A Short Essay About the Total-Minutes Theory of Energy and Performance

by Sifu Slim, author of “The Aging Athlete” (TheAgingAthlete.com)

An idea that has some currency in sports psychology holds that performance athletes have only so many total minutes of emotional and physical energy to draw upon. As that thinking goes, once the minutes are used up, the machine stops or its driver is simply unwilling to go on. Unlike a recreational athlete who may carry on for ages like a Toyota, according to this particular theory, a performance athlete’s days are numbered, at least in terms of the drive for high performance physical operation. In this instance, it might be helpful to think of performance athletes more like the stereotypical Jaguar automobile—lots of performance, but a short career using the original parts and brain center. (No offense to Jags, they were the mark I longed for my entire youth.) As an example, some top-finishing triathletes have been known to pass bloody urine at the end of Ironman contests. How many years could a competitor’s body and mind tolerate that?

Football linebacker Brian Bosworth retired from the NFL due to injury. During the athlete’s physical, the team physician flunked him due to Brian’s being age 25 with the shoulder joints of a 60-year-old.

This total-minutes scenario may parallel why many staffers in the corporate world or other jobs can only take so much of the monotony or overly taxing workloads. They may leave the job or be asked to leave when they’re unable to perform as before. Domestic relationships may fit here as well. Do you think their breaking points may in part have to do with a formula of total minutes? In a time of short-lived relationships, is it possible we are limited in our ability to endure differences, remain attentive, express love, or handle relationship stress?

According to the total-minutes theory, even without painful injuries, a performance athlete could simply run out of steam, concentration energy, and other parts of their emotional and physical performance capabilities. Consider why the out-of-retirement comebacks of athletes rarely produce stellar results. It takes a major effort and an incredible numbers of hours for most athletes to reach peak performance.

When they’re no longer training, or are simply no longer capable of remaining in the zone for their sport, high-caliber performances diminish. And, once retired, some of the skills disappear astonishingly quickly. When they leave their competition days, athletes instantly face the same problems as the rest of the population in the sedentary world. But why do large numbers of these former peak movers become as sedentary or more sedentary than the general population? Are they simply out of energy? Are their minutes all used up? Or, are they still thinking their former fitness level can protect them indefinitely or can return with the flick of a switch?

It’s possible to compare our modern era’s denatured, disharmonious, potentially unenduring lifestyle with the millions of years of existence of the hunter-gatherers who survived by being peak performers. One reason hunter-gatherers may have survived so long is because living in relative harmony with nature and each other has a better track record for rejuvenation. Up to a point, certain survival skills tended to get better with age. Imagine how important it was to know if water could be consumed just by what your senses told you. In this example, skills acquisition equals strengthening. Adapting to nature’s offerings and requests increases our chances for survival.

If tribal people contaminated their spaces or depleted their attainable resources, they perished. Climate changes and things that fell from the skies also acted to depopulate the planet. In a communal situation, when individuals could no longer do their jobs or take care of themselves, others would have to help them or they perished. The idea of lingering in incapacitated states is not favorable to tribal living where each person had vital responsibilities.

For the true hunter-gatherers who were not unendingly threatened by rival tribes, the physical life of movement and cooperation, accompanied by a natural diet, and a life that may have been more conducive to downtime and better sleep, meant hunter-gatherers had the chance to thrive. Prior to industry, they also had less exposure to harmful chemicals (things like volcanoes and naturally occurring asbestos may have provided some exposure) and a significantly reduced bombardment by electromagnetic frequencies. They also lived at most times electrically grounded to the earth. Their bare feet or leather footwear allowed for the balancing effect of electron transfer with the ground.

Of course they had problems along the way—infection, starvation, attack, and weather to name a few. But, as their bones generally testify, their lifestyle often left the survivors with fewer of the type of ailments that we suffer. Heart attacks and diabetes are unheard of in true hunter-gather populations. We may imagine a life in the wild that was simply too tough. Since upright walkers of the Homo species have handled it for perhaps 2.3 million years and since wild animals do it every day, obviously there’s a way to thrive in nature.

