This morning I got this wonderful message from a fellow Medium writer in response to a recent article I wrote on exercising past sixty:
……. I’m 60. I’m “healthy” in that I take no prescription drugs and my labs always come back in good shape (except for that one pesky point above “normal” cholesterol), but I am woefully out of shape, even worse now that I work at home instead of in the corporate world. At least then I was up and down from my desk a hundred times a day. Not so now, and the thought of my un-fit body declining even further terrifies me.
I was a skinny kid growing up. I’ve always been thin, except when I’m not. But thin doesn’t equate to “fit.” I was skinny flabby even then.
I’ve always hated the notion of exercising. It was hard. It was boring. It took time out of my day that I’d rather spend doing something else. But I had done it in the past, both cardio (treadmill) while carrying weights. And I was in the best shape of my life at the time. Not so now. A recent, dreadful relationship caused me to gain 30 pounds in three years. I looked GOOD when we met, but now it’s all jiggly around the middle.
I’ve been flying solo for the past six months and have lost half of it, but the other half refuses to budge, regardless of how little I eat. And I know why — because walking the dog for 30 minutes once or twice a day just isn’t cutting it ENOUGH. Yes, it helps (and it’s good for her too), but it’s not ENOUGH.
I love this for a multitude of reasons. First, this is about as honest as it gets. It also speaks to so many of the issues that all of us grey girls are dealing with: a changing body, how a bad relationship fouls us up physically (My hand is UP), how it’s devilishly hard to start a new set of lifetime habits at this age — but not impossible — and the challenge of an exercise program if we don’t happen to enjoy what we’ve done to date. I think this note speaks to thousands of us, right here, right now.
I’m going to take this very real situation, with thanks to my Medium peep for the inspiration, and respond.
Tell the Truth
If you force yourself to exercise in a way that you do NOT enjoy, you will find any possible way to avoid it. That includes getting sick, injuring yourself, you name it. If you despise lifting weights, DON’T. Because that anger focused on your work will translate elsewhere in your body.
Experiment. Find something you DO love. The above peep mentioned walking the dog and she’s right- it ain’t hardly enough especially if we are hoping to lose weight. So what else might be fun? Part of this is whether or not you need to be social. Are you better alone? Better with a bunch of friends? Do you enjoy competition? Each one of these answers will drive you to a series of options that is much more likely to appeal to you in particular. Just because some folks go to the gym and sling weights, that does not mean it’s for you.
Do some Googling. There are a hundred hundred different ways we can move, from finding a Zumba class to learning to speed walk to taking water aerobics. It’s endless. However, unless it’s fun, You. Will.Not. DO.IT. Not with joy, with enthusiasm, with gusto. The body knows if we’re loving it. And the mind will sabotage what we hate.
Do Your Research
How does the female body change as we age? Where does the fat go and why? Do the work. Understand what’s happening with your body and why fat migrates. It’s as predictable as summer rain. Besides, you and I need a little extra as we age, and if we are too skinny, we are less likely to survive a heart attack. FAT IS IMPORTANT. Too much is one thing. Too little is another. But fat is not the enemy.
Read The Secret Life of Fat by Dr. Sylvia Tara. Why? Because first, it’s likely to set you free. It also might set you laughing. And, it will give you some strategies, especially for an aging, changing body. All the women that I’ve given this book to have thanked me profusely. No. Thank Dr. Tara for this gift.
The other piece is that study after study proves that exercise alone will NOT help you lose weight. It does tons of other critically important things, but exercising to lose weight is largely a fallacy. Food is responsible for some 85% of what we look like. BEGIN with the right diet, the right mix, and I would strongly suggest finding yourself a damned good nutritionist. That’s where it all starts.
Yo-yo dieting leads to weight gain. Consistently good food over time changes absolutely everything. Our needs at sixty are VERY different than at 50. Most of us have no idea how much we consume, snack, all day long. Start with a food diary, then find a professional. Map out new foods, fun foods, tasty foods that feed the engine and your energy. Watch what happens then.
Unless you’re an elite athlete, it’s unfair to expect your body to give you a six pack or even a flat belly, especially if you’ve had kids. You can focus on FIT rather than some insane level of perfection. What does that look like? That depends entirely on your unique body and situation. The writer above noted that her numbers were largely good, but she rightly points out that her body is telegraphing that it needs work. There’s a big gap between not-sick (decent numbers) and superbly healthy (numbers off the chart).
