Pumping Irony

Craig Cox, EL’s director of business operations and resident geezer, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

The Happiness Factor

Here’s an interesting question: Which of these two activities is more likely to contribute to an old guy’s ability to maintain his physical fitness as he ages?

1)   Enjoying a couple of beers with his buddies.

2)   Chasing a tennis ball around a court for an hour.

Answer: Both.

Researchers at the University College of London have released the results of a new study showing that geezers like myself who stay positive and enjoy life generally maintain better physical function as they age. “They are less likely to develop impairments in activities of daily living such as dressing or getting in or out of bed, and their walking speed declines at a slower rate than those who enjoy life less,” the study’s co-author, Andrew Steptoe, MD, said in a statement released by the college.

This is good news for guys like me, who don’t like to obsess over fitness goals and workout regimens as they look for ways to stay vertical in late middle age and beyond. Whatever I do to try to stay in shape has to be enjoyable (even if that enjoyment/satisfaction comes after the fact, as in sweating through a kettlebell routine) or I won’t do it. And that stuff has to be balanced by a good portion of non-athletic activity that just makes me happy.

Sunday was a pretty good case study of how this works for me. I slept late, made a big breakfast, shoveled some snow so I could pry the car out of the garage, and drove over to my buddy Steve’s house to begin another rousing season of Strat-O-Matic baseball. This involves much trash-talking, intermittent bouts of humility, and oddly gratifying moments of testosterone-fueled bravado — all washed down with a beer or three. I’ve been playing in this league with these guys for almost 30 years, and it never fails to make my day.

I had just enough time after I finished my last game (a 12-inning thriller!) there to stop at home to grab my tennis gear and rush over to the indoor courts at Martin Luther King Park, where I met The Baseline Machine for the latest in our ongoing battle for tennis supremacy. TBM is still recovering from a nasty rotator cuff injury, but she was whacking it around pretty good on Sunday, which meant I was working up a pretty good sweat chasing her winners all over the court.

This also makes me generally happy, except maybe when I hit that sure cross-court winner into the net — for the fifth time. I enjoy the competition, and I know when I drag my weary bones to the net at the end of our contest that I’ve done myself some good.

Each of these activities generates some percentage of my happiness quotient. My life would not be quite as satisfying if either of them would suddenly vanish from my calendar. And I agree with Steptoe and his colleagues that my overall ability to function would probably suffer.

So, don’t obsess over your fitness routine as you get older. Find those things — both exercise-related and not — that make you happy and work them into your schedule on a regular basis. It’s probably the best way to stay feeling young as the years pile up.

Hoops Fantasy vs. Reality

A geezer fantasy.

A geezer fantasy.

The other day, I stumbled upon what I now realize is a rather popular TV commercial for some brand of soda (commercials are so interesting now that I seldom remember what they’re selling). The spot features a couple of professional basketball players made up to look like they’re well past their prime: gray hair, wrinkles, the whole deal. These guys then drive out to some playground basketball court, where they somehow get into a game and eventually wow the young bucks with their superlative hoops skills. (You can see the spot here and judge for yourself.)

This, of course, is fantasy and should be labeled as such (“Do not try this at home”). I’ve dabbled enough in playground ball over the years to know that (1) the chances that somebody my age would even get on the court are slim and none, and (2) even if a geezer did have some chops, the chance that anyone would actually pass him the ball are similarly remote. It’s just the way it is.

That’s why I love my Monday nights in the Anderson School gym, where me and a group of similarly obsessed guys have been gathering since 1985 for a couple of hours of reckless hoops action. We’ve been doing this for so long that some of the offspring of the original crew are now blowing by us for easy layups or rising above our feeble defense for little floaters in the lane. But it’s all good, because every once in a while we’ll execute a perfect old-school pick-and-roll that will leave the youngsters shaking their heads as they bring the ball up court or one of us will actually hit that spot-up jumper from 18 feet they’ve been giving you all night and they’ll have to start guarding you next time up the floor.

There used to be plenty of trash-talking in the old days, but that’s mostly disappeared over the years. If you can’t back up the talk with some sweet moves, it’s better to just shut up and play.

