Running on this endless stretch of tarmac, 6am on my birthday, I’m starting to understand the difference between getting older and growing older.

I used to be fit, when I was younger. This is something everyone says, at some point, but really, I used to be leaner, stronger, sexier. Indestructible. It used to be so easy. Lie on the beach enough, do enough laps in your parents’ pool, walk up the mountain enough, run enough after your impossible untrained family golden lab, and all of this – this golden tan, this out-of-nowhere six-pack – it all comes naturally. Lazily.

Then you hit 30. Suddenly, there’s a big difference between change and progress. Both imply a kind of movement, but in opposite directions. Both are inevitable, invisible, but one’s a slippery slope, the other a monstrous mountain. And it’s not just biology, or physics, or chemistry, or anything organic or ordinary, it’s just life.

It’s the leg-deadening desk job, the cardio-killer office chair, this little keyboard-big screen combination that keeps you immobile for hours at a time, that just-too-far-away printer that encourages you to save the trees, and your legs, by emailing everything to everyone all the time, this tight timetable and tighter budget that has you on a diet of cheap carbs, empty carbs and all kinds of compound carbs too.

And it’s this lifestyle, with its late mornings and pig-out evenings and drink-all-you-can-weekends. It’s the stress of making rent, beating traffic, car problems, house hunting problems, cash-flow problems. Of bringing work home, reading too much, thinking too much, arranging and preparing too many too-long all-day meetings, pushing for unimaginable deadlines and targets and word counts.

The suburban strain. The rat race rage.

Wanting to die on this promenade today, 7am on my birthday, I’m learning the difference between changing and improving.

Most of the time, I used to be fit, when I was younger, is a mitigating statement. I used to be slimmer, stronger, in better shape. Fitness is something I’ve experienced, something I understand, intellectually. It’s not a road I’ve never, ever travelled, you know. I could be fit, still, but I’ve been busy. Things get in the way, like work, with its staid, stable office environment. Its deadlines, that demand singular focus and commitment. Most of the time, it’s an excuse. It sounds defensive. Vaguely outraged even, with a you-don’t-understand undertone.

I do understand. Today, turning 32, I’m starting to understand a lot of things.

For one: it’s all in your head. Back when being in shape wasn’t a goal to aim for, when running and swimming and fighting weren’t classes I signed up for, I wasn’t some better, glowing, heroic, fantastical version of myself. I was just me, younger: oblivious, stupid. Walking on water, walking on air. High on adrenaline. Living like it was nothing. Moving into the real world, nothing changed too much. I kept on keeping on. The straight and narrow got a little more familiar, a little safer, and I stuck to it. Learnt the rules, stayed the course. Adapted. Evolved.

Looking back, it’s easy to think something went wrong somewhere. That you took a turn for the worse. But when you stop and think, God, what happened to me, the answer comes easy. Nothing. You’re just you, getting older, becoming more yourself. Busier, more stressed out. That’s the real slide: you get more you, not less. More of the same guy who once found it so easy to be fit. More stupid. More lazy.

You look back and imagine the path to fitness as a trek through time. An impossible time-machine trip. You look at your life now and you think, nope, too busy, too stressed, too preoccupied and tied down and otherwise engaged. Too old. Everything falls apart, anyway; those days are gone. You imagine your fitter, younger self as some long-lost anomaly, something sepia-toned, bathed in nostalgia. An old tatty photograph, a dusty forgotten memory. Lost forever.

But there’s a big difference between getting older and growing wiser.

It doesn’t get harder to stay the same. That’s just your that same laziness talking. That same obliviousness. You just have to try. This is new, I know; to me maybe more than anyone. But I learnt to apply my mind to life, I can learn to think about my body too. Maybe it doesn’t come so naturally anymore, maybe it’s not an instinct you were ever aware of, maybe it’s not something you even know how to activate, but it doesn’t get harder to live without fear.

You want to be fit, healthy, all those things you never knew you were? You want to be your old carefree, stupid self again? Go get him. Sign up, sign in. Want it. Care. When you stop and think, shit, what happened to me, that’s good. You’ve stopped sliding, started thinking. That’s improvement, not change. That’s where progress comes from. That’s the first step. When that happens, 32 isn’t an age or even a number. When that happens, I used to be fit, when I was younger, isn’t an excuse.

It’s an off-ramp. It’s an opportunity.

Photo via Flickr by Garrett