Help Me Learn: Motivation and Aging

I am imitating Aaron and asking you to help me learn about motivation. I am taking on a long, challenging project that will compete with other (long, challenging) projects I’m already doing. So I want to learn about the science of motivation. Specifically, how does an aging man sustain goal-directed behaviours over extended periods? (Tweet me @Bill_Gardner, or leave a comment—they’ll be open for a week on this post.)

Here’s the project: I want to complete a long SwimCycle race in September 2018. SwimCycle is the first two legs of a triathlon. The event I’ve targeted is a 1.9km open water swim followed by a 90km bike ride.*

Why do this? Because I am almost 64, I’ve put on weight, and I’ve lost a lot of cardiovascular fitness. The official story is that I got out of shape because I was partially disabled for several years by an arthritic hip. That story implies that in the counterfactual world in which I had no arthritis, I’d still be fit. That’s my self-image and TBH, in a certain way the goal of this project is to defend that view.**

More importantly, in the last twenty years I have been with my parents, aunts, and uncles as they have aged and died. These admirable people managed their late lives and their deaths responsibly and with great dignity. Still, at about my age they all experienced an acceleration of their physiological declines. This loss of vitality undermined their abilities to maintain physical and sometimes task disciplines, feeding vicious cycles that accelerated their declines. Mind and body are tightly bound. To preserve one, you need to preserve the other.

So I’m at that inflection point and I’ve got to change. But why such an excessive goal? I get it that exercise in moderation would take much less time and might give me all the health benefits. But I’ve tried ‘exercise’. I hate it as much as you do and I always quit. What has gotten me up from my keyboard has been the challenge of something I couldn’t do: a marathon, a black belt, big wall rock climbs, century bike rides, and triathlons.

I want your help because this time it looks a lot harder. The decline in vitality is here and he isn’t listening when I hint that he’s overstayed his welcome. The challenge is not the event itself. If you have prepared competently, you can complete the distance. The challenge is the preparation — the getting into the pool at 6:00 AM in February.

The internet is 40% pornography, 30% motivational self-help tracts, and 20% endurance training advice. (The rest is writings and videos by Aaron E. Carroll, MD.) I don’t need motivation porn about Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs, or the Navy SEALS. I am not above that stuff, but like other species of porn, it’s easy to find. What I want is the science underlying self-control, and how it applies to sports and aging. There is a nearly-infinite psychology literature on motivation, but who has summarized it best? What’s good in gerontology, exercise physiology, and so on?

*I’m skipping the run to avoid damaging my new titanium hip and to preserve the one that still works.

**Arguably, self-control as an end-in-itself is insane. But here’s Rilke‘s view:

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.


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