Vail Daily column: Managing the process of decline |

Vail Daily column: Managing the process of decline

Ryan W. Richards
Make It Count

None of us are getting out alive. It’s funny — we spend most of our lives doing the right things to avoid death. I’m in the profession of reducing the risk of an untimely death; most of my students are aging and realize the clock is against them. They will do whatever it takes to put off the inevitable. I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing, but we just need a little perspective. Today, I want to explore this process and give light to managing it well.

Last week was filled with emotion, gratitude, sadness and reflection all at once. One of my fraternity brothers passed away unexpectedly. David was married two weeks prior to his untimely passing, had an exceptional career and the world was set before him. Life happened, ran its course and here we are. Moreover, I celebrated a big anniversary in my timeline. Seventeen years ago, I successfully endured an 18-hour spinal fusion surgery that changed my life forever. Every year I celebrate with a big workout. The workout is always a record attempt or something out of the ordinary in remembrance of such a pronounced roadblock that defined my life for so many years. This year I commenced a doozy: 1,000 double-handed swings with a 70-pound kettlebell.

This was a considerable attempt. It took 90 minutes, and I tore the rind off my palms. I only averaged about 11 swings per minute; not a great performance, but I was happy. Now, for the innocent bystander this seems like an awfully aggressive, record-setting attempt. For reasonably fit lifters, especially those with a kettlebell training background, this is indeed a worthy attempt, but nothing a record holder would think amazing.


I live relatively pain free 17 years post-surgery and practice a lifestyle that would be counterculture to surgeon recommendations. The above workout would put most people into the hospital, let alone a man with a significant chink in his armor. I don’t know why I live mostly pain free. I certainly don’t know why David experienced an untimely death. I can’t reason why some of us are natured beauty queens, nurtured champions or why Joe has a $10 million bank account, while others struggle to find fresh water each day. Life isn’t fair. Our bodies, including mine, will ultimately break down. Gravity is going to win — you must accept this.

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How do we deal with this? There is more to life than the dissatisfaction with your limitations. If you define yourself by your limitations and what you can’t do, you’re going to live a disappointing life. I will never be able to perform dips on rings, handstand pushups, reverse cartwheels or any other basic gymnastic moves. My back will not allow for it. But there’s a bundle of other activities that I can perform. If I desperately try to master these basic moves and hit a wall of continuous failure, I’m going to become really frustrated. I know this because I have tried. You must find activities that you can perform well, without pain, and leave the rest to God.

Here’s where I get frustrated with our current attitude towards fitness limitations. On intake, I can find a minimum of three exercises that I know are safe, and laser specific for an individual who may have limitations. I will instruct them to perform nothing but the three exercises I gave them. When they come back a week later, often they are in pain. I will always ask them what they had been doing over the week.

“Well, I did the three exercises you gave me, but I also swam 70 laps, hiked for three hours, rode my bike 120 miles, and went to a yoga class.”

An aspirin a day will likely reduce the risk of a heart attack or a stroke, but an entire bottle will mess you up badly. Why do we feel that 10 exercises are better than two? Why do we insist on participating in the activities that always delivered when we were 20? You aren’t 20 anymore, and times have changed. The jogging craze in the ’80s isn’t as relevant today. Exercise science has evolved like everything else in this world. By the way, age isn’t an excuse for poor movement ability. As Gray Cook once said, “If there’s no medical explanation for why someone is moving poorly, we know the environment is broken.” In other words, the reason you are moving poorly in the absence of a real medical condition is because of the way in which you go about exercising. The environment is broken, and you’ve adapted to that poor environment. It’s time to change the environment and forget what you think you know.

How do we manage this inevitable process of decline? Ask yourself whether you truly enjoy a certain activity or if you perform this activity because you think it’s the only road to victory? If you want results, you must find activities that don’t cause pain. If something is causing pain, there is a reason for it and you must deal with this intelligently. If you can’t run anymore, try swimming. If riding a bike causes low back pain, try a recumbent bike or uphill trail running. Everyone, should attempt to perform some level of strength training. The research is overwhelming from a longevity perspective. Make no mistake though, sometimes your body might not agree. Again, I don’t know why. But as I soon as I find out, you’ll be the first to know.

Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. His passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at or 970-401-0720.

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