And that’s what I try to do these days. Last Monday, for example, I showed up to discover that only a couple of my old teammates were on hand, surrounded by a small army of teens and 20-somethings, kids with so much energy that I get tired just watching them warm up.

In the early games, that energy dominates, but throughout the course of the evening, the young guys lose focus, get frustrated when their shots don’t fall, and stop getting back on defense. This is when the old guys begin to emerge, making the right pass, cutting to the open space for the easy shot, playing the passing lanes and coming up with steals. Toward the end of the night, I grab a rebound and go coast-to-coast for a lay-up, come up with a loose ball and bank in a mid-range jumper, drive the lane and dish to my cutting teammate for an easy bucket. “Uncle Drew” I am not. No dunking, no killer-crossover, nothing to elicit an “ooh” or an “aah”. But we win the last game and, walking back to the sidelines to grab my gear, one of those 20-somethings offers his fist for a bump. “Good game,” he says.

That’s as good as it gets.


The Joy of Jogging

That wasn't so tough now, was it?

That wasn’t so tough now, was it?

Walking is not running. Bicycling is not running. Basketball is not running. High-intensity strength training is not running. Jogging, on the other hand . . .

This was my lesson learned Wednesday, when my son, Mr. Parkour, and I tackled the Commitment Day 5K in downtown Minneapolis. The air temperature that morning was 6 below zero with a wind chill variously described as minus-16 to minus-25. But the weather was not the problem. Like last year’s “fun” run, once you get going, all those layers of clothing became unnecessary. The real problem this year was that I forgot how to jog.

Mr. Parkour, as you may recollect, is 23 years old, weighs maybe 120 pounds, and can run all day (even though he admits that he seldom runs). So, when we hit the starting line on Wednesday, we both began loping along, striding confidently up the hill, the icy Mississippi to our right . . . for about two-tenths of a mile. I was completely winded and slowed to a walk, trying to catch my breath. MP, jogged backwards, in a way that did not invite sympathy.

“You know, I’m year older than the last time we did this,” I whined.

“So am I,” MP noted.

“Yeah, but I’m 62 and you’re 23.”

He just shrugged, bouncing happily on the ice-coated asphalt. I leaned into the task and resumed my former pace, wondering why this was so difficult. Two or three minutes later, I once again slowed to a walk, completely winded. MP continued bouncing in place. We hadn’t yet hit the 1-mile marker, and I was already lamenting my unwillingness to train for this thing. Clearly, my daily walks, my kettlebell  sessions, and even my basketball games had not adequately prepared me for this thing.

Then it occurred to me: I was running — long strides propelling me across the tundra at maybe 8 MPH — rather than jogging, as I had done last year. These are two very distinct movements. Running requires that you exert significant effort. Jogging can be done while drinking a beer and arguing politics. It ought to be called “non-running.”

As I later learned in this blog post, running at a pace faster than 6 MPH works your muscles (and, I suspect, your lungs) in a totally different way than jogging does.

I shortened my strides, slowed my pace, and quickly noticed that my lungs were happier and I could sustain an easy rhythm with very little effort. My calves were so happy about this turn of events that they voted unanimously not to cramp up, as they’ve been known to do during sessions on the dreadmill.

We glided by the Mile 1 marker, planted on the Plymouth Avenue bridge, descended onto the trail that led us across Boom Island and over a downstream bridge to Nicollet Island, past the Mile 2 marker on Main Street, and finally across the venerable Stone Arch Bridge to the finish line. Jogging all the way, we finished the circuit in about 38 minutes. I’m going to call it a personal best.

Even better, though, is understanding the difference between a run and a jog. And knowing that I can jog a 5K anytime without stressing over the preparation. Running a 5K? Not so much.

5K Training or Marital Bliss: Can You Have It All?

Saturday morning brought some unseasonably balmy weather to town, so My Lovely Wife announced she would head over to Lake Nokomis for a walk in the afternoon. My first thought was that this would be a great opportunity for me to lace up my sneakers and get in a little practice run before Wednesday’s Commitment Day 5K. MLW would walk her usual mile or so circuit around the swampy west end of the lake while I would lope in a leisurely manner around the entire body of water, a distance of almost precisely 5 kilometers (3.1 miles). Then we’d rendezvous back at the car — bicycling being out of the question at this time of year — and head over to one of our favorite local bistros for a beverage or two.

