Pumping Irony

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

Experience Life Magazine

Cancer and its Conundrums

I had breakfast last week with A.D., an old friend whom I hadn’t seen since he’d been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, a few weeks earlier. He’s in his early 70s and has never been the healthiest guy on the block, so I was surprised to find him looking better than I’d ever seen him before. He’d lost 20-some pounds, mostly from around his once-ample gut, and he was bright-eyed and upbeat.

We ordered our breakfasts (an egg and hash browns for me; oatmeal for him) and he described all the ways in which he’d been persuaded to alter his behavior since the big “C” descended upon him. The tumor in his esophagus requires that he choose his meals carefully and eat them more mindfully. (If he doesn’t chew his food enough, it simply doesn’t go down.) As a result, he’s finding that he doesn’t eat as much as before — his brain gets the message that he’s full way before he’s stuffed himself. Plus, he’s discovering how his diet affects his energy levels and immune response. Cancer has a way of magnifying things that once seemed unimportant, I guess.

It’s still early in his treatment, but he’s cranked through radiation and chemo sessions without a hitch, he told me. The technicians with the radiation guns have learned how to target the tumor very accurately, leaving the surrounding tissue alone. He’s had no hair loss or nausea, his appetite’s been good. The whole experience, he admitted with some degree of wonder, has been pretty positive.

This is good news, on a couple of levels. First, I’m glad to see that my old pal is navigating the rocky shoals of cancer treatment without running aground. Second, it’s always good to encounter challenges to your worldview.

As regular visitors to these pages know, I’m fairly skeptical of conventional medicine. So much so that I can’t really imagine myself bowing to the kind of treatment my friend A.D. is currently undergoing. But he’s a smart guy, and he’s done all the research you’d expect a seasoned journalist would do when confronted with a disease that threatens to close the book on his life. And he found a clinic and a surgeon and a nutritionist who together have (so far) guided him through the cancer maze with the kind of holistic wisdom I’d long ago assumed had disappeared among Western practitioners.

This gives me hope, frankly, that all is not lost — not just for A.D., but for the American healthcare paradigm. Then, yesterday, My Lovely Wife received a letter from our local clinic reminding her that she was “due” for her annual mammogram and pap smear. “It’s like I’m a library book, or something,” she barked, as she stuffed the correspondence into the recycling bin. Needless to say, MLW does not participate in such things. Later, I happened to stumble upon new research on prostate cancer screening — one study from Yale University, one from a research institute in Lyon, France — once again affirming the danger of PSA tests. The upshot, according to the French study: “All available evidence suggests that PSA testing for prostate cancer should not be routinely recommended for asymptomatic men.”

So it’s a mixed bag. For every isolated example of hopeful medical progress, I see a couple of reasons why I should remain skeptical. I hope A.D. will recover fully, and it seems at this point that he’s well on his way, but if and when the big “C” descends into my life, I can’t imagine following his path.

Experience Life Magazine

Sleep or Sweat?

More than 40 years ago, I spent the longest six weeks of my life at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Lackland was the place where the U.S.A.F. prepared young airmen for military life. There was much about basic training that the years have mercifully obscured from my memory, but I still recall vividly being jarred from sweet slumber at 4:30 a.m. each of those 42 mornings by our drill sergeant flipping on the blinding overhead lights and screaming at us to drag our worthless butts out of bed.

Ah, those were the days . . .

I’m only partially kidding, because I could really use a little jolt to get started in the morning these days. A purring cat making a nest on my worthless butt just doesn’t do the trick.

This happens every fall, as the sun climbs out of the east a little later each morning and I stay under the covers a little bit longer. My brain is, for some reason that I don’t fully understand, hardwired to wake me when the first light peeks through the bedroom window. As a result, I now have less time to run through my morning workout and still get to work on time. Most mornings lately, I’ve been skipping my routine altogether.

