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Image by Fab Lentz on Unsplash.

Today I came across a short video from one of those “over 50” channels. The speaker was advising liisteners (primarily women), “Don’t be hard on yourself.”

Now I tend to support this advice if you’re one of those people who cleans your house to perfection and then freaks out if you find a patch of dust behind the lamp. Or if you’re like a famous ballet dancer who would turn in a stunning performance and then cry because she missed a step.  Or if you send out a broadcast email with the wrong subject line and decide you’re a failure as a business person so you go off and cry. And so on.

But there’s absolutely no evidence that you’ll enjoy greater mental health if you give in to well-meaning friends who advise you to, “Take it easy.”

I once attended a webinar where I asked a question about dealing with my ever-growing to-do list. The host said, “Don’t worry about it. You’ve earned the right to take it easy and do whatever you want.”

Nonsense. That’s the fastest path to mental deterioration. Recent research shows that taking three college-level classes can slow down mental deterioration and enhance cognitive abilities. I wrote about it in this article.

The truth is, when you give up on trying to achieve something hard, the rest of your life falls apart. If you don’t have something like a job or a business to give you an occasional headache, you’ll start getting irritated over the really small stuff. I had a neighbor who was so bored he once called to ask me, “I saw a plumber’s truck outside your house. What are you having done?”

When I read about people who cry because they don’t have enough time with the grandchildren, or they don’t have enough friends, I suspect we’re dealing with a person who’s not challenging herself (or himself).

The challenge doesn’t have to be work-related. I know someone who travels 90% of the time. She works hard to find creative, economical ways to get where she wants to go. She researches destinations – tourist spots, hotels, museums, and restaurants. She also works out at full intensity in a local gym. She’s in her early sixties and she not only bends over to pick up a coin: she can do pull-ups and burpees.

Another woman retired in her mid-sixties with the goal of taking her artwork to a new level. She’d taken ceramics classes for years. She learned about glazes and firings. She challenged herself to make different kinds of objects. She even made some sales, although that wasn’t her objective.

Bella DePaulo just published a new book soon after turning 70: Single At Heart. She runs a Facebook group for single people and will be traveling to promote the book.

Let’s not forget Willie Murphy, the body-builder who drove away a burglar at age 82. Now she’s 86, still lifting weights and doing pushups.

If you want more encouragement, read about  Ellen Langer’s “clockwork” experiments. Professor Langer created a time machine, transporting a group of men in their eighties back to an earlier era in a converted monastery. Not only did she create an earlier time with television and magazines; she took away the props that made aging easier. The men carried their own luggage up the stairs “even if you have to carry one shirt at a time.” There were plenty of area rugs – no accommodation for age.

After a short time in the space, the men were healthier, based on objective measurements like blood pressure.

The BBC replicated Langer’s experiment with a few celebrities, both male and female. One staffer had to bite her tongue as an 80-year-old woman struggled to walk in with two canes and a walker. After two weeks, the woman walked out on her own power with just one cane.

The speaker in the video I mentioned earlier said, “Don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t bend over to pick something up.”

I say, “Tough love works.”

If you can’t bend over to pick up a coin, it’s not okay to say, “Don’t be hard on yourself.” Get some physical therapy and maybe work with a personal trainer.

You have a genetic condition that can’t be fixed? That’s not the same as saying “I’m too old.”

I’m betting you’ll be bending over, getting out of chairs, and getting into taxis more easily if you devote the time and energy to getting this done.

If you’re not challenged mentally and physically, start doing something hard. In fact, if you have any issues with aging, do something hard. Take classes. Learn a language. Start a side hustle business. Join a gym.

If your doctor says, “You’re too old to do pushups,” find another doctor, whether you’re 40 or 90. Age has nothing to do with it.  I consider myself lucky: when I sprained my hand, I said I wanted to get back to push-ups and downward dogs as soon as possible.

“You can do them now,” the doc said, not batting an eye. Good doctors want you to work out.

Be prepared for people around you – especially younger people – to warn you to slow down.  They’ll say you earned the right to do nothing. Maybe you did: that’s a question of values. But study after study shows people who work and challenge themselves live longer, healthier lives. I discuss this at length in my book on aging, with plenty of references.

If you’ve got aging parents, I always say, “The best gift for them will be 3 sessions with a personal trainer.” Physical confidence leads to mental confidence, which in turn leads to a better quality of life.

If you’re lonely, get involved in something that’s so stimulating and exciting you won’t notice you’re alone. That’s when friends will show up at your doorstep…and you’ll have to make time to visit with them.