If she did a VO2 test to find out her cardiovascular health, it might be a bit wanting. That health is what delivers oxygen and all the blood’s nutrients to our bodies. When we let that slide, the cells of our body don’t get the nutrients it needs as efficiently. So yes, we all need the cardio workout, however you choose to get it.
The two areas that suffer most from inactivity as we age are muscles (sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss) and lung capacity. As we slow down- IF we slow down, these twin factors cost us oxygen and nutrients, and that leads to poorer healing and failing health. Strong muscles push the blood and nutrients, they use more calories than fat and support our bodies. A strong set of lungs and heart is the pumping system that-when efficient- continues to deliver essential oxygen to every part of our body. Those of us who do an hour a day of cardio work ensure that our lungs and heart can function at a level far younger than the average for our age.
Fitness has many spheres. When it comes to the body, we need a fit heart and lung combination, and our muscles need to be strong. Combined with smart food choices that work for our own idiosyncratic form, that ends up leading us to fit. For US, at this age.
Build Your Heart and Lungs
One way is to get a stationary bike. I have one set up in my basement. It’s an old road bike from the 1980s, and I bought a small movie screen and Blu-Ray player so that I can watch something mindless while I pedal away. I also use headphones with badass Eighties soundtracks (think Atomic Blonde movie soundtrack)) for sprints. This is for snowy days (like today) when getting outside is both cold and uncomfortable for someone who just got back from 85 degree-Indonesia. I have to ease back in here. Just like new exercisers have to ease into the waters and get used to it slowly.
Hack your house for mini-breaks. Here’s what works for me: I have a five- bedroom home. One room is a gym, the big downstairs room is a gear room with a weight bench and lots of smaller weights. I have two pullup bars set up on two doorways. Upstairs where the TV is, I have a big box full of weights, foam rollers, a yoga mat, boxing gloves, you name it. There are at least eight or more lively DVDs that I can plug in for just a few minutes for a pick me up.
Even in a small space, you can get small weights, which you can use for endless arm exercise. Hate the arm flaps? YOU CAN get rid of most of it. I’m not talking liposuction and surgery. Those flaps are the result of sarcopenia. The body’s muscles LOVE work. Work your triceps, be patient, and watch your wings fly away over time. This website has a ton of material for this as well as many other exercises for seniors:(https://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/archive/2015/09/18/strength-training-moves-for-seniors.aspx)
You do not have to have, or go to, a gym to do basic exercises. Once your body gets accustomed to work, it will want more. Move slowly as you increase, be very mindful of perfect form, and don’t give up.
The Home Hack
Here’s how that works: I have twelve steps the basement. I can do laps. And, I can carry weights when I do laps. I can also do squats every time I go upstairs, which ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY gives you GREAT legs.
When I’ve been sitting too long (I’m mostly a writer), I can hit the floor, hit the bench, do pushups, pullups, bicep curls. I’ve got bands that help me stretch. I just take a couple of minutes at a pop, which science is saying is better for us anyway than some marathon walk, run, swim or whatever. https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2018/04/22/how-taking-short-exercise-breaks-can-give-your-brain-an-edge/#18ca5f8f26fb.
As we get older, this is particularly important. The brain needs blood flow and oxygen too. It’s not just for our muscles. Wanna help prevent dementia? MOVE.
You can post simple exercises on the wall and around the house until they are a habit. Let’s talk about that. At first this may seem a pain. But after a while something magical happens. Your body will insist on the work. It will positively itch for it. You’ll begin to really like how you feel. When you like how you feel, you are far more likely to do more of what makes you feel good.
The photo above says a lot to me. Partly because she’s not stick thin, ribs visible. She’s got a healthy layer of fat and good muscles. She’s also not a teenager, but she’s most clearly not in her sixties. Still, it’s an improvement.