That was my intention, anyway. Or at least I think it was. But I had read a piece in the newspaper that morning about how married couples can strengthen their relationship by doing things together, and it reminded me that I very seldom go on walks with MLW. In fact, I couldn’t actually remember the last time I had gone on a walk with her. This made me question whether I was doing all I could do to strengthen our relationship. Then I recalled that MLW never actually invites me to join her on walks because I tend to walk too fast, which made me think that maybe she liked going on walks mostly because I didn’t go with her. And that got me to thinking that maybe her going on walks by herself was just her way of strengthening our relationship.

Just FYI: MLW and I have been married for 33 years, and though that’s no excuse for not doing things to strengthen our relationship, I have to say that we know each other pretty well by now, and oftentimes it’s the things we don’t do that keep things moving in a positive direction. So I was faced with a conundrum: Offer to stroll around the small end of the lake with her on a lovely December afternoon as sort of a surprising thing I normally wouldn’t do, or strap on my sneakers and pound around the lake on my own — which, it occurs to me now, is also a surprising thing I normally wouldn’t do?

Doing surprising things can also strengthen a relationship, as long as the surprising things aren’t explicitly idiotic. Bungee-jumping off the Ford Bridge, for instance, would be surprising, but it would also be stupid in more ways than I can describe. So, both alternatives would have the advantage of being sort of surprising, and both could have a strengthening effect on our relationship, depending on how annoyed MLW might be with my uncertain walking pace and whether my loping around the lake landed me in the emergency room with cardiac arrest.

In the end, I opted for the casual stroll with MLW, not so much because of its potential relationship-strengthening effects, but because running 5 kilometers is a once-a-year thrill that I really think one should savor. I couldn’t imagine slogging around the lake less than a week before the real deal on Wednesday, when it will be probably 40 degrees colder and I’ll be surrounded by thousands of people with whom I have no relationship whatsoever, and hence no reason to do anything to strengthen it.

We had a lovely walk, during which I carefully matched my pace with hers. The sun shone, the birds sang, and by the time we completed our modest circuit, something told me that I’d made the right decision. MLW was happy, there was a good chance our relationship had been strengthened, and I hadn’t broken a sweat.

Get Hip to a Healthcare Scam

Winter has arrived in full force around here, which means lots of snow, ice, and cold — a weather combo that produces a good deal of uncertain footing for walking commuters like myself. This point was driven home to me last Monday, when I strode a bit too confidently outside my office building on my way to the bank and crashed quite violently on my left hip. I regained my footing quickly and hobbled on more carefully. Then, walking back to the office, I promptly slipped and toppled onto the same hip once again.

A new colleague of mine, recently transplanted from the balmier climate of Washington, DC, observed that local drivers don’t seem to know how to navigate through the frictionless streets on her morning commute. I know she’s not exaggerating. We all seem to need to relearn how to drive every winter. I apparently need to relearn how to walk. (Small steps. . . .)

I made my way home without further difficulties and, despite the sore hip, headed over to Anderson School to join my old basketball buddies for the first game of the season. The court was a bit slick and, of course, at one point I tried to make a quick cut to the basket, slipped and landed — yes — on my tender left hip.

Nearly a week has passed since this series of events and, while my hip remains sore to the touch, it’s perfectly functional. I cranked through my morning workout today with no ill effects. But it does give me pause. More than 330,000 people (most around my age, I presume) will have their hips replaced next year, and I’d prefer to not be among that number.

It’s not just that I’d like to retain all my original body parts. The more I learn about how our healthcare system handles these sorts of procedures, the less I want to participate in the dysfunction. As Elizabeth Rosenthal recently reported in the New York Times, the U.S. hip-replacement industry is controlled by a cartel of five manufacturers that have been gouging hospitals, insurance companies — and patients — for years, and shows no sign of letting up.

The cost to manufacture a hip implant, according to Rosenthal, is about $350, yet the “list price” that a hospital pays for it can run as high as $7,500. When you add installation equipment, assorted fees, and the hospital markup, the cost to the patient can rise to nearly $40,000.