This is not good, of course, because I really need that kick in the rear to launch me out the door with some momentum. At the same time, though, I really need to get enough sleep to bolster my immune system and keep me from succumbing to the various maladies that tend to derail those of us who reside in Geezerland: colds, flu, cardiac arrest, creeping senility, various forms of cancer, and the rest. Plus, a good night’s sleep can actually improve your appearance.

So I’m left to confront upon each sunrise a choice: sleep until I feel completely rested or roust my languishing bulk for a half hour of zazen followed by 15 sweat-soaked minutes with my kettlebell. Both have a certain appeal — the former in the warmth and comfort of the swaddled moment, accompanied by some drowsy guilt; the latter only after I step, exhausted and exhilarated, into the shower. But I have to choose one or the other. I can’t do both without blowing a good chunk of the morning, crawling into the office late and spending the rest of the day churning a few gallons of cortisol trying in vain to catch up, working past the dinner hour, and arriving home to greet My Lovely Wife with all the charm of a Lackland drill sergeant.

As much as I hate to admit it, the answer to my dilemma is the same as it is every year: I have to get ample sleep and work out every morning during that window of opportunity (yes, that’s the word) between 7 and 8 a.m. And all that’s standing in the way of that occurring on a regular basis is a moderate dose of self-discipline, which I seem to be lacking these days — hence the vague yearning for a sunrise visit from a growling lifer in starched fatigues.

MLW would not approve of that solution, so I’ll have to consider other alternatives, like maybe hitting the sack a half hour earlier than usual. Sleep experts also suggest staying away from computer and TV screens in the hour or so prior to bedtime (it will help you conk out more quickly) and take it easy on the alcohol front (you might seem sleepy, but too much of the sauce tends to make for a fitful sleep).

And then there’s that furry alarm clock that bounds up onto our bed every morning around 7, wondering when breakfast is going to be served. I guess there are worse ways to greet the day.

Experience Life Magazine

Game-Day Gains

I was out weeding the garden Sunday afternoon when my phone rang. It was my buddy S.C., venting about the latest loss by our hometown pro football team, this one more unexpected than most (I mean, it was Cleveland, for god’s sakes). I didn’t have much to say, since I’ve been making a point this season to ignore the games on TV, as the weather has been so pleasant. There are few things worse than hanging out by yourself in a dark basement for three hours on a beautiful fall afternoon watching TV. You stumble upstairs, blinking into the sudden sunlight and spend the next several hours readjusting to the real world and regretting all you’ve missed.

And staying out of the basement on game days might be making me healthier. It’s not just that I’m doing something physical outside instead of slugging down a few beers in the dark while camped on the couch. According to a recent study, I’m likely to eat poorly after my heroes blow another game — which, given my local sports team options, is a fairly regular occurrence.

The study, conducted by a French business school, found that fans of losing teams tend to binge on bad food more than those whose teams come out on top. The losers up their saturated fat intake by 16 percent and their calories by 10 percent after the game, while fans of the winners eat better, actually cutting fat consumption by 9 percent and total calories by 5 percent.

Having spent a fair amount of time over the years bingeing on bad food and liquor while watching meaningless (in the larger picture of the universe and everything) sporting events, I can say with some confidence that those French researchers may be overlooking one very basic fact about diehard sports fans: It doesn’t matter much whose favorite team emerges victorious at the end of the day, because most of the spectators aren’t doing themselves any favors while they’re watching the game.

I’ll admit that there may be some minor health benefit from the social aspect of spectator sports, even if your particular society that afternoon is exerting only enough energy to lift a bottle to its lips and sling expletives at the referees. But after three or so hours of this, the benefits begin to diminish. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, at that point, it doesn’t make much difference what you eat or drink to drown your sorrows (or celebrate your momentary triumph). You’ve already blown a perfectly lovely day.

