Age Gracefully with This Subtle Mindset Shift

By Kristen Domonell |

The first step to defy the rules of aging? Believe that you can. Here’s how.

confident older woman with scooter

When you think about getting older, how do you picture it?

The answer matters more than you think: Your attitude about aging, whether you think of it as a time of frailty and decline or as a time of growth and opportunity, partly determines how you will age. That’s why it pays to foster a growth mindset. And no, it’s not too late.

What Is Growth Mindset?

Growth mindset, which relates to self-image and self-esteem, is a belief that you can improve yourself through training, practice, or education, versus believing that your abilities are fixed and there’s not much you can do to improve them, explains Gary S. Moak, M.D., chief of geriatric psychiatry at New Hampshire Hospital and author of Beat Depression to Stay Healthier and Live Longer: A Guide for Older Adults and Their Families.

Mindset theory research shows that people who have a fixed mindset about their abilities tend to avoid challenges and show less resilience in the face of setbacks. They often interpret failure as a result of their own lack of ability.

Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, tend to seek out challenging opportunities and see setbacks as teachable moments.

How Growth Mindset Promotes Healthy Aging

A growing body of research is confirming that our thoughts about aging have real power. One study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that loss of physical abilities in older adults was associated with cognitive decline—but only in those who held negative perceptions of aging.

Consider this real-life example from Dr. Moak: In his hometown in New Hampshire, it’s common for people to downhill ski well into their 80s, he says. He even knows a 90-something person who’s still ski racing. One reason they can do this: They believe they can.

“If you approach late-middle age or early-old age with the view that aging inevitably comes with decline and frailty, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Dr. Moak says. “But if you go into aging recognizing that those things may happen but you can take steps to make a difference in what happens to you, you’ll not only maintain your abilities and functions, but you’ll also develop new ones.” That is growth mindset in a nutshell.

It sounds simple, but how exactly can you start to adjust your mentality for successful aging? Follow this four-step guide.

Step #1: Ignore Stereotypes

The number of antiaging products on the market make one thing very clear: We live in a youth-oriented society. Older individuals are often portrayed as being weak or feeble when that’s far from the truth, Dr. Moak says.

In fact, “studies show that levels of life satisfaction are highest among older adults compared to all other segments of the population,” he says. Once you understand that the stereotypes aren’t true, it can open your eyes to more possibilities and help nudge your mindset in the growth direction.

Need more convincing? Allow us to introduce you to Syd Bowersox, a SilverSneakers member who rode her bike 3,200 miles across the country at the age of 72. Stereotype, busted!

Step #2: Take Up Meditation, Yoga, or Other Mindfulness Practices

When you’re in touch with your thoughts and emotions in the present moment, it helps you feel grounded and in control. That’s why mindfulness practices, including yoga, meditation, or tai chi, are considered so good for mental health, Dr. Moak says.

“They help you develop greater self-confidence and a positive outlook on what you’re able to accomplish as you age,” he says.

Not sure where to start? Try incorporating this five-minute meditation into your daily routine. Or if you prefer active mindfulness techniques, this seven-minute yoga flow is a great option.

Step #3: Develop (or Maintain) an Exercise Habit

Among many other mind and body benefits, exercise can be incredibly empowering.

“With exercise, gains build on themselves,” Dr. Moak says. “Initially you may have some new aches and pains, but if you stick with it, you’ll notice you can do more than you could before, and then more than you ever thought possible.”

Seeing what you can do physically also has potential to transfer into other areas of your life, he says. You’ll gradually undo the negative bias that may be ingrained about aging. And before you know it, you may be learning pottery, a foreign language, or any other new skill.

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If you haven’t been active recently, are recovering from an injury or illness, or are afraid you’ll get hurt when you exercise, talk to your doctor as a first step. Your doctor can give you guidelines for safe exercise that are specific to any health issues you may have. If you have an underlying issue or condition—for example, diabetes—your doctor can also help you get the right treatment.

These resources may also help you get moving safely and confidently:

Another great way to start and maintain an exercise habit: Join a group fitness class. SilverSneakers members love our classes because they find support from instructors who are trained in working with older adults—and they love the camaraderie. Check your eligibility here.

Step #4: Ask for Help if You Feel Depressed

“One of the assumptions we see many people make is that old age is depressing, and therefore depression is a normal coefficient of aging and just part of the deal,” Dr. Moak says. “So the problem is that a lot of people, based on those beliefs, go on living many years at a time with untreated depression.”

According to the National Institute on Aging, symptoms of depression include but are not limited to:

  • Sad, anxious, or hopeless mood
  • Loss of interest in things you once found pleasurable
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Aches and pains without a clear physical cause
  • Changes in appetite or sleep habits

It’s important to remember that feeling blue every now and then is totally normal. Even the most optimistic people in the world aren’t happy 24/7. But if you’ve been experiencing the symptoms above for more than two to four weeks, talk to your doctor so you can get the right diagnosis—and treatment.

To learn more about the difference between normal sadness and depression, check out this helpful guide.

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