How is this possible? Here’s what Rosenthal found:

So why are implant list prices so high, and rising by more than 5 percent a year? In the United States, nearly all hip and knee implants — sterilized pieces of tooled metal, plastic or ceramics — are made by five companies, which some economists describe as a cartel. Manufacturers tweak old models and patent the changes as new products, with ever-bigger price tags.

Generic or foreign-made joint implants have been kept out of the United States by trade policy, patents and an expensive Food and Drug Administration approval process that deters start-ups from entering the market. The “companies defend this turf ferociously,” said Dr. Peter M. Cram, a physician at the University of Iowa medical school who studies the costs of health care.”

Plus, the manufacturers require that hospitals sign nondisclosure agreements, so they can’t compare pricing. “Manufacturers will tell you it’s R&D and liability that makes implants so expensive and that they have the only one like it,” Dr. Rory Wright, an orthopedist at the Orthopedic Hospital of Wisconsin, told Rosenthal. “They price this way because they can.”

Or, as Cram put it, “Why charge $1,000 for the implant in the U.S. when you can charge $14,000? How would you answer to your shareholders?

This sort of thinking speaks volumes about what is wrong with the American healthcare system, and it will remind me to walk more mindfully on my way to the office tomorrow.

Bowing to Reality

Two completely distinct occurrences in the past week crystallized for me why we can get so confused and unfocused about fitness.

Those who waste their valuable time reading these pages know that I’m currently pretending to train for the January 1 Commitment Day 5K and that my ambivalence about this preparation is directly related to my general ambivalence about running. So my heart was lifted when I stumbled upon a piece by Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times highlighting new research from the National Walkers Health Study showing that walking — especially brisk walking — helped people live longer.

This, of course, is good news to ambivalent runners like myself, and it came to my attention the same day that our first major snowfall of the season forced me to leave my bicycle in the garage and hoof it to and from work. Not at a rapid clip, mind you — icy conditions call for mindful strides — but with enough exertion that I was ready to shed my jacket at the top of the hill.

Walking has a distinctly different effect on your body than does bicycling. Your calves loosen, hammies and quads catch a break, and your knees are bearing weight. All of which is good preparation, it seems to me, for a 5K jog around downtown Minneapolis in three weeks.

Just as I’m getting comfortable with the idea that all this snow will actually benefit my training regimen (such as it is), I get a note from Big D, convener of our winter basketball league, requesting my presence at tomorrow’s inaugural game. This, of course, will involve running — lots of it — but the sort of purposeful movement that suits my practical nature (if 60-year-olds stumbling around a basketball court can be called practical).

So, now it looks like I’ll be walking and running in the days leading up to my dreaded 5K. Not because I want to, but because I have to. I could call this a comprehensive, integrated training program, but that, of course, would be a lie. Let’s just call it bowing to reality.

Dare to Be Different

At summer camp back in my teen years, my camp counselor gathered us teenagers together in the cabin on our first night and asked us who we most admired. This was 1967, and most of my compatriots piped up to support the president, Lyndon Johnson, who at that time was under some public duress for his role in escalating the war in Vietnam. When the question came around to me, I admitted that I was most impressed with the courage of Muhammad Ali, who at the time had been stripped of his heavyweight boxing crown for refusing to be inducted into the military.

That drew some weird looks. But I was no dissident; three years later I was in the military myself, learning how to operate a teletype machine (?!?!) in Wichita Falls, Texas. But I often found myself back then — and now — challenging conventional wisdom, taking the path less taken.

And that hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. It’s interesting to me how this point of view affects my behavior today when it comes to health and fitness. Whenever I feel myself slacking off or mired in some sedentary rut, I can almost always get rolling again by reminding myself that most 62-year-olds aren’t swinging a kettlebell and cranking out 50 pushups every morning before pedaling a bicycle up a nasty incline to their place of work. I cling to the idea that I’m just a little bit different, and that’s enough motivation to keep me on track.

It also helps when I stumble upon new research that validates my view that the best way to stay healthy in your old age is to maintain a regular exercise regimen. The latest comes from the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which published a study last week showing that “regular physical activity boosted the likelihood of healthy ageing sevenfold compared with consistent inactivity.”

