Pumping Irony

Craig Cox, EL’s managing editor and resident geezer, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

Experience Life Magazine

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Several years ago, My Lovely Wife and I started a newspaper. It was something of a dream of mine, but it ended rather poorly. We lost our house, our car, and pretty much had to start over from scratch, financially speaking. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

What it taught me was that no matter how dismal things seem to be, you can still get out of bed every morning and look for your next opportunity. I know that sounds clichéd, but it was true. As a result, I embraced my inner Bob Marley, and my mantra became: “Don’t worry, be happy.” After all the anxiety of making a payroll, selling ads, cranking out reams of copy, and holding off creditors, I found myself captive to a kind of stress I’d never experience before. At one point, my right shoulder seized up and I had to seek medical attention.

Since then, I’ve made it a point to manage my stress levels. Hence, I spend 15 or so minutes every morning in meditation, paying close attention to my breath and, I’ve been told, lowering my blood pressure and foiling that nasty inflammation-inducing hormone, cortisol.

The research around stress, however, is not nearly so conclusive as my inclination. A recent study out of the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that “acute” stress is actually good for you. It sharpens your awareness and can improve your performance in any number of areas. As the study’s coauthor, Elizabeth Kirby, noted, “I think intermittent stressful events are probably what keeps the brain more alert, and you perform better when you are alert.”

She agrees that chronic stress, that day-to-day heightening of tensions brought on by, among other things, long commutes, tense meetings, and dysfunctional relationships, can lead to serious health conditions, including obesity, heart disease, and depression. The ultimate message of her study, however, is a positive one, she notes. “Stress can be something that makes you better, but it is a question of how much, how long and how you interpret or perceive it.”

And that’s an interesting point, in my view. What if you’re generally oblivious to the stressful conditions in your life? What if that 45-minute commute to work in bumper-to-bumper traffic is spent listening to Bob Marley? And what if you typically float through business meetings in a daydream and learned long ago to say, “Yes, dear” to any request from your partner? In other words, what if you have no idea that your life is packed full of stress?

According to a group of European researchers, people who don’t believe they lead a stressful life are much less likely than people who are attuned to their daily stress to suffer from heart disease and other stress-induced medical conditions. This, to my way of thinking, is a pure scientific validation of the value of obliviousness — one of my primary skill sets. If I understand the study’s conclusions, which involved more than 7,000 people for a period of 18 years, the less aware you are of the stressful forces in your life, the healthier you’ll be.

I’m not sure that what we’re talking about here is a blanket denial of tension and strife, though I’m willing to entertain that possibility. I think it’s more about putting life’s little challenges in their proper perspective. Nothing on the horizon, in other words, is so hopeless or daunting or impenetrable to generate the kind of angst that hovers over so many of our lives. We are remarkably resilient creatures. We just don’t think of ourselves that way most of the time. What this latest research tells me is that we have quite a bit of control over how we deal with stress. And we can choose, as I have, to just let it go.

Experience Life Magazine

This Is Getting Old

Earlier this month, the oldest man on earth, a Japanese fellow named Jiroemon Kimura, died at the age of 116. News reports tabbed him as the longest-living male in recorded human history. Kimura attributed his longevity to rising early each morning, eating only small amounts of food (including his favorite meal of rice porridge and miso soup), reading the newspaper, and watching Japanese parliamentary debates on TV.

This is going to be a tough act to follow.

All the recent sleep research emphasizes the importance of getting plenty of sleep, so rising early every morning would require that I hit the hay, say, before 10 every night. And I suspect that if I was rolling out of the sack at dawn, I’d be pretty sleep-deprived pretty quickly. That can’t be good. I’ve never sampled a bowl of rice porridge, and though I have encountered miso soup at various points in the past, it’s not something I would go out of my way to order.

I do read the newspaper every day, mostly for the sports news and the comics. But I can’t imagine anything as soul-deadening as tuning into C-Span to catch some random Congressional committee hearing.