Now that my local heroes are 0-3 and sliding inexorably toward irrelevance in our sporting universe (bring on the NBA!!), that weekly three-hour window of sedentary squalor has even less appeal. And that means I’ve got 13 more happy and productive weekends ahead this fall, regardless of the outcome of their televised battles. Win or lose, I’ll be celebrating.

Experience Life Magazine

The Brain Game

It had been awhile since I’d been on the tennis court, so when The Baseline Machine called to schedule a match last week I was ready to do battle. There was a small problem, however: Her rotator cuff was injured and her tennis elbow was acting up.

“Um, so how are you going to play,” I asked.

“I’ll hit it left-handed,” she replied.

“You’re ambidextrous?”

“Not really, but I can write with my left hand.”

You might think that I would welcome this opportunity, given my recent run of futility against TBM, but I was already feeling the pressure when I pedaled over to the Nokomis courts Saturday morning. If I can’t beat her when she’s playing left-handed, I may have to hang up my racket. I do have some pride, after all.

So it was with some relief that TBM opted for a little light volleying rather than a full-on match. I happily discovered that she’d never actually tried to hit a tennis ball with her left hand holding the racket, but she was convinced that it would help her repair her basic stroke mechanics — using her legs and torso as much as her arm — which would no doubt help prevent future shoulder and elbow injuries. It’s all about building new neural pathways, she explained, as she took up her position across the net.

I’d heard this before from my yoga teacher, who often has her geezer class doing awkward movements with the same end in mind. It is, in fact, a great way to keep your brain healthy as you age. The late neurobiologist Lawrence Katz coined the term “neurobics” to define brain exercises that would test the brain and keep it sharp — and among these was using your non-dominant hand when doing familiar tasks, like brushing your teeth.

Fifty years ago, it was assumed that deteriorating brain function was simply a natural result of aging, but now it’s clear that the brain can adapt, based on experience, by creating new neural pathways, so TBM’s left-handed gambit wasn’t just a way to clean up her stroke; it could also keep her brain in shape into a ripe old age (which, I should note, is still a long way away for her).

But it sure looked funny when she tried to hit the ball. “I can feel my self-esteem rising already,” I told her a she knocked another one feebly into the net.

It wasn’t long, however, before she started returning my volleys with more confidence and actually placing a few winners in the corners. She couldn’t serve, of course, and her backhand was useless, and I was starting to wonder where this might lead. Maybe if I could get her back out on the court again while she was gaining confidence as a lefty — but before her right arm was back in business — I might end my long losing streak.

When we finally called it a day, TBM was smiling. “I think I’ll take beginner lessons as a left-hander,” she announced, the traffic evidently flowing smoothly along her freshly paved neural highway. It didn’t sound like a bad idea to me. It may make her even smarter than she already is (which is saying something), but I know this much: Even the sharpest brain can’t cure a lousy backhand.

Experience Life Magazine

Mom and Your Mitochondria

Here’s another thing for mothers to feel guilty about: A new study suggests that the genes we inherit from mom play a major role in how quickly we age.

Researchers from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Aging found for the first time that mutations in mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) passed down from mothers to their offspring can lead to accelerated aging. Our mitochondria — the power plants in our cells — are a primary source of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), one of the body’s vital energy sources. Keeping this little machine functioning properly is key to our longevity.

There are plenty of ways to mess up your mitochondria: poor diet, chronic inflammation, hormonal issues. But this study suggests that even if you’re taking care of business in all these areas, you could be getting older in a hurry if your mom left you with ill-fitting genes.

This hardly seems fair, if you ask me. My own dear mother, who left this mortal plane back in 2004 at the age of 82, was a real saint. Fed and clothed me, patiently guided me through various adolescent idiocies, and never asked me to explain myself. I’m not going to blame her if my mitochondria happen to be less than sterling.

