You’ve been aware of it for a while, but it was nothing more than a niggle at the periphery of your consciousness. In all likelihood it began intermittently and you just put it down to needing to stretch more, or perhaps being a little off your game plan. But it happens with increasing regularity and you compensate, you put a little extra into your cardio or stretching. However, eventually you have to stand tall and stare unflinchingly at the truth…you’re getting old. Or if you want a less devastating body blow, you’re getting older, but we all know that is just sugar coating what is really happening. Old age with all its problems is squaring up to us and at the moment we can deal with what he is throwing at us; the sore hips, creaking knees, hyper-extended elbows, but its only a matter of time before he gets us in the corner and unloads. Our time-bound bodies are betraying us.
As martial artists, in particular if you’re an instructor, you suffer a double whammy when it comes to ageing. Firstly, the body you present; including how you adorn it (think fashion labels), has become increasing high profile in this consumer age. As Featherstone (1991) notes:
"The vast range of dietary, slimming, exercise and cosmetic body-maintenance products which are currently produced, marketed and sold, point to the significance of appearance and bodily preservation within late capitalist society."1
Working with Hepworth nearly a decade earlier Featherstone (1982) noted that in today’s society our bodily betrayals that accompany ageing become interpreted as “signs of moral laxitude”2. In other words, if you look your age, you ain’t trying hard enough. But the external signs of ageing are not our only problems. The battering and abuse we’ve given our bodies over the years comes back to haunt us.
Prior to investigating the second 'whammy', let’s have a wee peek at a generic overview of what ordinarily happens physiologically to us when we age, bearing in mind what we put our bodies through and how this will affect our ability.
Age brings a decrease in maximum heart rate and an overall decline in maximum cardiac output, or the amount of blood our hearts can pump, both of which limit our athletic performance.
Ageing leads to a decrease in our overall lung capacity and a decline in the ability of the lungs to move oxygen from the air into the bloodstream. This means less overall strength and endurance.
As we age, we lose both muscle strength and muscle mass. Basically, our muscles are classified as either Type I or Type II. Type I muscles are slow to contract and contribute to physical endurance; Type II muscles are faster to contract and are associated with strength and power. As we age, even though we can fight the loss of muscle mass with exercise, we will still be losing these Type II fibres at the same rate (fell free to curse at this point!). What happens is that instead of developing new muscle fibres from exercise, as we did when we were younger, the remaining fibres merely increase in bulk. In addition, with age we also lose some of our ability to control the firing, or activation, of our muscles. This leads to loss of coordination and strength.
With ageing there is a marked decline in blood flow to the brain, which is associated with a decrease in reaction time. The number of times I’ve been doing Knockdown sparring and I’ve seen the opening, it’s there… a massive hole into which I can fire a kick, but I can’t get to it quick enough. Now I can blame my nervous system and not my skill!
Also, many effects of age on the nervous system combine to cause a decline in something called V02 max, or the maximum volume of oxygen consumed by the body per heartbeat. This is also known as oxygen pulse. VO2 max declines steadily and predictably as we age, on average approximately 1.5% per year. Even though highly trained older athletes show a smaller rate of decline, only 0.5% per year, it is just as steady. In studies of athletes, VO2 max also closely parallels the decline in maximum athletic performance that comes with age. For this reason it has been suggested that VO2 max makes an excellent measure of physiological rather than chronological ageing.
Another important issue for older martial artists is that of injury. Statistically, older martial artists are much more likely to injure themselves than younger martial artists who are doing the same sport. On the positive side, however, it has been found that even accounting for their increased likelihood of injury, older martial artists tend to be physically better off than the average person of their age. As with all athletes, a careful warm-up period with stretching exercises is key to reducing our chance of injury.
Loss of bone is an unavoidable fact of ageing. This is a particular worry for women, who tend to have less skeletal mass than men and who also lose bone more quickly. You cannot entirely prevent bone loss, but you can reduce the rate of loss through regular exercise, particularly weight training. Nevertheless, many older athletes are predisposed to bone fractures, so watch those hands when throwing punches.
