For the Love of (Some) Game

By David T. Tao

The human body’s gradual decay with age is, according to a budget consultant on physical aesthetics (Dr. Me), one of mankind’s greatest tragedies. We start off as round balls with soft heads and soft everything, move briefly to a period of hard-bodied vitality, and then begin a slow decline toward the descent of our fat parts. For gymnasts these years mark the end of life as they know it, but for the majority population aged 16 to 19—give or take two years—this time represents a period of unparalleled capacity for exercise, recovery, sleep, and, at least for males, bow-chicka-wow-wow. We’re supermen/women for the latter part of high school, a time when we’re generally too scared or too stupid to take advantage of our physical blessings. But by sophomore year of college, the moment we discover our physical prowess, our testosterone levels have started their decline, marking the end of the “I can eat nothing but Cheetos and still win this marathon” phase—for both sexes.

Of course, it’s entirely within our power to slow this steady fall from physical perfection. The most obvious solution is consistent exercise, which forces our muscles into an anabolic, or rebuilding, state, since loss of muscle mass accounts for a bulk of the physical drop-off surrounding aging. And the easiest, most fun way to get such activity is through sports, for many a main subject of conversation and for everyone else the “stuff they show on E-S-P-M.” Be it football, basketball, or golf, consistent athletic participation is a fantastic way to stave of death’s creeping hand, and the benefits range from increased cardiovascular capacity to emotional wellbeing through team dynamics and healthy competition. Cross-training is especially beneficial, and the combination of strength training with aerobic activity is a surefire way to extend your healthy time on this increasingly warm globe. Combine the above with a healthy-ish diet, and there’s no reason a middle-aged you can’t outrun toddlers on their comically underdeveloped legs.

But in a cruel, ironic twist, team sports become less accessible just as we begin to need them most. Even Harvard is filled with auditoriums-worth of former high school tennis and track stars, individuals who ditched their warm-ups for Macbooks and a healthy dose of book learning. Those on college sports teams hold onto their vigor a little longer thanks to 6 a.m. practices and all the DHA sweat suits the university can provide. But aside from the handful of prodigies who graduate into the pro ranks, there isn’t much keeping us active after our organized sports careers end—except our ever-waning desire to hit the treadmill. Staying fit after teams part ways is, for many, a boring challenge, a routine we’re quick to throw on the backburner. Frankly, it becomes less fun to exercise when you lose the motivation—and snappy uniforms—that sports provide.

Yet while traditional sports options seem to dry up post-graduation, there’s nothing actually keeping us from pursuing athletic passions, new and old. Plenty of competitive outlets exist for adults willing to look for them, from triathlons to regional ping-pong leagues. Many of these endeavors lack coaching on the level of college or high school athletics, so there’s still a greater need for personal accountability to get in a lift or go on that extra run between practices. The trick is finding something that makes exercising seem once again like a means to a worthwhile end, even if that end is an otherwise inconsequential performance in a weekend softball league.

For me, that outlet is Olympic Weightlifting, a sport so obscure in this country that we get demolished—and I mean demolished—in international competition by smaller nations like Poland, Armenia, and Borat’s own Kazakhstan. The sport involves two lifts—the snatch and the clean and jerk—with the ultimate goal of putting a whole bunch of weight overhead. As any myopic observer could tell you by looking at me, it’s not bodybuilding, nor is it power lifting or strongman: two strength sports that thrive on shaved heads and music that makes Metallica sound like Elton John. It’s a unique combination of strength, speed, and flexibility, three qualities I possess in thimble-small amounts. But even though I’m far from the ideal competitor—and apart from the fact that training facilities and experienced coaches are notoriously difficult to find—Olympic Weightlifting has given me a reason to get off the couch and force my body back into some semblance of functionality. The sport even has “Masters” divisions for older competitors separated into age groups; among my greatest surprises was the first time I saw an 80-year-old whip 150 pounds overhead.

We will inevitably leave college to lead infinitely interesting and impossibly busy lives. The commitment to fitness can be a tough one, given the many other responsibilities we’ll accumulate. But fulfilling our obligations to our bodies pays dividends beyond comparison, and it helps us to be more productive in every other facet of our lives. Finding that lifelong sport or sports makes doing this so much easier—and a whole lot more rewarding. It’s also a great excuse to wear breakaway pants far into your golden years.

ColumnsIn The Meantime