I’m not really worried, though. Nobody sets out to live for 116 years. I doubt that Mr. Kimura had any such presumptions, though news reports noted that he was blessed with some serious longevity genes: Four of his siblings lived into their 90s and his youngest brother died at 100. At a certain point, I imagine you just get really old and stop thinking about it.

I’m going to be 62 in a couple of months, which seems like a very small number after digesting the news of Kimura’s death, and the fact that Japan is home to 51,000 centenarians. Makes me feel like a teenager.

Still, these are just numbers. I know a few people in their 70s who act like they’re 30 years older and some others who could pass as 50-somethings. The difference is mostly in outlook and energy. After he retired from the post office, Kimura worked on his son’s farm until he hit 90. There’s a certain built-in routine inherent in that sort of work that probably keeps you pushing on. My grandpa Winters was a farmer, and even after he’d given up the plow and settled on a small parcel of land owned by his son-in-law, he still got up at sunrise every morning to tend his garden and feed his chickens. And he was still flirting with young women when he died at 93. Must be something in the dirt.

Before you all quit your office jobs and move to the country to pick soybeans, though, you should consider the fact that lots of farmers die young — as do plenty of office workers. Despite anything you may have read on the latest longevity studies (yogurt, seafood, community, etc.), there’s no clear path to a long and vital life. It’s kind of a crap shoot. Enjoy the moment.

The new holder of the world’s oldest person title is a 115-year-old Japanese woman, Misao Okawa. She eats a lot of mackerel sushi. I’m not going there.

Experience Life Magazine

Yoga With Beer

After a long and dismal spring, it’s golf season again. Time to hit the links with my retired (though hardly retiring) brothers and ponder that age-old question: Is a round of golf really a good workout? And is it worth the public humiliation?

Last week, I chased the little white ball around a course in the northern suburbs. It went something like this: Hit the ball, watch the ball land somewhere forward of where I’m standing, climb in the golf cart, drive to where the ball is, hit the ball again, repeat — a hundred times or so. Really good golfers can wend their way around a course with a certain economy of motion, like tai chi masters. Every swing based on a kind of kinesiological calculus. Elbow sits here, hands move there, torso turns just so, and the ball is propelled straight and true toward a specific location. I do not have that kind of relationship with a golf club and ball. Golf for me is kind of like doing yoga after having one too many beers. I’m stretching and twisting, all right, but without much precision.

On the back nine Thursday, I hit one tee shot that burned through the grass for maybe 30 yards and followed that up by topping my second shot into a nearby pond. Four more mostly fruitless whacks later, my ball had traveled about halfway to the green. On such occasions, my golfing partners try to make encouraging noises, but it’s hard not to feel a bit inferior.

I’m told that with practice, I can cure my poor golfing mechanics. It’s all about muscle memory, they say. Trouble is, my muscles tend to remember sports other than golf. My knees are always acting like they’re helping me out with my fall-away jump shot and my shoulders want to pull that hanging curve down the left field line for an extra-base hit. It seems so easy. The ball’s just sitting there, waiting to travel.

But it’s not, of course. Even the best players will hook an occasional shot into the woods and plunk one into the drink. But they always look so fresh and composed as they do it; no sweat, no heavy breathing. It never seems like they’re taxing their bodies that much. And the same goes for us determined hackers — especially when we’re chasing the ball in an electric cart.

I suspect we’d be pretty bushed if we walked 18 holes carrying our clubs. I can imagine creaky knees and sore feet. I can also imagine that it would take us about seven hours to get around the course, which would not endear us to the traffic jam of golfers piling up behind us. Besides, where would we put the beer?

Still, I have to admit that I awoke the next morning with sore hands (need to work on my grip strength) and a pretty stiff back (more yoga), so I guess it’s not really fair to say that golfing offers no particular physical benefits. I’m just not sure it offsets the psychological trauma. The key, of course, is to not take the game too seriously. It’s a practice. Kind of like yoga — only with beer.

