There is no escape from our ultimate decline and death. The sooner we accept and embrace that reality, the freer we are to live life to the fullest now. So when I speak of reversing the aging process, I’m really referring to reversing the acceleration. If you recall the Newtonian physics from your high school physics class, acceleration is the velocity change rate. Although we may all be trying to go north on a southbound train, we can decelerate (or accelerate) aging with our lifestyle, habits, and even thoughts.
The brain’s key to reversing the acceleration of aging lies in its ability to change over time: neuroplasticity. Scientists used to think that the brain and body could not grow after reaching maturity. It turns out, however, that even after reaching adulthood, the brain can form new neurological connections. The brain is literally laying down new connections on a cellular level each time it encounters novelty, forms a memory, or engages in learning. A thought is a physical thing. I’ll spare you (and myself) the neurophysiology. But suffice it to say that each new thought physically changes your brain.
We can harness the brain’s neuroplasticity to enhance the performance of our bodies. Although this won’t make the impossible possible, it will often allow us to rethink what we’ve labeled impossible. If you think achieving something is possible, you might be wrong. But if you think it’s impossible, you’ll surely prove yourself right. In 2022, I turned 40 years old. I also set personal records for 1 mile (5:01), 5K (18:05), 5 miles (30:03), 10K (36:37), 10 miles (1:01:15), half marathon (1:24:33) and marathon (2:59:33). I am officially faster than I was in my twenties, at every distance, despite having more commitments outside of sport.
One prerequisite for increasing my performance as I age is discarding the notion that I have to be slower after 40 than before. It’s a matter of untapped potential. (I also was not an elite runner as a younger man, so it’s easier to move the needle.) Most people don’t get anywhere near their full potential. So unless you were previously competing at an elite level, you probably have room to grow in your sport. If you previously were elite or professional, congratulations. You probably have what it takes to grow in some other sport or area.
Sometimes deciding to ‘just do it,’ as it were, is enough to change your mental framework. Following a marathon training plan based on my goal pace, the training plan called for running a half marathon personal best. On a training run. Twice. My fastest 5K and 10K times were clocked during a 10-mile race earlier this year. As one local running coach told me, “That means you’re not racing enough!”
There are many ways to ward off accelerated aging. The low-hanging fruit involves dropping toxic lifestyle habits that most of us know to be harmful. Stop smoking, and you’ll add years to your life. Cut out soda and refined sugar. Others are more positive steps. Eat real, whole foods. Give your body the sleep it needs (seven to nine hours). And, after sleep, the most effective intervention of all: exercise. Exercise will give you the most bang for the buck. Better than any dietary framework, vitamin, supplement, or other change to your lifestyle.
All of these modifications tie in with neuroplasticity. A habit is a habit because it is semi-automated behavior that saves the brain the mental fatigue of deciding what to do all day, every day. Changing a habit requires laying down new neurological trackwork. (The difficulty lies in the fact that old habits’ trackwork remains in place and accessible when triggered.)
Building new neural networks rely on the building blocks obtained from the food you eat. Your brain is literally made (and continues to be made) of the food you eat. Remember that when deciding what to put into your body.
Sleep is the brain’s time to clean up neural networks, consolidate learning into memory, and solve problems.
Novelty and learning form new neurologic connections. There are so many ways to embrace these, even if we feel ingrained in our status and habits. The neuroplastic benefits of learning are why studying a foreign language or learning to play an instrument have benefits that extend beyond the skill itself. Neurologic novelty can be found in brushing your teeth, eating with your non-dominant hand, or taking a new route to or from work.
Feed the brain new ideas about your athletic performance, and you’ve laid the groundwork for improving that performance through the mind-body connection. What’s possible for a person at a given age is constantly being redefined. Don’t let yesterday’s concepts of aging define you at any age.
Michael Day is an orthopedic surgeon.