Of particular concern for us is that ageing also brings a marked decrease in flexibility. This is caused mainly by changes in the body's connective tissue, combined with arthritis. Our lack of flexibility means that our knees, hips, and other joints must bear greater stress during exercise, rather than dissipating it to surrounding tissues, such as nearby muscles, as we did when we were younger. This stress can gradually destroy the joints! Also back pain which occurs in nearly two-thirds of all adults at some point during their lives, grows worse with age. Older martial artists should do extra warm-up and flexibility exercises in order to prevent injury. As with all stretching exercise, these should be performed with a steady and smooth motion.
While we cannot argue that older martial artists are more prone to injury than younger ones, this is no reason, however, for us to avoid martial arts. Most sports injuries can be prevented or treated with a combination of preparation, targeted exercise and conditioning, and common sense. Almost all studies I looked at suggest that active, but not excessive, enjoyment of a variety of sports and exercise can give us both a better and a longer life. To quote Rocky Balboa in ‘Rocky 3’, “Just keep punching!”
I mentioned above the ‘double whammy’ and I touched on how individuals are tied into their body presentation (the beautiful people) and how our bodies ‘betray us’ and affect our ability as we age. The second 'whammy' is how ageing affects our own training and for some this can have a devastating effect on their motivation. I know I have to work harder on my flexibility to show roundhouse kicks to the head and having to fight from my back is a nightmare. I also know; though its hidden deep in my sub-conscious, that one day I will unable to show head kicks and deeper down that time-line I know I won’t be able to do many other techniques. It may be that even the simplest techniques might cause me discomfort. I know it’s a bit dark and bleak, but that’s the reality of it. Motivation, when looked at through a single lens could be a problem as we age. I believe that the key to motivation as we age is instead of looking through a single lens, learn to look through a prism. I try to see life as a multi-coloured event and not a single layer. As older martial artists we have so much advice and help we can give and this includes life lessons as well as martial lessons. We have seen trends and fads come and go and we have experienced life longer and in more depth than our younger students and friends.
So an important motivational factor for me is the desire to pass on my knowledge and philosophy. I fully understand that we all have to walk our own path and that while other’s paths may run close to mine; no one can ever walk my path. Many of my old students’ paths still run parallel with mine, some have stopped many years back and others have diverted towards different horizons. What matters to me is that at some point in our lives our paths crossed and, hopefully, their path was altered in a positive way. After all it is our interactions that make us who we are. For me that is motivation enough. Oh yeah… I’m also very competitive, so until I can’t, I’ll just keep punching!
This lead nicely into what happens to my ability as an instructor? It raises questions about the transmission of knowledge in a (mostly) physical based art. If I was teaching English or Science, then the fact that I can’t touch my toes or do the splits has no bearing on the knowledge I pass on. But that’s not what we do. True there is a philosophical aspect to my particular martial art (Kyokushin Budokai) and I feel it is important for my students to have a grasp of Budo, but the majority of their learning involves body movements. While I am not at that point where I can't show techniques at the moment, there has to come a time when that will happen and that is where my senior students will take over. In an analogy similar to life I will take on a different role within our ‘family.’ Perhaps it will be an advisatory role or a figurehead. However, like mercury under a finger, this is an area of thought that I find hard to pin down as my sense of self is still too tied into my physical abilities. I just hope I’ve taught my seniors well.
As a preventative opiate I find myself admiring the likes of Hironori Ohtsuka, still teaching into his late eighties, or Gogen Yamaguchi who trained up until his death at eighty. Is this a natural aspect of ageing? That our role models become older or are dead? I find the way my mind seeks out this sort of information most instructive.
Until next time…Ah! What the hell! Let’s finish on a high note! Keep Punching!
1Featherstone, M. and Hepworth, M. (1982) 'Ageing and Inequality: Consumer Culture and the New Middle Age', in D. Robbins et al. (eds), Rethinking Social Inequality. Aldershot: Gower.
2Featherstone, M et al. (eds) (1991) ‘The body: social process and cultural theory’. Sage: London.