Experience Life Magazine

The Handyman Workout

I’ve been puttering around the house lately, framing up a sewing room in the basement for My Lovely Wife, cleaning out the gutters, and generally upgrading the old homestead. It’s a rite of spring, I suppose, and a helluva workout — though it never feels like one at the time.

It’s one thing to swing a kettlebell around and crank out some pushups every morning; the body gets used to that activity and seldom rebels. But the movements that go into general handyman labor is a different deal altogether, and I really feel it the next day.

I’m reminded by these subsequent aches and pains how important it is to shake up your routine every so often. Your body gets used to the same-old, same-old. A new routine — even one that’s not intended as a workout — definitely gets its attention. Yesterday, for instance, I pulled my old extension ladder off its brackets in the garage, pirouetted around a stack of drywall and, without any collateral damage, planted it amongst the blossoming tulips in the front yard garden before climbing 15 feet or so to get a good look at my clogged gutter, imagining at ever step what my descendents might say at my funeral. He sure kept his gutters clean.

This involves a certain amount of upper-body strength, some degree of balance and proprioception, as well as enough lower-body agility to ascend to an altitude that threatens your future well-being. Having survived that particular exercise, I descended into the basement and spent the next several hours measuring, sawing (“measure twice, cut once,” my brothers used to says; I measure once, cut once, utter an expletive, measure again, cut again, pray that it fits, and go to the lumber yard for more wood), hammering, and generally exerting my will on a collection of recalcitrant building materials. This involves the sort of movement that I could never choreograph into a bodyweight workout: reaching, crouching, lunging, lifting, swearing, and trying very hard not to leave the scene with something sharp and metallic protruding from one of my appendages.

There are, of course, better (less dangerous) ways to change your workout routine, but sometimes it takes this sort of challenge to remind yourself that you need a little change of place. And if you’re having trouble coming up with a similar challenge, let me know. I could use some help with the drywall.

Experience Life Magazine

Everything in Moderation

I got the results of my annual health check-up recently, and I was pleased to learn that all is well. My blood pressure was down from the year before, my weight was the same as last year and my body mass index was hanging in there around 23 percent. Overall, I scored a 92 on a scale of 100, which ain’t bad in my book.

When I did the follow-up call with my health coach, there wasn’t much to discuss, though I admitted that I’d kind of like to get to the gym once a week and do some heavy lifting. I’m a big fan of weightlifting, and sometimes I think my 15-minute morning bodyweight-and-kettlebell workout is not quite as challenging as it should be.

But now I see that pushing myself beyond my normal regimen might not be all that helpful, at least in terms of lengthening my lifespan (and what’s more important than that, right?). Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times points out a couple of studies that suggest that the benefits of cranking up the duration of your workouts are only marginal at best.

One 2011 study found that 15 minutes of moderate exercise daily reduced the risk of premature death by about 14 percent; doubling that workout time only increased your longevity by about 4 percent. Another study showed that serious runners “did not live significantly longer, on average, than people who didn’t run at all.”

This is pretty good news to a geezer who almost never runs and is pretty content with his morning workout (not to mention that 1-mile bike ride up the hill to the office every day). I might still try to hit the gym every so often — just for the variety — but it’s nice to know that I don’t really need to.

Experience Life Magazine

The Heart of the Matter

My Lovely Wife and I last week attended our first French 1.5 community education class at a local high school. I think it’s our third attempt to pound a little française into our graying heads. I don’t mind, really, since small doses of public humiliation build character and if I am going to be publicly humiliated I’d rather it come in the form of a language I don’t understand. Besides, everything I’ve read in recent years tells us geezers to keep challenging our brains in order to avoid losing our marbles as we age.

In fact, the big health headline a couple of weeks ago suggested that the cost of caring for those suffering from various forms of dementia has risen to the top of the U.S. healthcare charts, eclipsing even the cost of heart disease and cancer treatment. The report, published in the venerable New England Journal of Medicine, found that the direct costs of treating dementia in the U.S. in 2010 rose to an estimated $109 billion, compared with $102 billion for heart disease and a mere $77 billion for cancer.