Like evolving animals, evolving humans also became acclimated to their surroundings. Today’s high incidence of ailments and disease suggests we are not acclimated to our modern surroundings. In tribal living, acclimation meant locomotion, which kept bodily functions optimized. Proper movement and posture during travel and hunting made people stronger, provided fulfillment, and reduced their stresses. Conscious and unconscious proprioception, the body’s posture and awareness through movement, fires the nerves, linking brainpower with brawn power. But if a hunter wants to make the long trek for food, the brawn has to be efficient. The more efficient, the less calories burned and the less wear on the body.

How many total minutes did a healthy hunter-gatherer have at peak performance? Their bones suggest that adults weren’t dropping like flies in their 20s. Many more of them would have died off young if they lost the ability to hunt, gather, and defend as they ran out of total minutes. Because caregiving is so taxing, it would have been simply too difficult to care for significant numbers of a tribe’s members who were not performing, yet still consuming. Certainly there is a limit to how many undercontributors or people needing care a group can support.

More importantly, who is caring for the aging athletes who have broken down? Would a mother or wife be able to handle a 300-pound ex football player who needs help toileting or who experiences fits of rage? The anecdotal evidence provided for The Aging Athlete Project suggests that only 10 percent of retired performance athletes (including military and physical performers like dancers) take up a life of physical activity.

Because of a drive for success in performance activities, such athletes and physical performers have ostensibly rewired any programming that once may have had them doing friendly kids’ play. They suffer a complete disconnect from any former front porch and neighborhood recreation. A retired competition athlete may completely forget how enriching it was to perhaps have done fitness and movement activities in their primary schooling. In many cases, the retired athlete—whether a gymnast at age 15 or a former U.S. Marine at age 22—might step into the next phase of life with a sigh of relief. “I don’t have to do that hardcore training anymore and I don’t have to listen to that task master ever again.” Who becomes the task master of the recently “unshackled” athlete? Who teaches the retired athlete about transitioning back into maintenance fitness, recreation, and wellness?

At once, the performance-retired body tells its end user how good it feels to take a break. The mind too presumably welcomes such a period of calming down. But how long should a recent retiree relish in this physically unstructured calm zone? As the athletes themselves have attested, it only takes one day of being complacently immobile to create a whole new type of agony that comes with adopting a sedentary lifestyle. An unused physical body starts breaking down, characteristically causing pain and discomfort in mind, body, spirit, and relationships. And let’s not forget how dietary rebellion is easily coupled with more time to wash down the stresses of inactivity with more food and drink. Together these practices often touch off the vicious cycle of unwanted additional fat with all of its potential negative health consequences from diabetes to diseases of the heart and other “favorite” organs.

The athletic performance total-minutes theory has athletes falling apart, or dipping way down from peak performance, or wanting out at a specific point. That seems like a theory worth pursuing. There’s also the normal aging process and aggravated body abuse from the nature of their competition. But is this the reason many of them refrain from doing noncompetitive physical movement as they transition to a new side of life? Is this why so many become first sedentary, then unwell? Is there a way to circumvent the prevailing forces of the theory and prevent a state of diminishing health—both physical and emotional? Understanding recent trends is an initial step that can help lead us to a path of prevention. However, openly accepting a theoretical trend, without studying the history of human performance, seems limiting.

Despite stress, new responsibilities, and physical and emotional challenges (sometimes severe), a reported 10 percent of aging performance athletes decided to pursue physical movement. In “The Aging Athlete,” a group of former performance athletes share how they have done it. Even though a number of the aging athletes in this book are still doing performance-oriented training and competition, a higher percentage of these featured athletes are doing functional movement and maintenance exercises. This book presents how a group of performance-oriented athletes have taken a perceived limitation (like the total-minutes theory) and overcome it. For those of us who are not beyond repair, we can follow their path and can keep moving for a lifetime of recreational enjoyment and wellness. This book provides aging athletes, as well as those with little or no athletic experience, the opportunity, inspiration, and motivation to adopt the wellness mindset.

I hashed out this subject matter of this essay and contemplated life sitting in a restaurant in tropical Florida. Finished, our discards found the trash and recycling and my friend and I walked out towards our rental car. Ahead of us were two large and “fit” college athletes who looked in need of some time off—they both had limped out of Chipotle and were both still limping in the parking lot. Ace bandages gripped one’s right knee and the second’s right knee and left ankle. To my friend, I mentioned The Aging Athlete Project and how these two fit in the paradigm. What memories, I asked, will these two fellows have of their pain and suffering, reminders of which could remain with them for life?

This essay is featured on MindBodyNetwork

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