Pumping Irony

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

Positively Geezerville – Day 2

SARASOTA — Ten hours of sleep generally has a salutary effect on my health, so I rolled out of bed this morning feeling markedly less destroyed than I felt yesterday. Seventy degrees and sunshine doesn’t hurt, either. The vibe in Geezerville today was similarly upbeat and, well, purposeful.

The greybeards were out in force this morning, a fact that helped to make me feel a bit more vital. (Everything’s relative, right?) And Vic Strecher delivered a real wake-up call. The University of Michigan public health professor and author of On Purpose (you will never look at a dung beetle in quite the same way) riffed on the importance of purposeful living as a health strategy. Strecher cited research showing that people who led meaningful lives were less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s, heart attacks, type 2 diabetes, and stroke. Having a purpose in your life, in other words, will extend your life.

That applies, by the way, whether you’re 35 or 65 or 85. And Strecher said it could be the key to solving some of our most intractable public health issues. “Rather than trying to scare people into living a healthier life, we should emphasize living a life in alignment with your core values,” he said. “But that requires having a purpose. You have to anchor it with purpose.”

This was good news to those of us still lucky enough to be gainfully employed and not contemplating retirement, but it’s trickier for seniors who have already kissed the 9-to-5 good-bye. It can often take a serious illness before people will wake up and refocus their lives on more meaningful activities, Strecher said, quoting Steve Jobs: “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent.”

I don’t know if I’d go that far, but later in the day, during a session on rethinking retirement, Poul-Erik Tindbaek, a professional trainer and coach specializing in “Third Age” thinking, said something that explained a lot to me about why the whole retirement gambit is so daunting: “When you enter the labor market there’s a lot of counseling. When you leave it, there’s nothing.”

Later that afternoon, I drove an hour or so down the coast to meet my two brothers in a cheesy waterfront bar in Punta Gorda. They each retired early and now they flee the Polar Vortex each winter to bivouac in sunny Fort Myers. I told them about Strecher and Tindbaek’s research, and they responded with a resounding “DUH!” My oldest brother, The General, started volunteering at his church not long after saying good-bye to a career in the military. He’s busier now than he was when he was working full-time. The Tin Man, who built a successful business in his 40s and 50s, last winter took a part-time job at a nearby Walgreen’s. “You gotta have a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” he said.

I agreed — provided you’d had a good night’s sleep.

Positively Geezerville – Day 1

SARASOTA—I woke up feeling old today. Really old. Head full of mucus, sandpaper in my throat, and the general demeanor of a geezer who didn’t get enough sleep (which I didn’t) and would be much better off staying in bed.

So it was fitting that I had to drag my butt out of my warm bed and go to the airport and wedge myself into one of those aluminum cylinders with wings, which would transport me, somewhat surrealistically, from February to June (we’re talking Tampa, Fla., here), where I rented a car and drove even farther south (windows open; weird) to Sarasota to mix with the other weary geezers at the Seventh Annual International Conference on Positive Aging.

Yes, I know, I should be happy. Leaving the Polar Vortex and all that. But I’m a reluctant traveler, especially when I’m leaving My Lovely Wife behind. MLW is a master navigator and a purveyor of such common sense when traveling that I can usually place my cerebral cortex in neutral and enjoy the scenery. But today I had to figure out how to get a boarding pass, navigate the TSA line (shoes off or on?), and get to the gate in plenty of time to begin worrying about whether I had remembered to pack my vitamins.

Doing all this on five hours of sleep and with an aggressive head cold is pretty much the opposite of positive aging, if you ask me. Still, I managed to make my way to the Hyatt Regency in Sarasota in time to grab my conference materials and eat a (much overdue) meal prior to tonight’s keynote.

Sifting through the program notes and such, between much-appreciated sips of Guinness (it’s medicinal), it appears that there’s some momentum around the idea that older folks shouldn’t just slide through their golden years thinking only of golf and bingo (and a decent night’s sleep). We could, according to these aging experts, actually retain our zest for living — and for contributing to our community and beyond — right up until we croak.

And, indeed, that was the chord Institute for the Ages CEO Tom Esselman struck as he opened the conference program tonight. “We’re on the verge of reaching a tipping point on positive aging,” Esselman told the assembled aging advocates as he highlighted the themes of this year’s conference: community, innovation, and technology.

Keynote speaker Mark Freedman, founder and CEO of Encore.org and a seasoned reporter who said he first began exploring these issues 30 years ago, lamented how the established media (especially the New York Times) has turned what he calls the “longevity paradox” into something like a death march for American culture — essentially ignoring the positive contributions us geezers might be able to make if we stay reasonably healthy into our old age. “The longevity revolution,” he said, “is the best thing that ever happened to us and, on the other hand, the worst.”

It’s only my first impression, but I think Esselman might be in his mid-40s, and Freedman admitted during his remarks that he recently turned 50, so I’ll be interested in the next couple of days to see if we’re going to hear from any real greybeards about the challenges of our twilight years or if this is all theory and policy.

Of course, I might arrive with a different view after a decent night’s sleep.

Meditating on Outcomes

Chögyam Trungpa liked his liquor.

Chögyam Trungpa liked his liquor.

This morning, as I do most mornings, I stretched my mat out on the office floor (after having booted the cats out), placed my small red bench under my rear end, closed my eyes, took a couple of deep breaths, and for the next 15-30 minutes (I don’t keep track) I became a spectator to my various distracting thoughts as they floated into and out of my consciousness. On this particular morning, I was more distracted than usual, but that’s just the way it is sometimes.

Then I stretched my creaky knees and cranked out 30 pushups.

I’ve been practicing Vipassana, or mindlfulness, meditation for about 20 years now. I’m not any closer to Nirvana than when I started, but it’s certainly helped to clarify things as I’ve grown older. I might even say that my meditation practice has made it easier for me to navigate in the world. This is not an opinion that Tony Schwartz would share, however. In a New York Times column last week, Schwartz, the chief executive of the Energy Project and something of a personal growth guru, suggests that the benefits of meditation are overblown.

While he acknowledges the ample research that has revealed the overall health benefits of meditation, Schwartz goes on to note, “What I haven’t seen is much evidence that meditating leads people to behave better, improves their relationships or makes them happier.”

Schwartz is no idle spectator on this subject: He’s practiced for 25 years and interviewed dozens of other practitioners, including such notable meditators as Jack Kornfield. To build his argument, Schwartz quotes Kornfield thusly: “There were major areas of difficulty in my life, such as loneliness, intimate relationships, work, childhood wounds, and patterns of fear that even very deep meditation didn’t touch.”

Schwartz’s point is that you shouldn’t expect a meditation practice to solve your problems, make you a better person, or help you succeed in the world. This is certainly true. I know plenty of devout practitioners who struggle in their personal lives. The great Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, in fact, was a notable drunk, and at least a couple of our local gurus ran into trouble in recent years for sleeping with their students. But Schwartz is missing a central point of any Buddhist meditation practice: It’s not about the outcome, it’s about the practice. Trying to be completely present in the moment, attached to nothing but your breath. Anyone who enters into this discipline with expectations that it’s going to change their life is starting off on the wrong path.

Over the course of my 20-year practice, I do believe I’ve become more patient, more compassionate, (a little) less ego-centric. Is that because I sit on my duff with my eyes closed for 15 minutes most mornings? I haven’t the foggiest idea. And you know what? It doesn’t really matter.

Maybe it’s the pushups.


(Photo courtesy of Elephant Journal)

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.