Active Mind, Active Body

“Active Mind, Active Body,” Ensign, Feb. 1978, 16

Active Mind, Active Body

One of the chilling things about growing old is being unable to “get around.” Well, you can be more mobile than you thought possible if you start now.

Roy Rothlisberger was a school crossing guard. At age seventy he ran sixteen to eighteen miles a day. The few times I arrived home early enough to talk with him as he helped the children at the crosswalk, he would tell me what a wonderful thing running had been in his life. And he always invited me to join him.

Finally I was too embarrassed to refuse again. Roy lived about six miles from me. He got up every morning at about three o’clock and ran to my house—uphill. I met him in front of my house at five o’clock and we ran together for an hour. Then Roy left me at my house and ran home again in time to shower and be on the job.

When I started my exercise program with Roy, he told me that it would be three months or two hundred miles—whichever came first—before I would feel better. The change, he told me, would be very abrupt. I didn’t really believe this. I thought it was obvious that a person would become physically fit gradually.

But at two hundred miles there was a remarkable change in the way I felt. I could run the distance comfortably. It became a pleasure—as it, had been for Roy for years. And now, at seventy-eight years of age, Roy still runs ten or twelve miles a night.

If you want to stay fit, stay active.

That goes for the mind, too. Gerontologists, or the physicians who deal with the aging process, are united in saying that senility in old age is very often a disuse atrophy. Just as muscles that are not used wither and weaken, so it seems our mental facilities can deteriorate when they are not exercised.

In some recent studies, people in nursing homes who were completely senile and unable to take care of themselves were encouraged to take part in physical and mental activities. It was stimulation they hadn’t had for years. Gradually their senility symptoms began to disappear, and their condition improved.

That may be a basic reason why some eighty-and ninety-year-olds are alert and active, without a sign of senility, while others of the same age seem absolutely beaten down by age. Those who gave up mental and physical activity along with their retirement soon gave up the ability to be physically and mentally active.

The advice that doctors give to their middle-aged and elderly patients is really quite simple. If you want to keep it, use it!

Keeping a Fit Body. Exercise is the key to physical fitness—but what kind of exercise? And how much of it? Researchers trying to find out how to keep astronauts physically fit while they were confined to the tiny space capsules discovered what it is that makes exercise work: oxygen. Not just deep breathing, but getting the oxygen from the lungs out through the bloodstream to every individual cell in the body. Cells without oxygen die. Cells with oxygen thrive. So to keep the body healthy and strong, the most effective exercise was that which improved the body’s ability to deliver oxygen.

And so the concept of aerobic exercise was developed. To be effective, exercise had to raise the heartbeat rate to a certain level and keep it there for a certain period of time. Mild exercise like golf or bowling simply does not do the job. It has to be strenuous exercise.

A few generations ago, exercise was something that came naturally. The man who worked in the field or the quarry, who rode a horse regularly and walked long distances as a regular part of life; the woman who washed clothes for hours on a scrubbing board, or churned butter, or walked miles doing her marketing—they had little trouble staying physically fit. However, they usually had diets far inferior to what we have now, and medical science didn’t have the ability to fight disease. It seems ironic that today, with medicine and nutrition enough to live far longer than our ancestors, we also have labor-saving devices that shorten our lives.

What kind of exercise do you get? You drive or ride to work, to the store, to visit people. Many of you scarcely walk a mile in a day. How many run at all? How many in your fifties and sixties take the time for any kind of sport that requires the use of your full strength?

Because modern life allows us more leisure and less strenuous work than our ancestors, we let our bodies atrophy.

What exercise is good exercise? Depending on your age, an effective exercise is one that raises your pulse rate to about 130 (for those over 50) to 150 (for those under 50) beats per minute, and keeps it there for at least fifteen or twenty minutes—preferably a half hour. That can be running, like Roy Rothlisberger; or it can be handball, tennis, paddleball, an extended exercise routine, bicycling rapidly—any strenuous exercise that provides enough stimulation to your heart and muscles that you can become aerobically fit.

Keeping a Fit Mind. You retire, and suddenly you find that no one is coming to you for decisions anymore. You no longer have to puzzle out problems and find solutions as you did before. You stretch, yawn, lie back, and go to sleep.

