Older Eyes, Older Body
When I was in my forties … and doing several marathons and triathlons a year … a friend once commented that she thought I was obsessive about my running. What I was was insulted. Me, obsessive? I just love to run. Besides, if you’re going to run 26 miles, you need to put in the training. One day when I was running along the river trail about 10 miles from home, an old guy going by on a bike yelled to me, That will ruin your knees. I think I flipped him off. It didn’t occur to me that it had ruined his, and besides, I stretched and I cross-trained and I did leg exercises. I was different. Still, there were injuries, a bout of sciatic pain, some garden variety ilio-tibial band syndrome that led to the discovery that I have one short leg. That meant orthotics. I also had on arthroscopic repair of a torn meniscus. My last marathon left me with a little lump on my left Achilles tendon that can be tender if I run for too long. At sixty-eight, I am willing to consider that my friend and the old guy on the bike might have been right.
The years of exercise are not without benefit. I have had a thorough cardiac evaluation in the last two years and have a very strong heart. Even though I’ve put on some weight, for the most part, my body seems to be holding up well. But occasionally, I’ll turn just so and my knee will send out a sharp pain that hangs around for a few days. If I try to run too much (meaning more than a few miles), my Achilles tendon and knees sing out, Please Stop, in three part harmony. So mostly, I walk and ride my bike at a more leisurely pace with an occasional jog thrown in for old times sake. I have a number of senior friends who have remained faithful to the kind of regular exercise I used to do and they have been rewarded with more svelte bodies than mine. To be honest, some of them look gaunt. I have an unproven theory that very thin seniors look older because there’s no permafat to smooth out the wrinkles. But I’ve also noticed this: they seem to have more injuries than I do, not fall-down-go-boom injuries but use injuries like tendonitis, back problems and rotator cuff pain. It also seems to me they are more susceptible to illness.
Looking back on my heavy training days, these sound like symptoms of over-training, something I was known to do in my forties. Back then, when I had symptoms of over-training, I’d back off a little bit, feel better, then hit the streets again. They were the acceptable consequences of considering myself an athlete. It’s different now. At forty, injuries heal quickly … at sixty-eight, they prefer to hang around. Sometimes, they want professional treatment. So my serious exercising senior friends sometimes spend extended time recovering. They frequently start back too soon, suffer a set back, then end up laid up longer. That got me to thinking … what is the right amount of exercise for a senior to balance the benefits like cardiovascular health, flexibility and strength against the potential for use injuries? I thought it would be an easy question to answer but in our culture the benefits of exercise take on an almost mythic importance. To some degree it reflects that for the most part, we are an under-exercising society so articles on exercise tend to say, Do More. Don’t believe me? An article is USNews on A Workout Plan for Seniors begins: If you think you need to slow down as your body starts to age, think again. What follows is this:
(1) 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (running, walking, swimming, biking) five days a week. Those who do vigorous workouts that cause a big increase in heart rate and heavy breathing should aim for a minimum of 20 minutes, three days a week; (2) Two to three strengthening (weight training or exercises like push-ups) workouts per week of all major muscle groups on nonconsecutive days; (3) At least 10 minutes a day should be devoted to stretching and balance exercises, like yoga, Pilates, and tai chi.
Some seniors may need to slow down. I suspect this regimen would be slowing down for some of the heavy exercising seniors I know. According to senior-site.com, if you’re a senior doing more than this and you experience continual joint or muscle aches, low energy levels, exhaustion, loss of appetite, depression, sleeping difficulties or frequent infections, you may be over-training. Cut back and you’ll not only feel better, you’ll improve your overall fitness.
Me? I promise, I’m not over-training.