cycling portions of the race. This finding holds true with the short, medium and long endurance events. In addition, many triathletes are capable completing Ironman triathlon (2.4M swim and 112M bike legs) and run a marathon distance 26.2M under 3 hours. Typically, during the Boston Marathon with the field of 30,000 runners only about 1,000 people complete the distance in 3 hours.
Also, it is a common knowledge across all physical sports and activities that the long-term results of high volume training do not improve proportionally to the effort. If such training continues the performance levels off and it often leads to chronic injuries. As a part of my exploration I made another baffling discovery: track and field athletes set a number of world records after injuries when they were forced to stop the training.
The Ballroom Dancing
I was introduced to ballroom dancing on a cruise ship; my first teachers were world-champion dancers Bob Powers and Julia Gorchakov. When one night at dinner I queried my tablemates how I might learn to dance like Mr. Powers, the reaction was intense and frankly a little hostile. One man, visibly annoyed, told me that I would “never be able to move like him,” and that if I “hadn’t started that sort of thing as a kid, forget it.” I was never able to accept the idea “you are too old or not born for that” and I realized if I want to overcome this challenge I have to go against the flow and rewrite the conventional script that genetic composition and/or age bracket is the only answer.
Looking for Answers
As I continue to compete in long distance running and triathlons I was looking to find answers to the question if some of us are lucky with God-given abilities and others are left to live with their own limitations. If the elite dancers, runners or swimmers are able to make their bodies to outperform the competition are these skills trainable? As incredible it sounded then the answer today is yes! My study of kinesiology, the science of human movement and anatomy led me into area of functional movement including the aspects of kinesthetic awareness and neuromuscular efficiency.
I discovered that the human body is anatomically designed to produce natural and efficient movements, and I developed a better understanding how is the body is supposed to move. This knowledge enabled me to describe scientifically functional movements for sports such as swimming, cycling, running, weight lifting and dancing. If you acquire basic understanding of human anatomy and put an effort to let the body move the way it is designed you will be able to participate in sports and physical activities you never thought it was possible.
It means that the idea of each person having his/her own way of producing movements is a misconception and natural movement skills can be reactivated. It should be noted that a level of movement efficiency would vary since individual anatomy of every person is unique. My development effort discovered that principles of human movement are universal for any physical activity or sport.
The Fitness Industry
My efforts became a natural extension that led me to the fitness industry and I started working as a personal trainer at the Boston Sports Clubs in Waltham, Ma and later in another BSC club in Newton, Ma. It didn’t take too long to find out that club members are mostly interested in workouts consisting of “weights”, “cardio” and stretching. A typical profile of a person in his/her 50’s, 60’s and 70’s during a fitness assessment who exercised regularly for 15-20 years indicated significant physical and mental deterioration including various medical conditions and injuries related to low-back, hips, knees, shoulders, spine, ankles and others.
Science-based functional movement – the key aspect of fitness – is overlooked in most exercise programs. Lack of proper functional movement results in faulty movements and it can make the body dysfunctional.
It should be noted that it is more attention is being paid to functional fitness to develop speed, agility and power. However, these skills require efficient functional movement or the lack of it will put undue stress to to the body and it can cause injuries.
The Myth of Aging
“I am 30 years old and I cannot exercise anymore as much as I used to. My doctor told me to reduce intensity of my workouts because I am not 20 years old anymore.”
“My knees and low-back hurt when I play tennis. The coach says this is what happens you get older.”
“I am overweight and I read that I can expect to add 1-2 pounds a year and 15 years later I will be 30 pounds heavier.”
“I am 29 years old, I used to run but at my doctor advised me that running is not recommended for my age.”
“I was diagnosed with arthritis and my doctor told me this condition is common with old people. Really? I just turned 45!”
“I have been doing diligently for years ‘weights”, “cardio” and yoga. Now, my body is breaking down. I guess it is OK. Professional athletes retire in their 30’s and I am already 38 years of age.”
We hear too often people justify their age when they are unable to do activities they used to. It is really sad that the age an accepted excuse for poor fitness and deteriorating performance in the professional sports. The consensus in the tennis world is that Roger Federer is not wining Grand Slams anymore because he is 34 years old. This is really “old”!
If you are a surgeon 40-45 of age and have been performing surgeries for 15-20 years and you would have to retire because your capacity to perform them drastically had diminished. Can you blame the age for that? To me, you would have to consider that some aspects of your practice have glaring gaps.
I met with many people at the BSC Newton and Waltham to assess their fitness. Some have been exercising regularly from 10 to 25 years, and their physical and mental condition considerably diminished. They were only concerned with workouts to get faster, stronger and more flexible they missed a crucial training component – learning how to keep and maintain their bodies functional in the long term. Does make it sense that the major reason for the body breakdown is the age? Not at all!!
Why fitness should be in a different category than any other sphere of life? If you don’t improve when working on the subject for a long time it means your overall approach has significant flaws. As opposed to using the age-excuse I am dedicating this site to identifying problems and finding solutions to improve fitness, health and life based on sound principles of functional anatomy, human movement and physical training.
Lenny Levin, the founder of Wellness and Beyond, practices this philosophy and training to compete successfully in distance running and endurance events. He continues studying exercise psysiology, anatomy and human movement science. Lenny’s Levin research and delopment efforts are aimed to identify anatomically designed human body movements for various sports and activities. His findings and discoveries redefine modern exercise methodology and represent a new page in the science of human functional movement to rethink the current concepts of fitness, health, wellness and life.
In spirit and body may we stay forever functional!