Actually, you’re not really sentenced to an early departure even if your mom let you down in the mitochondria department, according to the study’s coauthor, Barry Hoffer, MD, PhD, a visiting professor at the Karolinska Institute. “These findings also suggest that therapeutic interventions that target mitochondrial function may influence the time course of aging,” Hoffer said in a statement released by the institute. “There are various dietary manipulations and drugs that can up-regulate mitochondrial function and/or reduce mitochondrial toxicity.”

Of course, bio-technicians lean toward things like injecting “backup copies” of mitochondria DNA into your cells — which I don’t think my mother would allow. I’m more inclined toward less technological approaches, like doing stuff that stresses the mitochondria to make it stronger — specifically, lifting heavy things on a regular basis while raising my heart rate and avoiding simple carbohydrates in favor of healthy fats.

This will not only make you feel better, but it will let poor mom off the hook.

Experience Life Magazine

A Question of Balance

My good friend, M.E., is hosting perhaps the last visit from his father-in-law, an 80-something retiree from Sacramento affectionately known as “Big Jim.” Last week, Jim reportedly lost his balance on the basement stairs, banging his head and eliciting much concern from the entire M.E. household. Jim, a former college football player with arthritic knees, shrugged off the whole incident, despite the bump on the back of his head, assuring his hosts that he was just fine.

Not long before this incident, My Lovely Wife reported that her 82-year-old mother had taken a tumble somewhere between her bed and the bathroom. Again, no harm done, which is fortunate, since breaking a hip at that age is pretty much a death sentence — 80 percent of elderly victims die within a year.

I’ve got this thing about thinking ahead, so even though I’m 18 years short of my 80s (which makes me feel like a youngster by comparison) I can’t help thinking of ways I can prepare myself for those days when gravity becomes more enemy than ally. Issue number one, it seems to me, is bone density. If you avoid weight-bearing exercise, I’ve been told, you’ll be much more susceptible to fractures in your twilight years. And to build bone density, you need to strain the muscles on a regular basis. Weight training is highly recommended, as is plyometrics and running or hiking. (Here are some basics to consider.) I’d like to say that issue number one is balance, but it appears that geezers simply can’t depend on their innate sense of equilibrium to keep them vertical as they age.

A new study from the University of Michigan explains the problem for us oldsters: Our brain reacts to imbalance much more quickly than our muscles do, so even though we may know we’re on the way to the floor, we can’t react in time to prevent the fall. This would no doubt be highly frustrating.

I’m thankfully not at that point yet — except when I’m tripping over one of our cats in the kitchen — and I’m confident that my regular kettlebell routine (and, I suppose, my weekly yoga practice, lame though it may be) might delay the day when I need a walker to get around.

In the meantime, I’ll send my best wishes to Big Jim, my mother-in-law, and all the elderly out there doing their best to stay upright. I know it’s not as easy as it once seemed.

Experience Life Magazine

Affairs of the Heart

Take it easy, George.

Take it easy, George.

When I heard last week that former President George W. Bush had been admitted to a Dallas hospital to repair a blocked artery, I have to admit that I caught myself smiling — not because I wished the old chickenhawk any ill will. I don’t go there, politically. I’m genuinely glad that he’s doing OK after having a stent inserted in the artery and that he can resume whatever keeps him out of trouble in his post-White House years. I was smiling because it was just the latest in a line of famously fit middle-aged guys dialing up a heart attack. And I’m not going there, either.

Before his knees went south, GWB was known to run 3 miles a day four times a week (clocking a mile in under eight minutes, according to some reports) and mixed that up with mountain biking, swimming, and free weights. White House physicians placed him in the top 2 percent of men his age in cardiovascular fitness, and at least one fitness geek called him the most fit American president in history.

