KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Now we are going to share a secret about thriving after the age of 45 - intentional fun. Throwing yourself into a hobby can hone your brain and boost your health. As Barbara Bradley Hagerty found in her book of "Life Reimagined," a little passion can transform your life.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: In the summer of 2001, Mike Adsit was flipping through the cable channels, queasy from his latest round of chemotherapy. He was 52, the owner of a construction company in Pennsylvania and recently diagnosed with small cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He happened upon the Tour de France on TV. And in the lead was a cancer survivor, Lance Armstrong before his fall from grace. Mike felt a shiver of hope.
MIKE ADSIT: So I got my bicycle and dusted it off and oiled the chain and started writing. And I couldn't ride a quarter-mile without getting off the bike and walking. That's how I started.
HAGERTY: Within a few months, he had shed 60 pounds and was entering small races, often being annihilated by the younger racers.
ADSIT: I was a babe in the woods, but I was having the time of my life.
HAGERTY: Cycling gave concrete challenges - besting his time, winning a race - a break from the daily and dutiful obligations of midlife.
ADSIT: We go to work, and we build houses or do radio shows or whatever, and we have a routine of family. And bicycling kind of takes you out of that.
HAGERTY: He completed three times in the senior games, a national competition for athletes 50 and older. He came close, but never placed in the top five. Then, in the summer of 2012, he was shaving before a race.
ADSIT: And all of a sudden, I discovered these lumps on my neck. And lo and behold, my cancer came back.
HAGERTY: This time, chemo alone wouldn't work. He needed a stem cell transplant, a grueling multi-day process involving chemo that made him so weak he could barely walk. Mike approached the procedure as he would a long, uphill ride.
ADSIT: If I have to climb the mountain, I have to climb the mountain. And let's get the game face on and get it done.
HAGERTY: The stem cell transplant went flawlessly, but it threw off this training. Now, seven months later, Mike wonders if he can compete with the other cyclists in his category, men 65 to 69 years old. We will know in two weeks.
HAGERTY: After our interview, Mike and I set out on a 20-mile loop. I ask him to show me how he trains for his races.
ADSIT: This first set of intervals - we're going to call these 15-second maxes.
ADSIT: OK. So when I tell you to...
HAGERTY: Oh, wait - so I'm part of this now.
ADSIT: Oh, you're a part - absolutely a part of this.
As I pedal furiously, I realize Mike uses his cycling to encourage others. He raises money for cancer research and coaches patients through their treatment plans. Now, he's coaching me.
ADSIT: Now, hard as you can.
HAGERTY: This ride will change my life.
ADSIT: Hard, hard, hard, hard, harder, harder - push, push, push, push, push.
HAGERTY: OK. Let's say you hate exercise. There are plenty of other ways to find a little purpose in life. In fact, finding a new interest that is unrelated to work or family seems to be the best single fix to the midlife doldrums. One woman I talked with learned Spanish in her 50s and now has a new circle of friends. A man I met trained his dog to make hospital visits.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE MUSIC)
HAGERTY: Dana Sebren Cooper (ph) began taking flute lessons after letting her one-time passion lie dormant for nearly 30 years.
DANA SEBREN COOPER: For me, I mean it's maybe a little dip of Peter Pan, but I want to go back to that feeling I had when I was 17 and I could, you know, belt out a solo with our orchestra. I wanted to - I wanted to have that little bit of youth still in me, I think, you know, before it's just too late.
HAGERTY: Now, almost any hobby can boost your mood and your brain health at midlife. And yet, Kirk Erickson at the University of Pittsburgh says there's something special about exercise. In a groundbreaking study, he found that just walking three times a week increased the area of the brain key to memory by 2 percent.
KIRK ERICKSON: We turn back the clock by at least a year on these people. So we reverse the brain aging, essentially.
HAGERTY: The other thing about exercise - it's free, except for all the gear you have to buy.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Rider 196.
HAGERTY: On a warm morning in a park near Cleveland, I meet up with Mike Adsit a few minutes before his 10K time trial race in the senior games.
How are you feeling?
ADSIT: I feel terrific.
HAGERTY: Wow. Are you nervous at all?
ADSIT: No, I'm not nervous at all.
HAGERTY: Because I'm nervous as hell (laughter).
Mike reminds me that a few months ago, he could barely walk after his stem cell transplant. What's your goal for today?
ADSIT: I'm here, so I've met my goal.
HAGERTY: Almost before we know it, the race is over.
MARY EMMETT: All right, Adsit.
HAGERTY: Mike clocked in at 15 minutes, 35 seconds - a solid time, but not in the top five.
EMMETT: You did amazing.
HAGERTY: That's Mary Emmett (ph), Mike's 60-something girlfriend. She's thinking about competing in the games next time. I asked Mike if he'll be coaching her.
ADSIT: Oh, yes. I'll be coaching you, too, so...
HAGERTY: I grimace, but I'm secretly pleased. And it was Catharine Utzschneider who helped me understand why. Utzschneider is a professor at Boston College Sports Leadership center. She trains a lot of middle-aged athletes. She says early in life, there are a lot of markers - graduation from high school and college, starting a career, starting a family. But at some point, we settle into our routines. Midlife, she says, is like a book with so many words.
CATHARINE UTZSCHNEIDER: But without any structure, without sentences, periods, commas, paragraphs, chapters - with no order, with no punctuation. Goals force us to think deliberately.
HAGERTY: They give us little victories. They prove that we can learn new tricks and in midlife, whether it's mastering a new tune or some new Italian phrases. This rang true for me, especially after I left the world of deadline journalism for the quiet, seamless task of writing a book. And suddenly, Mike Adsit's challenge gave me a goal. Could I compete in the 2015 senior games?
(Singing) Jeremiah is a bulldog, bum, bum, bum...
I started putting in the miles, attacking the hills. I felt young for the first time in decades.
ADSIT: OK. In 10 seconds, we're going to up the cadence to 90 for 90 seconds.
HAGERTY: Oh, geez.
July 11, 2015, a few minutes before the 10K time trial. Under Mike Adsit's guidance, I've qualified to compete against other 50-something women in the senior games.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Unintelligible) Did you copy? (Unintelligible) at station two.
HAGERTY: Mike and I walk my bike to the starting line. I feel a flush of affection for this man who has introduced me to my new past time. I also feel like I'm going to throw up.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Five, four, three, two, one - go.
(SOUNDBITE OF RACE CLOCK BEEPING)
HAGERTY: During the most painful 17 minutes of my mid-adult life, I want to slow down. I want to quit. But I think - come on, sprint to the next telephone pole. Live in this moment. Give it all you have because this is it. Two years of research on midlife playing out in a bicycle race - and then...
ADSIT: Harder, everything you've got. Everything you've got.
HAGERTY: And it's over. OK. So this isn't exactly a rocky ending.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In seventh place - from Washington, with a time of 17 minutes, 14 seconds - Barbara Hagerty.
HAGERTY: In the past two years, I've discovered a new passion. I've set some goals and met them. I've proved that we don't have to go downhill after 50, and I've made a friend. All in all, it seems like a win to me. For NPR News, I'm Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
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