Let’s be clear. When I ask Unsplash for photos of exercise, I get all young people. If I put in old women, not a single one of them is exercising. This is the deep and vicious prejudice we live with. Society doesn’t see us in the first place, then if it does, it sees us with a cane, or making cookies, or babysitting. It has a wicked-hard time acknowledging we exist. An aging woman is proof positive of coming end of life. It terrifies us. Old women were forever associated with evil witches as well, a supersition that persists at such a deep level that we barely understand it’s there. So we deny it. (https://www.npr.org/2015/10/28/450657717/why-are-old-women-often-the-face-of-evil-in-fairy-tales-and-folklore).
The other thing this brings up- which deserves an article of its own- is that when we are healthy we are powerful. Powerful older women --especially those of us who are single-- scare society even more: (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/07/cursed-from-circe-to-clinton-why-women-are-cast-as-witches). Getting healthy is powerful. We become a force of nature. Quite frankly, that scares the holy hell out of a lot of us. In doing so we buck the norm, we become what we were meant to be rather than what we’re expected to be: a safe little gramma who can barely make it down the street o a walker. Instead, many of us are setting endurance records. Climbing ice. Running marathons.
Given our collective superstition about powerful old ladies, no wonder people avoid taking care of themselves. A piece of me has to wonder how much of this is shrouded in superstitious “shoulds.”
Even those of us who are incredibly vital and living extraordinary lives- unless we’re stars or celebrities- are barely mentioned. That’s changing slowly, thanks to Outside Online and other places, but it’s slow in coming. You and I have to find our mentors, our examples, our inspiration largely by ourselves.
The real message here both to my Medium peep but also to the rest of us is that we need to find what we can and will do for the rest of our lives. My mentor Meg, who died at 92 three years ago, was working out with a trainer at her house three times a week until she passed. She was a lifelong athlete and dedicated to yoga since her twenties.
This is what supports our life, our vitality. The habits we will do because we both love to do it and we cherish how we feel. Finding what that is, and being willing to change it up every so often (because dammit, the body gets bored) are what make us FIT for LIFE.
Revisiting a beloved childhood sport like cycling could be a great way to reinvigorate your exercise. Challenging your walking pace is another. Returning to working with horses is yet another. Our weight has never been simply a matter of how many calories. It’s the quality of the food, whether or not we have allergies or sensitivities, limited those calories as we age, and most especially sugar intake.
Besides, it’s not just about the weight. That’s the wrong focus. The focus is on getting FIT. The weight will take care of itself.
You might want to read Lies My Doctor Told Me: Medical Myths Than Can Harm Your Health by Dr. Ken D. Berry. It’s an eye-opener about pills, procedures and the products we call food that aren’t. I strongly recommend this, along with books by Dr. Robert Lustig (The Hacking of the American Mind) and Dr. David Perlmutter’s books on grain and the microbiome.
Your body is a full time job. It cannot take care of itself in its entirety. It depends solely on us for food, shelter, love, respect, care and exercise. Yet we treat it as though it will live forever, abuse it horribly, and express genuine surprise when it flips us the proverbial bird in the form of flab, (atrial) fibrillation and fatigue.
Nobody’s fault but our own. However I take deep comfort in the absolute knowledge that the machine we were gifted with will respond with enthusiasm and appreciation when we jump tracks and start down another course of care. It will take patience.
As I write this, I am about to head down to my bike to do sprints. My thighs are shrieking at me because I was sick for a solid month in Indonesia and could barely get out of a bedroom. So, when I hit the leg presses on Friday, those muscles expressed their displeasure with being forgotten. The pain makes me wince, but in a good way. It’s a reminder that my body talks to me in a very clear language.
“Take care of me and I’ll take care of you.”
Your body is an IT. It’s not you. It’s been given over to your custody for all your years on this Earth. Industry convinces us to over-identify with our appearance. Not only does that sell endless crap we don’t need, it simply adds to our anxiety. We’re already anxious enough about our aging bodies. We bloody well don’t need to be told that our only value is if we are perfect specimens. We can choose to shut those lies off.
The simple truth is that this simply miraculous engine we were given requires a significant investment if we want a full, happy life while we inhabit it. The body doesn’t define us. Our character does. However, the body allows us- if we love it the way it deserves- to experience all life has to offer.
My Medium friend and all the rest of all of us girls over sixty can find lots of ways to tend the body. We may not ever again have tight, smooth thighs (oh please…) or the slim waists of our youth- if we ever did- but we CAN be fit, energetic, happy, vital, and ….thank you…..healthy.