My Mother Got on a Bike. It Changed Her Life.

When my mother was 62 years old, she dusted off a clunky Cannondale with Mary Poppins handles and joined a bicycling group. She was recovering from heartbreak and had just moved to a new town. She had no background as an outdoor activity enthusiast: She did not camp or hike, had never, say, paddled a kayak. But the bike group was made up of 60-, 70- and 80-year-olds. How hard could it be to tag along?

As I approach the age my mother was then, I notice my peers are increasingly galled by their own advancing years. And why not? My friends are simply responding to the very real negative messaging around older women: fading looks, frail bones, cognitive decline, no cultural significance. I overheard one woman discussing plastic surgery and remarking, “Who doesn’t want to turn back time?” It’s hard not to get sucked into that mind-set.

Yet the way we look at our own aging predicts what our future holds, as Becca Levy, a professor of public health at Yale, writes in her recent book, “Breaking the Age Code.” We increase our risk of cardiac events and speed up cognitive decline, studies show, if we believe getting older is a time of suffering and diminution. More important, the opposite is also true: Those of us who view later life as a time of growth and vitality are more likely to stay healthy and to keep senility at bay. We may also end up living a whopping seven and a half years longer. In one instance, Dr. Levy looked at data from a longitudinal study and came to this astonishing conclusion: Mind-set was the most significant factor determining individuals’ longevity.

But all around us, the media, dating apps, our youth-obsessed culture and our own preconceived notions lead to one verdict: Aging stinks. It will be a white-knuckle ride, women are told, through increasing frailty and irrelevance. Affirmations and positive self-talk — skimming the surface of our psyches, outnumbered in the scrum — don’t stand a chance. Dr. Levy’s studies show us that we need to believe fervently in the vitality of our future. But how?

My mother joined that bike group. What was initially a distraction spun into a passion. She became a serious cyclist, the kind of serious who wore brightly colored bike shirts, used Lance Armstrong breathing techniques and planned group rides. I rode my bike with my mother once; believe me, there is nothing more disheartening than being trash-talked by one’s own mom as she huffs by you on a hill. Pedaling through her 70s, she explored steep mountain roads and new towns. She entered 100-mile races, changed flats and downed electrolytes on the go.

I was envious of her new life. Except for the Metamucil regimens and early bedtimes, she and her fellow seniors resembled any weekend warrior. But unlike so many people I knew, she and her friends didn’t seem to want to beyounger. My mother became more fit, more social and more emotionally expressive than I’d ever seen her.

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