In this respect. GWB was no different from the legendary Jim Fixx, the überfit Vermont runner and author who keeled over from a heart attack in 1984 at the age of 52, except for the fact that the former president probably has doctors checking his pulse every couple of weeks as part of his retirement package. Hardcore middle-aged sports guys — especially those whose fitness regimens involve long-distant cardio workouts — are particularly susceptible to cardiac arrest, according to a recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine. That’s because when a guy hits his late 40s and early 50s, those arteries feeding blood to his heart are already beginning to harden, and high-intensity cardio activity can do some damage to this infrastructure. In fact, according to this latest research, a guy is “seven times more likely to have heart problems while exercising than at rest.”

I point this out not to discourage anyone from embarking on a regular workout routine, though I have to say that the news of GWB’s hospitalization came during a week when my exercise regimen was about as disciplined as his foreign policy. So my first reaction to the news was to congratulate myself for slacking off.

That’s obviously not much of a long-term fitness strategy, but there are times when I just need to take a day or two off. Sometimes, the signal comes from some sore muscles. Other days, I just don’t feel like the energy is there. It’s like my heart isn’t really in it. So I take it easy.

Hardcore gym rats may find that hard to accept. They’ve got a workout plan designed to hit certain goals in a certain amount of time, and any lull in the regimen could knock them out of whatever real or imaginary competition they happen to be waging. But I’ve got a feeling there’s one former president out there today who’s going to think twice before pushing himself past his limits. And who wants to admit that they’re not quite as bright as George W. Bush.

Experience Life Magazine

The Olives of Wrath

Whenever I’m out to our local pizza joint with My Lovely Wife, the question of olives emerges. She loves olives; I do not consider them to be part of any recognizable food group. So, in the spirit of marital compromise, we always request that the chef sprinkle them on her half of the pie.

Olives, of course, are a fixture in what’s become known as the Mediterranean Diet, a way of eating that health experts have long touted as the key to a long and healthy life. This creates a paradox for me, as I’d rather die than eat an olive.

Thankfully, the vile fruit can be crushed and processed into oil, which does not offend my delicate culinary sensibilities. And, according to a recent study from the University of Navarra in Spain, using olive oil as your primary dietary fat and adding fruits, nuts, seafood, and red wine to the mix will boost your brainpower as you age.

I can live with this. I cook almost exclusively with olive oil — even when I shouldn’t (see this piece in EL about when and how to use this healthy oil) — and MLW and I are big on veggies and fish for our evening meals and fruits and nuts with our yogurt in the morning. And does anyone need to tell me to drink more wine? So, who needs olives?

Plus, when I’m not eating — or avoiding — some form of olives, I’m often reading, which another recent study suggests also boosts your mental acuity as you roll into your twilight years. Which makes me wonder whether what we eat makes any difference at all in the anti-dementia equation. Still, I’m a long-ago English major, and over the past several months, I’ve felt a weird hankering to tuck into some of the classic novels I’d been overlooking in the years since college — The Good Earth, Main Street, The Grapes of Wrath, Middlemarch, among othersnone of which made the slightest mention of olives.

In fact, it could be that by ingesting olive oil on a regular basis and reading highbrow literature that avoids describing any scene that involves someone eating olives in their natural state, I’ve become smart enough in my advanced middle age to manage to avoid any situation where I might be forced to eat olives.

It is by such strategies that longevity occurs.

Experience Life Magazine

Invisible Workouts

What does a workout look like? Most folks figure they’re not getting any fitness benefit unless they’re hoisting serious iron or cranking out a 5K in less than 30 minutes, but I’ve never subscribed to that theory. There are lots of ways to push your body beyond its level of comfort.

This past weekend was a case in point for me. Now, granted, I did run through a pretty high intensity workout Saturday morning (two sets of my normal kettlebell and bodyweight routine!!), but after that a lot of what I asked of my body would never be mistaken for exercise — but it sure felt like it.

Saturday afternoon, for instance, I spent an hour or so schlepping boxes of stuff from the attic down 27 steps into the basement storage room. Those boxes, I’m guessing, weighed between 10 and 25 pounds, and I think I probably made about two dozen trips up and down those staircases. If my math is correct, that’s like 650 weighted lunges — not to mention the squats required to pick up the boxes and whatever you want to call the task of sliding them onto a shelf in the storage room.