This study followed 3,500 Britons, with the average age of 64, for more than eight years. About one in 10 of the participants adopted an exercise regimen during the study period, while the rest didn’t change their sedentary behavior. The results? About four of 10 in the sedentary group had developed a long-term chronic disease, about one in five was diagnosed as depressed, a third suffered from some level of disability, and one in five was cognitively impaired. Those who remained physically active during the entire eight years of the study were seven times more likely to be healthy as those who stayed inactive.

One in 10 remained active. Challenging the cultural norm. Daring to be different. I’m with them.

Why Run Until You Have To?

It’s now about six weeks until the Commitment Day 5K, and I haven’t done any running to prepare for the event. You could call this an indication of sublime confidence or a disaster waiting to happen.

I don’t know that a 62-year-old guy has any business getting out of bed on New Year’s Day for anything but a hot cup of coffee and the morning paper, but I’ve got it into my head that clomping atop the frozen asphalt of downtown Minneapolis with a few thousand other ravaged souls on the calendar’s most grievous Morning After is kind of a test of my manhood. Especially when it’s my son, Mr. Parkour, who’s grading the test.

I’m not that competitive, but when MP stops by for dinner and mentions that he’s now cranking out 100 pushups every morning before breakfast as part of some obscure martial arts training regimen, you’ll find me soaked in sweat on the mat the next morning  trying to hit triple digits myself. It’s the principle of the thing.

Last year, we bundled up against the 4-below morning chill and set out from the Metrodome with the huddled masses, fully intent on strolling along with my EL colleagues. That lasted for about a minute, until MP broke into a trot and motioned for me to follow. A half-hour or so later, I was channeling my inner Usain Bolt, sprinting toward the finish line in my jeans and workboots.

I have completed exactly the number of training runs leading up to this year’s race as I did last year — that would be zero. I did spend 30 minutes on the Elliptical Death Machine at the gym a couple of weeks ago, just to show myself that I could. And I have thought once or twice about lacing up my sneakers and taking to the trail along the river a few blocks away from my house. Just for fun, mind you. And I do recall jogging across the street in front of my office on my way to lunch a couple of times last week, with no ill effects. So, I figure I’m good to go.

In other words, I’ve been thinking about what it might take to get ready to run the race. I just haven’t done it, because most runners train for races by running, which I’d rather avoid. It’s hard on the knees, for one thing, and it might be the most boring form of exercise ever developed. Every time I see a jogger, I want to hand them a basketball, so they could dribble it ahead of them. Work a little on their hand-eye coordination while they’re plodding along. Even a soccer ball would do. Give it a kick and run after it. Just seems more purposeful to me.

Besides, running is all about cardio, right? And there are all sorts of ways to build your cardio capacity without running. In fact, it’s becoming something of a trend among high-level runners, according to Olympic running coach Pete Rea. “From North Africa to Japan, many of the world’s best distance runners are now adding a variety of non-running, aerobically based exercise to improve their running performance,” Rea writes in a recent blog.

Among the most popular are stationary biking, our old friend the EDM, cross-country skiing, lap swimming, and walking. There’s also pool running (which doesn’t count as running because it sounds like fun) and a session or two on an anti-gravity treadmill (which just sounds scary).

This all make sense to me (except the anti-gravity thing), because I’ve always been of the opinion that any high-intensity exercise that gets you breathing hard — including strength training — is going to help you if, by chance, you someday have to break into a jog for some reason. So, I guess I’ll stay the course with my morning kettlebell workouts. Why run until you really have to?

A Big Pain

A couple of weeks ago, I tweaked a muscle in my lower back while flinging my kettlebell around and then wrenched it good a few days later while putting away our concrete birdbaths for the winter. It wasn’t too serious, just scary enough to convince me to leave my kettlebell alone for a while and ignore all other tasks that involve bending over.

This is how I handle pain: Slow down and let my body heal itself. There are other options, of course. A colleague of mine tends to reach for a couple of Advil when this sort of thing happens to him; other folks head to the doctor for some pain meds.

