Better ageing through practice, practice, practice

Elderly people playing petanque at a care home in Bangkok. There are quantifiable benefits often associated with taking up an activity or sport and getting better at it. Your brain, it's thought, will be recast and strengthened.
Elderly people playing petanque at a care home in Bangkok. There are quantifiable benefits often associated with taking up an activity or sport and getting better at it. Your brain, it's thought, will be recast and strengthened. PHOTO: REUTERS

Counter the narrative of loss by learning something new and working on getting better at it

Sixty is not the new 40. Fifty isn't either.

Your lung capacity in late middle age is in steady decline, as are the fast-twitch muscle fibres that provide power and speed. Your heart capacity has been ebbing for decades. Your sight has been getting worse, your other senses, too, and this, along with a gradually receding ability to integrate information you are absorbing and to then issue motor commands, means your balance is not what it used to be. (Your flattening arches aren't helping.)

Your prefrontal cortex - where the concentrating and deciding is done - has been shrinking for some time, perhaps since you graduated from college. More of your career (more of your life) is behind you than in front of you. Do not kid yourself about this. You are milling in the anteroom of the aged.

You can have something done with those sags and creases deepening on the face that greet you in the mirror each morning, but I'm not sure whom you are fooling.

You can do the crossword and mind puzzles, stretch, take long walks: There is evidence that these activities correlate with keeping memory loss and, you know, death at bay, for a while longer: two, four, six years. Maybe.

Here's a blessing of late middle age (and there are few): You will not be inhibited from improving by the perceptions of others. No one is paying attention to you! Haven't you noticed? And unlike a pro athlete or master-level practitioner, you will not be committing to anything - be it swimming or judo - that you have either any serious talent for or the body to get great at.

Let me suggest something that might do all of these things - which is to say, might not - but will, as nothing else will, provide you with a deeply satisfying sense of yourself that you did have when you were much, much younger. Find something - something new, something difficult - to immerse yourself in and improve at.

MASTER A CRAFT

When was the last time you improved at anything? I'm not talking about self-improvement, though I have nothing at all against turning to deep yogic breathing when your spouse irritates you. And I am not talking about the kind of improvement your company subjects you to, the training that comes with the promotion and vesting stock.

I am talking about improving at a demanding skill or set of skills - a craft, a discipline. I have in mind something that will take years to get proficient at, something that there is a correct way of doing, handed down for generations, and for which there is no way for you to create shortcuts with your cleverness or charm. Playing the cello, maybe. Or cabinetry. Or, in my case, tennis, serious tennis.

Most of us got good early on at something that took time and devotion. For me it was reading. My mother, a blue-collar homemaker, saw that I liked looking through books and began teaching me how to read before I turned four; I entered kindergarten reading at a second-grade level. I had a sixth-grade English teacher I wanted to please, which meant hours and hours of conjugation drills. I was placed in advanced reading classes in high school, where I was forced to articulate what I comprehended; majored in English in college, where I learnt the theoretical aspects of reading; and always had a book on my night stand.

I went on to spend nearly 40 years as an editor, reading and reading. I loved it, still do. But I doubt I improved at it much after college. (I probably peaked trying to unravel Finnegans Wake in my James Joyce seminar.) I suspect you are not unlike me, whatever you've done with your life. The gradual, continuous improvement petered out before you reached midlife.

I took up tennis in my mid-50s. The nest was about to empty, and the weekend afternoons were beginning to yawn. I'd always been a tennis fan. With personal time on my hands, and a career winding down, I wanted to do... what? Something different and hard. Something that could counter the looming extended monotonies and unpromising everydayness I imagined awaited me in retirement. Something that did not transpire in my head and at a desk, which is exactly where most of our lives unfold these days. I wanted to learn and get better at something that embodied life.

The Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has written extensively about what inhibits people from making a commitment to continuous improvement. Schoolchildren, for instance, are often afraid of appearing to need to improve; worrying that they will be perceived and judged as unintelligent, they struggle not to learn but to seem smart (even plagiarising and cheating if need be). Professional athletes, as Dr Dweck has also observed, can lack the motivation and self-regulation required to get even better because they believe their inherent talent is plenty enough.

Here's a blessing of late middle age (and there are few): You won't be inhibited from improving by the perceptions of others. No one is paying attention to you! Haven't you noticed? And unlike a pro athlete or master-level practitioner, you will not be committing to anything - be it swimming or judo - that you have either any serious talent for or the body to get great at. You are not young, and learning and improving at an activity or sport will not make you feel young in any physical way. In fact, you will feel more consciously and intensely to be of a certain age, which I happen to think is a benefit.

