Earlier this year, a major milestone happened in my life, an event that I'm still working to fully process. Crazy as it sounds (to me at least), I turned 40.
I had a wide range of emotions leading up to the day, the biggest being disbelief since I clearly remember when my own mother celebrated her 40th birthday. Didn't I just graduate from high school and college a few years ago? Apparently not.
When I think back to my 30s, a lot of it is a sleep-deprived blur, best summarized by just a few words: kids, kids and more kids. I had my first child just before I turned 30 and three more within the next six years. I spent most of my time being pregnant, taking care of newborns and learning to juggle the needs of four children. I'm still working on that juggling act every day, and I don't think that will ever change. Don't get me wrong: My children are wonderful and I wouldn't trade them for anything. But it was a big adjustment to go from focusing primarily on myself for 29 years, to putting myself completely on the back burner within such a short period of time.
I discovered my love of running in my mid 20s and spent the next few years running marathons. I chuckle about this now, but I specifically remember a time in my life when I considered any run under an hour to be a waste of time. I did a little bit of strength training because I felt like I had to, but I never learned to enjoy it. If I got injured, most of the time I could just push through it and the pain would go away.
Fast forward to the next decade, and things changed. Free time and sleep became highly prized commodities, meaning I no longer had the luxury of long workouts, sleeping in or taking long naps on the weekends. I had to get smart about my exercise routine to make the most of the time I had available, and I also had to start paying attention to nagging aches and pains because sometimes, if ignored, they became even bigger issues.
Looking back, I know I didn't pay enough attention to my own needs, especially when it came to my health. I was still exercising regularly and eating healthy, but I was stressed out, not getting enough sleep and not making time to do the things that still made me feel like me. My early 30s were full of these mistakes that fortunately, I started to correct by my late 30s. As I get older and a touch wiser, I know my health needs to be a priority so that I can live the best life possible and show my kids that age is really just a number.
Personal Revelations Over the Last Decade
Instead of making the same mistakes I did, I offer to you these eight important lessons and revelations that I myself discovered just in time.
1. Strength training is where it's at.
I'm a self-professed cardio fanatic. I love working up a good sweat and letting go of the stress and frustration of the day. I never felt that kind of release through strength workouts, which is why I would do the bare-minimum.
My strength workouts usually consisted of a video using light weight, high repetitions. Sometimes it was challenging, rarely was it enjoyable and almost never did I actually see results. It wasn't until I started using the weight machine in our basement and heavier free weights that I started to see changes in my body I never thought possible. Now I even see muscle definition that I never got from years of running. Although running strengthens your lower body muscles, it's not the same kind of muscle overload as a strength training workout that pushes your muscles to fatigue. Because of this, now I see muscle definition that I never got from years of running.
2. Long workouts aren't worth my time.
After years of running for hours, I've found that I can get good results from short workouts as long as I'm smart about my strategy. I pick activities that are challenging and I vary my routine regularly. Unless I'm waking up at 4 a.m., running for an hour isn't an option during the work week, so most of my workouts are 30 to 40 minutes long. I do my best to squeeze extra activity (like a walk at my kid's soccer practice) into my day whenever possible, and I do like to train for a half marathon now and then. Overall, though, I don't spend nearly as much time exercising as I used to, both because I don't have the time, but also because it's not necessary. I've found what works for me and can get it done much more efficiently.
3. Stress significantly affects my health.
I've always considered myself to be an anxious person. I worry about things many people would probably brush off, but I was able to keep that under control when it was just me. Once I became a mom, that meant I was responsible for making sure four little people become positive contributors to the world. Talk about pressure! It added a whole new layer of stress to my life that I've had to learn to control. Too much stress leaves me feeling impatient, I get sick more easily and I'm just not as effective at daily tasks.
I've tried hard to avoid these problems by making a little time for myself each day (even if that's 10 minutes of reading before bed), meditating at least a few nights a week and asking my kids and my husband to share in the household workload sometimes. When we all pitch in, it's not nearly as overwhelming. My family likes to do things that help mom, and I like that I'm learning to let go and not feel like the endless to-do list falls squarely on my shoulders.
4. Sunscreen is my friend.
I used to love getting tan in the summer and the warm glow my skin would have from the extra color. Unfortunately, years of that glow came with lots of brown spots on my face that I've spent the last few years trying to remove. My kids get so annoyed that I lather them up with sunscreen every time we go outside, but I tell them they will appreciate the clear and wrinkle-free skin when they are older. These days I wear sunscreen year-round, and wish I could go back 10 or 15 years to start that habit much earlier.
5. I have to take care of myself first.
I have seen loved ones just a few years older than me experience significant health scares and I don't want to end up in the same position. Taking care of myself means making time for daily workouts, eating a generally healthy diet, doing activities I enjoy, getting regular doctor checkups and not ignoring lingering symptoms when I'm not feeling my best. It's easy to dismiss those things as low priorities when you're taking care of so many others, but eventually you'll reach a point where you're not giving others the best version of yourself. The older I get, the more I notice that ignoring myself means I'm less of a mom, sister, daughter, wife and friend.
6. I can't push through pain.
Most of my injuries have come from running. In my 20s, I was lucky enough to work through aches and pains, either by taking a couple days off, changing shoes or calling on some other simple fix. Then, in my early 30s, I had a running injury that sidelined me for eight weeks.
Although that's not long compared to some, it felt like forever to me. It started with foot and heel discomfort that went from slightly annoying to extremely painful. Each time I'd go out for a run, I'd swear to myself, "If I can just get through the next few miles, I'll take a few days of rest." By the time the pain became unbearable and I finally went to the doctor, I ended up with a month in physical therapy that likely could have been avoided if I'd rested and had it checked out sooner. Lesson learned.
7. I need sleep.
Now that my kids are older and they all sleep through the night, you would think that lack of sleep wouldn't be as much of an issue. For me, it's still a struggle. I work best on eight to nine hours of sleep a night, which isn't easy given my schedule. Most nights I'm lucky to get six hours, and that's not always continuous. It's amazing what goes through my head when I wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep. "Did I fill out the permission slip that's due tomorrow? What are we going to have for dinner? When will I have time to pick up the dry cleaning?" The list goes on and on.
Recognizing my need for sleep and how I look and feel when I'm not getting enough has forced me to address the issue. I try to sleep in whenever possible and also do things like meditate before bed to give me the best chance to relax and stay asleep through the night.
8. I will never have the perfect body, but I can be strong and proud of the body I have.
I do not have the same body I had before kids. I could easily pick myself apart and point out all my flaws, but I'd rather focus on the positives. In my 20s, I didn't have shoulder and upper back definition like I do now, for example. I couldn't do 25 pushups at a time. I didn't have kids cheering me on at races even if I was walking because I was tired. I didn't have kids coming to my martial arts promotions, telling me afterward what a great job I did and telling their friends they have a mom who can punch hard.
I will always be a work in progress, learning more about myself each year. Instead of dreading getting older or refusing to share my age when asked, I'm proud of it. I look forward to the wisdom each passing year provides. Cheers to the next 40 years!
What about you? What valuable health lessons have you learned as you've aged?
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