I’ve never suffered from chronic pain, so I’m not about to judge the actions of those who do, but I was struck by a recent article in The New Yorker that described the dramatic increase in the use — and abuse — of prescription pain-killers by outpatients. Celine Gounder, a physican and public-health specialist, writes that Americans now consume 99 percent of the hydrocodone on the world market, plus 80 percent of the oxycodone, and 65 percent of the hydromophone, and she asks, “How did doctors, who pledge to do no harm, let the use of prescription narcotics get so out of hand?”

The manufacturers of the narcotics played a major role, Gounder reports, aggressively marketing their drugs (Vicodin, Percocet, OxyContin, Dilaudid, and others) as an ongoing treatment option for neck and back pain, while also funding research to build scientific evidence for the efficacy of their drugs. But consumers have also been culpable. As Gounder puts it, “Many people believe in the power of modern medicine to cure illness, and bristle at the notion that pain is a fact of life. The promise of a set of medicines that could cure pain was appealing to many patients — and, with a customer-is-always-right mentality having pervaded the doctor’s office, patients were able to pressure physicians to satisfy their requests for the pain pills they’d begun hearing about.”

What most patients don’t want to hear is that prescription narcotics will eventually lose their power to mask the pain and that a combination of short-term pain medication with physical therapy, massage, acupuncture, and other alternatives is typically more effective. They just want to be able to pop a pill, and most doctors are more than willing to oblige them. “We are predisposed to say yes, even if we know it isn’t right,” Gounder writes. “Some of us just don’t want to take the extra time during a busy day to explain why that prescription for a narcotic isn’t a good idea. Some of us also use the promise of prescription narcotics to persuade patients to keep their medical appointments, or to take their other medication.”

This is a side of the healthcare debate that we seldom see. Doctors trying to do the right thing, but are hamstrung by a lack of time and energy as they try to placate patients who want simple solutions to their problems. It almost makes me want to make an appointment with my doc and let him tell me I don’t need no stinking pain pills and just lay off the kettlebell for a while. And I’d do it, too, if my back wasn’t feeling so much better.

Raise a Pint for Good Hydration

Twenty-five years ago, I spent a couple of delightful hours over lunch with the late Michael Jackson, who was at the time probably the foremost beer connoisseur in the world (and, I suspect, a much better interview than the old Jackson 5 refugee with whom he shared a name). We dined at some suburban steakhouse and quaffed a few pints of our new local microbrew while discussing the many virtues of various ales, lagers, stouts, and pilsners — not necessarily in that order.

Jackson was no beer snob. When I asked him about the differences between the exquisite European beers and America’s mass-produced brands, he was quick to laud Budweiser and the rest for their thirst-quenching qualities. “Those are lawn-mowing beers,” he said.

In the years since, I’ve had multiple opportunities to test that theory — often after a summer afternoon of yard work, but also following a good sweat-a-thon at the gym. In fact, it’s long been a tradition among my Monday night slow-old-guys basketball league that we reconnoiter at a local bar for a few cold ones after the game.

I’m not the sort to lose sleep over my choices of post-workout hydration (I don’t lose sleep over anything, actually). We drink plenty of water during the two hours we spend pounding up and down the hardwood, and I always figure fluids are fluids, when it comes to replacing all that sweat we generate.

And now I find out my (beer) gut instinct is correct. As Jen Miller reports in this New York Times piece, researchers at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, have found that drinking beer helps you recover from a workout just as effectively as drinking water. The research team, led by Ben Desbrow, an associate professor in the school of public health, gave study participants one of four fluid replacements after their workout: light beer, light beer with added salt, standard beer, and standard beer with added salt.

(The salt-in-your-beer option reminded me of my late father, who always salted his beer after he got home after a hard day of — you guessed it — delivering beer all over St. Paul, especially in the summer.)

The verdict? Light beer with added salt offered the greatest rehydration benefits, Desbrow said. Stronger beer, he added, can further dehydrate your body after a workout. “The point is not to get nondrinkers to drink beer, he explained, “but to provide beer drinkers with a healthy alternative.”

Point taken, Mate. I’m not about to descend into the “lite” beer world, but it’s good to know that my thirst for a good lawn-mowing brew after working up a sweat isn’t going to derail my rehydration scheme. And when I sprinkle a bit of salt in my glass, it’ll remind me of my old man.