I have felt this, for instance, training at a tennis academy in Florida, immersed in the sort of regimen designed for 12- and 13-year-olds dreaming of scholarships to Division I schools - on the court four, five hours a day in the heat and closeness, running back and forth along the baseline, catching and heaving a medicine ball tossed by a coach. I've hit groundstrokes against the wall at my club in midwinter, attended tennis-specific plyometrics and TRX workouts, been beaten down by all manner of younger, better players in league play and at tournaments.

But I improved as a result of all of it - and I am still improving. I have a much better backhand volley than I did this time last year. Is it really good or even that good? Am I that good? No! I am 63. And I am not really concerned about where all this winds up. It's the getting there I'm enthralled with.

KNOW YOURSELF BETTER

There are quantifiable benefits often associated with taking up something like tennis and getting better at it. Your brain, it's thought, will be recast and strengthened. Dr Denise Park, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, randomly assigned more than 200 older people to different new activities for roughly 15 hours a week and found that only those who had learnt and refined a complicated skill improved their memories. Other researchers say the intense and prolonged physical exertion of a game like tennis may fend off cancer by slowing the decline of your telomeres, the tiny caps on the ends of your DNA strands that tend to shorten and fray with age, and leave the DNA subject to greater risk of mutation during cell division and replication. You will, I am convinced, do good things for your heart: Senior Olympians have been found, on average, to have a cardiovascular "fitness" age 20 years less than their chronological age.

But let's not get carried away. As the doctor and writer Jerome Groopman noted recently: "The genesis of ageing is still a mystery." There may be many aspects to why it occurs and at what rate it occurs. There may be ways of increasing longevity, and for any one of us they may work, or not. If you are taking up tennis, or something like tennis, and committing to getting better at it to add years to your life, I wish you all the luck in the world. Just don't bet on it.

I can promise you that you will come to know yourself better. Isn't that what Montaigne said we were supposed to do later in life? I have learnt, over these past seven or eight years, that I can deal with being humbled (but not humiliated); that my energy level is highest late in the afternoon; that I am more impatient even than I knew; that my left stride is longer than my right (which can aggravate balance problems); that I am harder on myself than on my opponents or doubles partners; that my hand-eye coordination is better when my right eye is doing the focusing; that I am a pretty good loser; and that I like being among others who love playing tennis - talking about the sport, searching for how to change this or that stroke or strategy in the tiniest way to make it more effective - as much as I have come to love playing tennis itself.

To learn most of these things, through struggling to improve, you will need the personal attention of a coach. You may have heard of the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and the "10,000 hours of practice" rule. It is often misconstrued a bit: The key is typically not the time you put in to get better, but the time you spend under the watchful eye of a coach, teacher or trainer - someone who can spot quickly what you are doing wrong and immediately correct it, or try to. I won't live long enough to have 10,000 hours to devote to personalised tennis training, but I have spent lots of time with a coach. There can be no improvement - not the kind I'm talking about - without that coaching.

Motivated to continue to develop, you will also learn to face and cope with all manner of frustration. One in particular is that continued improvement is not steady improvement. Back in the 1970s, an MIT graduate student named Howard Austin was awarded his doctoral degree for writing a mechanical analysis of the act of juggling (which, I guess, is not a bad activity to take up in late middle age). He found that learning and improving motor skills happens episodically: You get a little better, then regress. You have a sudden breakthrough, then backslide.

If you are my age, with my personality, this can be a recipe for despair. There just isn't the time to be righting reversals. Time is the province of the young, yes?

Which brings us to the beauty of a disciplined effort at improvement and, I think, the only guaranteed benefit of finding something, as I found in tennis, to learn and commit to: You seize time and you make it yours. You counter the narrative of diminishment and loss with one of progress and bettering. You spend hours removed from the past (there is so much of it now) and, in a sense, the present (and all its attendant responsibilities and aches), and immerse yourself in the as yet. In this new pursuit of yours, practice is your practice: It comes to determine the way you eat and sleep and shape your days. It is not your life, but one of the lives that make up your life, and the only one for which looking ahead, at least for a little while longer, is something done without wistfulness or a flinch.

NEW YORK TIMES

• Gerald Marzorati, a former editor of The New York Times Magazine, is the author of the forthcoming book Late To The Ball, from which this essay is adapted.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Better ageing through practice, practice, practice'. Print Edition | Subscribe