My son Michael and his wife Michelle live in San Francisco, one of my favorite cities. Visits with them are always great fun. We enjoy cycling, hiking and eating in fine restaurants. The problem is in the hiking – in the hills of nearby Marin County or just in the hilly streets of San Francisco.
The problem is simple; I can’t keep up with them. While my pace is the same, my stride is not. They take bigger steps that I do, so it doesn’t take long before I’m way behind. Periodically they stop and wait for me, a mild indication of irritation on their faces; why can’t I keep up?
It turns out that I can blame it on my nervous system. It’s no surprise that we slow down as we age – they’re over 30 years younger – and new research shows that our brain, through our system of nerves, seeks the most efficient pace that will burn the fewest number of calories, just the opposite of what I want to do. It puts my body on cruise control.
I’ve watched several friends who walk at an incredibly slow pace. They are not regular exercisers, so their body adjusts to a slower pace to compensate for their shortfall in fitness. Other research has shown that a very slow pace – less than three miles an hour – leads to a shorter life.
Can we do anything about our stride? Absolutely, but it takes a conscious effort to both increase our stride and our pace. It doesn’t become the “new normal” overnight. We have to consciously begin each walk with a clear goal of reaching and maintaining a faster pace and stride. After a few weeks, it takes much less conscious effort.
Is it reasonable for me to set a goal of keeping up with Michael and Michelle on the hills when I’m next in San Francisco? I may be able to keep up on the few flat streets that are there, but I expect they’ll still dump me on the hills, just like they do on the hills when we’re cycling. That’s the reality of aging. But, I can get a bit faster if I work at it.