I plan on getting old one day. Not just sixty-five, but like, really, really old. And in my senescence, another plan I have is to continue to do fun things and generally fend for myself. There are a lot of things we take for granted until they start to feel hard, like walking down a flight of stairs, driving our car, clipping our own toenails, and playing in the snow. Being able to do all these things requires a certain amount of strength, mobility, and well-functioning parts. So a crucial part of my getting-old plan has got to involve maintaining all these things.
They say it’s never too early to start planning for your retirement.
The following is a summary of the Active Grandparent Theory as explained in Daniel Lieberman’s Exercised and told in my own words. What Lieberman describes in this section of his book should be, in my opinion, very interesting to anyone with plans to get old.
Why Grandparents Are So Weird
Most animals don’t live long enough to be grandparents, or they aren’t involved in their grandchildren’s lives at all. Humans are different. Human hunter gatherers—our closest idea to how people have lived for millennia—have grandparents who are an important part of society.
Humans are also rare in that human children remain dependent on their parents for a long, long time. Hunter gatherer people have a lot of children given the amount of care they need—about 1 every three years. That means that moms and dads have multiple children who are dependent on them at once. This slows them down and makes it hard to provide enough food for everyone.
Grandparents take up the slack. In hunter gatherer societies, grandparents aren’t slowing down to have more babies of their own. They are as active as when they were younger and provide more food and work to the community than they consume themselves. This provides the evolutionary reasoning to why humans keep living past menopause. We are still biologically relevant to the survival of our genes since we help our children’s children to survive.
Human physiology developed through evolution and was shaped by the lifestyle of the human species for millions of years. This lifestyle involved constant movement in order to obtain necessities like food, water, and shelter. There was never an instance where people did not need to move every single day in order to survive.
The processes that maintain and repair our body parts rely on movement because humans never lived without movement. Humans couldn’t get anywhere without walking. The parts we need to be able to walk are maintained by the act of walking. Bones keep strong and dense enough to bear the weight of our bodies or the loads we carry by bearing the weight of our bodies and the loads we carry. Cells feel a tug and grow stronger to withstand that type and amount of tug. Blood and lymph are pumped through the body by the movement of muscles working. Capillaries and nerve connections strengthen in areas that receive frequent stimulation. Damage repair requires movement to help bring repair cells to the site and carry waste products away (but of course not movement that increases the damage further).
Grandparents in hunter gatherer societies are just as active as younger generations except they aren’t slowed down by giving birth and having babies of their own. They remain active until they die. Lieberman does not discuss hunter gatherer grandparents who become disabled. Although he mentions that elder hunter gatherers often die from accidents or diseases, he does not discuss other kinds of death. However, clearly our various aches and pains that we seem to get increasingly after the age of 20 or 30 are not necessarily signs that we are senile. I think this is so critical for us to realize. Imagine how differently you might respond to something like knee pain if you aren’t expecting it as the inevitable result of living longer.
A lot of us experience pain that seems to indicate that we need to slow down now that we’re older. We can’t play soccer or do handstands the way we used to when we were kids. Part of that is true. We were able to “get away with” a lot more wear and tear with younger bones and joints. Now, repair processes take more time. Sometimes the extremes that we strive for ask for extreme suppleness that we may no longer have. It’s also common that once we are adults we have taken a few years’ break from our soccer or handstand practice. Even though our muscles remember the movement, we haven’t been training with the frequency that we used to. If you want to return to an activity, treat yourself a little bit like a novice and ease back into it.
The pains we feel as older people are not simply because we are old. They are often the result of many years of wear and tear in the same places. When you learn to notice the way you have been moving for the last thirty or fifty years, you may find clues as to why certain body parts are feeling painful now.
If you aren’t a grandparent yet, don’t slow down.
We run and play constantly as children. We can’t wait for recess. But at some point, we mature and settle our bums in front of the desk or in the driver’s seat. We stop playing and start working. Our movement gets repetitive and limited to what’s necessary, which since we’re not hunter gatherers, is not a lot. If instead we could keep finding ways to move with variety through our days as we grow into adults, maybe we wouldn’t need to get so stiff and achy before we even become parents.
Once we are parents, we need to move a lot again. Babies and children require a lot of physical work. No matter how many fancy gizmos you buy, babies need to be held, carried, and lifted all the time. But as children learn to carry themselves, we stop doing all this heavy lifting. We keep working hard as parents, but not as physically. Years pass, and one day we become grandparents. Joyfully, we take that baby into our arms, only to find how heavy she is! We remember doing all that work as young parents, but now we have a hard time keeping up with our little grandchildren. If instead, we kept active even as our children grew older, our grandchildren need not be so burdensome. We can find other loads to bear, such as groceries or other people’s babies, to keep our bodies capable of this kind of movement.
There is a lot of money and effort put into figuring out how to lessen aging. I think most of us don’t really want to be immortal, but rather we want to age well. We want to be 95 and still able to walk around the neighborhood, bend down to tie our shoe lace, and tend to our own gardens. We want to be there to support our children when they have babies, or just to live life to the fullest. Recognizing the biological processes that have been at play in our species for millennia and aren’t going to change anytime soon will give us a better and more realistic idea of how to do that. Keep moving so we can keep moving.
Lieberman, Daniel. Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do is Health and Rewarding. 1st ed., Pantheon Books, 2020.