Several years ago I was working out in the gym, minding my own business, absorbed in the zone. A woman walked by.
“Looking good!” she said.
A compliment? Well, I was working the lat pulldown, which is one of the easiest machines in the gym. It’s usually the first one you learn when you start weight training.
What she was saying was, “You’re looking good…for your age.”
Her comment totally took me out of my zone.
In a Ted Talk on aging, Bruce Grierson talks about age primes based on Ellen Langer’s research. When we enter certain environments, we get cues that influence behavior. We actually feel differently. When people are exposed to youth primes, they perform better on physical measures, such as grip strength.
For Olga Kotelko, who competed in track and field well into her nineties, the athletic field primed her to think like a younger person.
Phrases like “at your age” act as primes for “being older.”
Doctors and medical settings contribute a great deal to “age primes.” In some clinics, you meet a doctor for the first time when you’re in an exam chair in their offices. They don’t even come to get you from reception so they don’t see how you move. So they assume everyone over 60 is a fall risk.
More innocently, people in my gym create aging primes.
One day after a Zumba class, someone said, “I was watching the class. You’re really good!”
That’s fine, but I’m not really good. After years of taking classes, I don’t remember steps – my kinesthetic memory isn’t as good as my memory for words and numbers. I’ve never been graceful; I wasn’t sent to dance classes as a child.
Years of aerobics increased my coordination. I enjoy taking those classes. I perform at a level I’m comfortable with.
Even worse, someone complimented me after I’d taken a yoga class.
Now I totally suck at yoga. Years of weight-lifting and aerobics mean I’m strong and muscular but very stiff. I don’t move easily from downward dogs to forward lunges. And I don’t do some exercises at all.
I could hear the words “for your age” even when they weren’t spoken.
False compliments don’t help. They’re an aging prime.
“At your age” and “for your age” are phrases that should be banned forever.
What do those words mean, anyway?
I mentioned Olga Kotelko, the 93-year-old track star.
I could also mention Willie Murphy, the 82-year-old bodybuilder. She bashed a burglar with a table and then beat up on him till the cops came. The cops took selfies with her.
So when we say “for your age,” who’s our comparison level?
When you see the age of 82, do you automatically conjure up an image of a white-haired little old lady in a wheelchair? Why not conjure up an image of a bodybuilder beating up on a burglar?
Most people are somewhere in between. The lesson is, you can’t predict their physical condition solely by knowing their age.
Geriatricians have a saying, “When you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old.”
When you say, “for your age,” who are you thinking of? Willie Murphy and Olga Kotelko? Or some imaginary lady in a wheelchair, frail and helpless?