Aging and Exercise: What Are You Willing to Accept?
Unfortunately, exercise becomes more important the older you get.
Posted Jul 26, 2019
There are times I must have blinders on. I have opinions about things (especially aging, which is why I started this blog) and wonder why everyone does not feel similarly.
My blissful ignorance comes into play most acutely with regard to exercise. First I must tell you that I am no svelte hardbody. Just a few months shy of my 68th birthday, my once-tiny waist is gone, and it has been a good, long while since I could see my hip bones lying down.
But I don’t see what that has to do with anything, because I know I will never look the way I did 30 years ago. Back then, working out was what other people did. I didn’t think I had to because my clothes still fit.
I also didn’t have to read a bunch of research to convince myself that exercise was good for me, but I am fascinated by it when I come across it. I learned that exercise actually slows cell aging, and to me, that was huge. Health.com goes on to say: “It doesn't just make you feel younger—it may actually turn off the aging process in your chromosomes.”
Suddenly the idea of regular exercise sounded tantamount to getting a facelift without having to deal with the expense, the scalpels, or the bruising. Even though exercise has nothing to do with wrinkles, it has everything to do with feeling confident.
Aging is not fun, but it is interesting. I see it as a journey that presents me with a series of decisions, however. The biggest decision is—what am I willing to accept as I age? Will it be okay that I can no longer balance well enough to stand up to pull on my jeans? Will it bother me that I can no longer “hop” up even a short a set of stairs when I want to? Will I be okay with having to grab the handrail when descending stairs with a pair of pumps on—or must I even (heaven forbid) make a decision about never wearing pumps again? Will I accept that getting up off the floor causes me to roll onto all fours and grab for a piece of furniture nearby?
While these may be the "natural" consequences of aging, altering any and all of these everyday tasks doesn't sound very natural to me. They sound like someone watching every move they make, trying to do things that used to come naturally in a different way because they lost their flexibility and balance.
In my (limited) way of thinking, none of that is acceptable as long as my health is okay and all my moving parts still work. And if some of these issues are weight-related, what is stopping me from eliminating that impediment? Laziness? Inertia? A love affair with garlic bread? Whose life is this anyway?
So when some of these things began happening to me in my early 60s, I felt as if the world were playing some cruel joke on me, and I wasn't getting the punch line. Suddenly they became unacceptable. Just because I feel like 35 inside doesn't mean my body will follow suit.
Here are some cold, hard facts about exercise after age 55:
1. Running, swimming, lifting, and strength training increase cardiovascular strength and overall endurance.
This means simple movements, such as climbing stairs, doing household chores, or even playing with your grandkids will be easier to keep up with as you age. Just let me know when you are ready for all that to end. Not quite yet? Didn’t think so.
Exercise also strengthens your heart and reduces your blood pressure. If you have family members already affected by heart disease, don’t think you are immune. In women, it’s a leading cause of death.
2. Here is a big one: Regular exercise helps to prevent dementia.
How? It delivers oxygen to and removes unnecessary waste from your muscles and organs. In the brain, blood flow is increased, removing harmful waste products that can hinder memory, thought processing, and standard problem-solving over time. This just seems like a no-brainer to me: exercise and retain your sharpness. Who wants to present like an old fart who can't recall things if there are ways to prevent it?
3. I went to the doctor in my 50s for a bone density test and was soon told I had osteopenia.
That meant my bones were already making plans to develop osteoporosis. How kind of them. Picture a “dowager’s hump”—something my sweet mother was already developing at my age but knew nothing about.
Picture waddling as you walk, because your hips are no longer flexible.
Picture hunching over as you age, deepening the furrows in your forehead because you're looking up so much.
I rejected the idea of the medication offered for this condition, because I studied its (terrifying) potential side effects online. I was also told that osteoporosis can be avoided by consuming a diet rich in calcium, regularly stretching, engaging in even mild daily exercise, taking in enough vitamin D, not overdoing it with coffee, and especially by strength training. So my choices were to take the dastardly meds and hope my dental work didn’t fall out (side effects)—or do all of the above. I still don't understand why the doc didn't automatically prescribe all this instead of trying to foist meds on me.
The choice seemed simple. Obtuse or just stubborn on my part? You decide.
4. Believe it or not, exercise actually makes you happier.
No lie. Exercise especially benefits those over 55 by releasing endorphins into the brain and reducing depression. No big need for pills to alter your mood if you can do it simply by moving more. Exercise releases natural chemicals that lighten your mood and create a sense of happiness.
So instead of lamenting how great those 30-something bodies look around me as I work out at my little fitness studio, I think: What do I have to lose by being here, lifting those weights, doing those burpees, and hoisting that barbell—and what do I gain? The very thought of it makes me happy, let alone how my body is thanking me for using it at last.
5. And lastly, old people fall down.
The potential for falls increases exponentially as we age. Think fractures, head trauma, and loss of function or mobility—all complications that can be caused by a fall.
When I first started working out a few years ago, I realized my balance absolutely sucked. My poor trainer offered me bars to hold onto just to lean over one-legged with a weight in my hand, for doing lunges or to squat. Honestly. It was depressing.
If you exercise for no other reason as you age, do it for balance and flexibility. Yoga or Pilates can help tremendously. What you are doing is actually training your body to prevent a fall while learning how to fall properly (some falls are better than others).
That adage about not using it forces you to lose it was never more true than when applied to flexibility, balance, and range of motion. If you want to learn more about this, google the stages of degeneration that happen as we age.
Everyday activities we cannot tackle in the same way we used to find us using other body parts to compensate, and that’s not necessarily a good thing—things like using our necks or lower backs instead of our legs, leading to complications and further accelerating degenerative changes. See how this is all related?
There is so much else to talk about regarding regular exercise. Sleep improves. Skin glows. And everyday things, like craning your neck to see if there is a car in the next lane before you move over—all of these things are affected by how well we move.
Please understand that it was only a few years ago (my mid-60s) that I truly began to embrace the benefits of regular exercise. Do I enjoy it? Not just no. Hell no.
Four-letter words escape my mouth with each last hoist, repetition, or grunt during my exercise routine. My trainer just laughs. By now she has seen everything. I don't get those endorphins others do as a reward for my efforts. My only elation is in the fact that I'm done for the day.
I doubt there is anything about sweating and being muscle-sore that gives me cause to smile, except knowing how I may be adding years to my life. And even if I’m not right (who knows when their time is up?), I will be able to move better during those final years and not be a burden on others. In my mind, I won’t walk, talk or even think like an old lady as long as I keep moving.
Bottom line: We are like classic cars. The older we get, the more maintenance we need. Body parts can be replaced, but nothing keeps us running like clearing fouled tailpipe plugs after our chassis has been sitting in the garage for a while. I rest my case.