Wake up!

Fortunately, the brain is not a muscle. It doesn’t have to wear out with age, as muscles eventually do. If you keep using it, your mind can stay alert as long as actual disease doesn’t damage the brain.

But your children are grown and gone—what can you do for mental stimulation? You don’t go to work every morning—how can you feel like you have something important to do with your mind?

Our knowledge and memories are some of the few things we take with us out of this life. The scriptures say nothing about improving our minds until we turn sixty-five and then stopping cold and waiting for our span to end. Moses was eighty when he spoke with the Lord on the mount. Abraham was a prophet until an age few of us hope to reach. Just because our relationship with an employer comes to an end doesn’t mean that all other intellectually stimulating relationships are over!

In a recent article a leading gerontologist wrote that one of the most helpful things a person can do to stay mentally alert in old age is to learn another language. Did you ever learn German as well as you wanted to? Or Italian? Or Japanese? To learn another language is to learn a whole new way of thinking—and every language you add gives you another perspective.

What about that writing you always wanted to do? Your personal and family history, of course—but why not poetry, articles, stories intended for publication?

Did you stop at high school mathematics? Check out some mathematics textbooks from the library and find out exactly how much you actually know. Then you can either study on your own or attend classes through evening school, correspondence courses, or even regular daytime enrollment at a college!

And while you’re at the business of educating yourself, why not go back to school and get that degree you always wanted? Of course you don’t need it for employment now. But that just means that now you can get a degree for fun, for the sheer joy of learning and understanding things you didn’t know or understand before.

Some communities provide opportunities for retired persons to share their knowledge with others. There are programs that give older people an opportunity to visit with local businesses as troubleshooters and problem-solvers. Other programs bring older people into hospitals as aides; into training schools for retarded people as teachers or simply as friends; into libraries as experts in certain fields to help visitors find just the information they want; into high schools or elementary schools as tutors for children who need extra help to catch up, or who are so far ahead that they need individual attention just to stay interested in school. And if your community has no such programs, why not start the ball rolling yourself?

Old age is also an opportunity to study the scriptures and the writings of inspired men as never before. I remember well a wonderful old man named William Wolfe, a patriarch in the Church who filled each day with a plan of study, of prayer, of fasting, of temple service. Once someone suggested to Brother Wolfe that he was becoming so righteous that he would be translated into heaven if he wasn’t careful. Brother Wolfe replied, “I am seriously trying to become a better person each and every day, and I want you young people to know I am down to a few of my favorite sins!”

We in our middle and older years often look at young people, who are bursting with plans and goals and hopes and dreams, and smile at them. But why should eagerness for the future belong only to the young? In the first ten years of your life you learned how to walk, how to speak a language you had never heard before, how to play dozens of games; you learned how to read, how to write, the basic principles of mathematics; you made dozens of new friends, learned about getting along with people, learned about laws and government and the rudiments of history.

Even if you only have ten years left, or less, you can accomplish tremendous things in that amount of time! And one of the best things about old age is that we don’t know when it will end. If a sixty-year-old man should plan his life as if he were going to die at the age of seventy, how bored he’ll be for thirty years if he should live to be a hundred!

Instead we should plan to fill our futures as if we had another forty years to live, with goals and projects enough to keep us constantly active, constantly achieving.

And we should take care of our bodies by keeping them fit enough to last another forty years. At the age of seventy-eight you won’t be able to play a full game of professional football—but you may still run a dozen miles a day, like Roy Rothlisberger. If you’ve prepared for that now, by building up your strength.

What do we call people who do nothing, who learn nothing, who plan for nothing? We don’t call them lively, that’s for sure! But there’s too much life in us all for us to stop living before we have to. And if we use our minds and our bodies throughout our middle age, and keep using them into old age, we’ll be able to keep them both a lot longer!

[illustrations] Do you want your body to stay fit? Then make sure your body stays active! And the same goes for your mind. It only stays alert as long as there’s a reason for it—if you stop challenging your mind, it will eventually be unable to meet a challenge.

  • Homer S. Ellsworth, a gynecologist and obstetrician, is chairman of the single adult and activity subcommittee of the Melchizedek Priesthood General Committee. He lives in the Lehi Eleventh Ward, Lehi Utah North Stake.