I woke up Sunday with my hammies and calves barking at me. They calmed down slightly as I headed outside to do a little work in the garden. There’s actual research showing the fitness benefits of gardening, but anyone who spends an afternoon pulling weeds, planting vegetables, and dodging fire ants knows they’ve had a workout when they’ve finished.

My Lovely Wife is the real gardener in the family, but I’ve grown over the years to enjoy the subtle pleasures of weeding. There’s something almost meditative about yanking dandelions and quackgrass out of the ground, and there are few actions quite as gratifying as successfully untangling a mat of creeping Charlie from the lawn. All this can require a combination of deep squats, lunges, a solid grip, and even a little upper-body strength.

I worked up a pretty good lather by the time I called it quits. Charlie was still creeping in various sectors of the back yard, but we’ll have to coexist peacefully for the time being. I had a tennis date.

Climbing on my bicycle, I pedaled west along Minnehaha Creek to the Lake Nokomis tennis courts, about a mile and a half away. I don’t tend to think of bicycling as a strenuous activity (I’m not a spandex kind of guy), but that’s not a bad little workout in itself, especially attacking the hill leading up to the courts from Lake Hiawatha.

There I met up with my old nemesis, The Baseline Machine, who quietly and efficiently pulverized me and my comical serve, six games to two. And while that may not sound like much of a contest, I did work up a good sweat chasing her shots all over the court (mostly in vain).

It’s easy to overlook these sorts of recreational activities when we think of what we need to do to keep fit. But every time (and every way) you move your body does you some good. When I look back at my weekend of activities, that Saturday morning kettlebell sweat-a-thon will stand out, but my hammies are still reminding me of my stair-climbing ordeal and my glutes are recalling all that squatting over the dandelions. Who knows how my back is going to feel tomorrow after the thrashing TBM handed me on the tennis court? Point is, it’s all a workout.

Can’t wait to get after it again tomorrow.

Experience Life Magazine

A World Away From Workouts

An afternoon workout at Beaver Bay.

An afternoon workout at Beaver Bay.

There’s nothing like a nice long, relaxing vacation to mess up your fitness regimen. You sleep late, eat poorly and spend more time than usual sitting around with a cold beverage parked in front of you. I can testify to these particular challenges because I just returned from a week spent lollygagging around the shores of Lake Superior, and I’m feeling like a real slug.

The experts will tell you that there a variety of innovative exercises you can do to maintain your edge while traveling (see this piece in EL for some creative tips), but what they don’t tend to address is the psychological obstacles that stand in the way of actually doing a workout of any sort while you’re on vacation. That’s the real challenge, it seems to me, because vacation is all about getting out of your routine and embracing everything that encourages relaxation.

I’d love to be able to report that after a couple of days in which I avoided anything resembling my normal morning workout I found myself in acute fitness withdrawal mode, but that would not be accurate. I actually found it all to be a pleasant change of pace. And to be fair, My Lovely Wife had insisted that we bring our bicycles along, which afforded us some reliable transportation as well as a moderate amount of exercise. We also did a little hiking, which included a bit of clambering over inconveniently placed rocks. But mostly we acted like middle-aged tourists, happily sitting still and watching the world go by.

This is not all bad, in my view. I think you’ve got to give yourself a break every so often, so you can recover your stores of energy — both mental and physical. The trick, of course, is convincing your “vacationing” self that the vacation is over and it’s time to get back into workout mode. Most of us are creatures of habit. I know I am. And these habits — whether healthy or not — can be tough to break. So my challenge tomorrow morning will be to convince myself that swinging my kettlebell around is going to make me just as happy as I was last week while sitting on the veranda with a cold beer, watching the mist roll in from the big lake.

Yeah, I hear ya. That’s going to be an interesting conversation.

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