The Subtle (and not so subtle) Realizations of Getting Older

Injured teddy bear with patch over its eye
Injured teddy bear with patch over its eye

little more than a month ago, I decided to try the 5:45 am fitness class at my boxing gym. I’m no stranger to working out, but I hadn’t convinced myself that I enjoy doing it before the sun rises. Nevertheless, it was a very challenging class with lots of cardio, ropework, pad work and an unprecedented (at least for me) 100 burpees. The most burpees I had done in one sitting before that was about 25, so it was only by the grace of God that I got through it. I felt pretty accomplished when the class was over.

That was a Friday. I was fine. Saturday, fine. Sunday and Monday, no problem. Then Tuesday came. I was sitting at my desk at work, as usual, and I stood up around lunchtime to head to the kitchen. Well, to my surprise, my body was not in agreement with my decision to do 100 burpees; a pain that I had never felt before jolted through my left hip and lower back. I tried to hide my uninvited limp for two days. And then it went away.

Note to self: You really tried it.

In my 36 years of living, I have been blessed with pretty good health, a loving family, plenty of career opportunities and meaningful relationships. I’ve had my share of challenges and setbacks, successes and victories. But what’s fascinating to me are the gradual ways that I’ve changed (intentionally and unintentionally) as I've gotten older.

And it is now very evident that there are some things I used to do back in my 20s — maybe even five years ago — that I absolutely cannot do anymore:

Burn both ends of the candle

If you don’t know what it means to “burn the midnight oil”, I'm sure your grandparent or an elder can school you. It’s basically a metaphor for staying up very late. I was once a master at burning both ends of the candle — staying up late and then waking up early. In my 20s, I could easily stay up until 2 or 3 am and wake up at 6 am and successfully make it through the day. This was the norm and even a badge of honor for me. I was proud of the fact that I could function on 3–4 hours of sleep. I could outwork my colleagues and shame them for getting proper rest. Sleep? You can sleep when you die, right?

Wrong. I had an epiphany about proper sleep and rest three years ago when I burned out from working too much. It taught me that no project or assignment or job is serious enough to lose sanity or health over. I also learned that not only did I enjoy sleep, but my body needed it. As my work schedule and commute evolved over the years, I organically transitioned from being a late-night person to an early morning person. I became more productive in the morning and I saw the personal and professional benefits of getting up at 5 am.

So now I can’t be 26-year old Shannel and go to bed whenever I want. I can’t sleep for 4 hours and feel fine (granted, I can do five, but it’s not ideal). I’m actually still good with six hours of sleep and I’m more intentional about trying to get in more when I can. It’s not just because I feel better, but because I now understand that my body needs it.

Eat whatever I want

I’ve always had a small frame but a big appetite. I love food and I love to eat. When I think about how recklessly I ate in my teens and twenties, all I can do is shake my head. I never turned down free food, no matter what it was. I easily consumed at least 3–5 sweets per day, including sugary cereals in the morning, midday pastry snacks, at least one or two daily Starbucks lattes, and of course, dessert after dinner. I even had the audacity to look down on coworkers who ate fresh fruit for a snack because I thought it was lame.

When I got to my thirties, I started toning it down. But it wasn’t until the summer of 2017 when I participated in a healthy eating program called the Rebirth Experience that I dramatically changed the way I looked at food. The program challenged participants to go 30 days vegan, starting with a one-week fruit fast. By accepting that challenge, I literally reset my palette and learned about the many benefits of cleaner eating. It was the longest time I had gone without coffee and I learned that my body was much happier when I eliminated dairy. It was a life-changing experience.

Today, I don’t label myself a vegan or vegetarian, although my diet is mostly plant-based. I still love a sweet treat (I could never give up dark chocolate), but I have drastically decreased my sugar intake. If I accidentally consume dairy, I can feel the mucus build-up almost immediately. And when I go for that steak once every blue moon, my body feels it! I’m actually amazed at the fact that I now enjoy consuming almond milk, fresh veggies and fruit smoothies over an abundance of desserts, fast food, and sodas. Crazy.

Not take exercise seriously

I was an average athlete in high school, but pretty active. From college through my mid-twenties, that pretty much stopped. I exercised here and there, but nothing consistent. I was able to ride the wave of no consistent exercise and still keep a flat stomach until about my mid-thirties. Low energy and fatigue was something that I dealt with for a long time, but I attributed it to my demanding workload over the years as a full-time designer with a business. Then I finally realized that a lack of exercise was a major contributor to my energy level.

Starting at age 32, I began participating in an annual 10K race; by 34, I was intentional about jogging and hiking regularly. Now, I’m a member of a boxing gym where I can get in a great mix of strength and cardio training every week, in addition to what I do on my own. Now, when I go to the doctor and she asks me “are you exercising regularly?”, I can actually give a truthful “yes”. Because when I don’t work out, I can feel it in more ways than one.

People pleasing

Sometimes I’m embarrassed to admit that I was a people pleaser. It was very hard for me to say no, just so that I could avoid that awkward moment of disappointing someone. This made for some hard lessons learned in my relationships, friendships and in my career over the years. I don’t think anyone viewed me as a pushover, but maybe someone who was more likely to say yes than no. I don’t know what happened, but entering my thirties was like walking through some type of magical “no” vortex that gave me the courage and strength to come out with more assurance and confidence on the other side.

I think it’s really a combination of life experiences, overcoming challenges, and earning hard victories with a sprinkle of just not giving a you-know-what that helped give me the confidence to say “no”. I learned to value my time and peace of mind, which has given me the fortitude to (kindly and politely) turn down people and/or projects that aren’t in line with my values, goals or schedule. It’s certainly still a work in progress, but I have come a long way to know that I can’t make everyone happy — and that’s okay!

With age doesn’t always come wisdom, but I think I’ve learned a great deal about myself as I’ve gotten older. No matter what my mind tells me, I can’t do all the things I used to do, nor do I even want to. I have to chuckle when I catch myself squinting at the TV, examining food labels, calling my twenty-something-year-old colleagues “young people”, sharing “back in the day” stories, scolding my parents to turn the TV down in the background, or being oblivious to the latest trendy songs because I’m still faithfully listening to Tribe or Roy Ayers. Also, I should stretch a lot more before I attempt another 100 burpees (probably won't happen anyway).

I don’t know if I’m gradually turning into my parents or if this is just a natural mind shift that comes with living longer. Either way, I’m enjoying the ride.

Creative professional, designer, author. Lover of chocolate, coffee, laughter, and football. Teaching and inspiring through design.

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