What that says to this geezer, who still happens to be in possession of all his meager faculties, is that we’ve got an epidemic on our hands. And it’s partly explained by the fact that folks are living longer and partly by the fact that my Baby Boomer generation is getting to that age when the old gray matter apparently begins to dry up and we start to forget where we put our car keys. Unless we do the Sudoku every day, muddle through the Times crossword on Sunday, and apprenez française or some other vexing way of speaking during the rest of our spare time.

So how do you explain a new study out of Stockholm, Sweden, that shows rates of dementia there actually declining over the past 20 years? It’s not because they speak Swedish.

According to researchers at the Karolinski Institute and Stockholm University, the decline is tied to a general reduction in cardiovascular disease among Swedes since the early ’90s. “We know that cardiovascular disease is an important risk factor for dementia. The suggested decrease in dementia risk coincides with the general reduction in cardiovascular disease over recent decades,” lead researcher Chengxuan Qiu, an associate professor at the Aging Research Center, explained in a statement released by the university. “Health check-ups and cardiovascular disease prevention have improved significantly in Sweden, and we now see results of this improvement reflected in the risk of developing dementia.”

This is welcome news, not because I can ignore my French homework, but because it reinforces my own belief that if you want to retain what little lucidity you have, it won’t hurt to keep lifting weights and cranking up your cardio on a regular basis. And the Swedes don’t mention it, but we should all be including plenty of healthy fats in our diets. Your brain, after all, is mostly fat, even if your body isn’t.

I know what you’re thinking: Man, I’d rather study French than go to the gym! I don’t blame you. Exercise can be daunting. Eating right can seem complicated. But I’m here to tell you that you haven’t really suffered until you’ve tried to conjugate irregular verbs like a Parisian. Mon dieu!

Experience Life Magazine

Generation Gap?

Here’s some good news for aging Baby Boomers: As bad as we may feel about our waistline, our cholesterol count, and our blood pressure, we’re actually healthier, as a group, than the generations chasing us.

That’s the conclusion of a study out of the Netherlands, reported in the current issue of the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. Researchers looked at the metabolic health of 6,000 individuals in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s over the course of 35 years and found that each successive generation had a higher prevalence of heart disease risk factors (weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels) than the previous one. In the first batch of 30-somethings, for example, 40 percent were overweight. The 20-somethings at the time might have felt a big smug about that, but 10 years later, when they hit their 30s, more than half of them (52 percent to be exact) had ballooned into obesity land.

“The prevalence of obesity in our youngest generation of men and women at the mean age of 40 is similar to that of our oldest generation at the mean age of 55,” explained the study’s lead author, Gerben Hulsegge of the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment. “This means that this younger generation is 15 years ahead of the older generation and will be exposed to their obesity for a longer time.”

Being the competitive sort, I’m inclined to feel pretty good about this until it hits me that it’s a trend that could have serious public health implications. We’re not supposed to be stressing the healthcare system until we hit our 60s, 70s, and 80s. What happens when youngsters in their 40s and 50s start ringing up monstrous bills at hospitals and pharmacies for “old-folks” maladies like hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease? It can’t be good.

The basic culprit in all this, according to Hulsegge, is an epidemic of inactivity among young adults. That’s not too surprising, actually. We all slow down a bit as we age. And I can recall feeling pretty much immortal before I hit my 60s; no need to go out of my way to exercise or eat right, since I would always be a healthy and vigorous young man.

Unfortunately, reality eventually intervenes. And sometimes sooner than you might imagine. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read in recent years about athletic young people who woke up in their 30s to find they’d lost their edge — and put on some serious poundage.

If that’s not enough motivation to get off the couch, try imagining a bunch of smug Boomers comparing notes on their latest triathlon times and lamenting the sorry state of our young people’s health.

I know. Pretty disgusting. See you at the gym.

Experience Life Magazine

When I’m 64 . . .

I spent a vigorous hour on the tennis court yesterday with my old (actually young) nemesis, The Baseline Machine. I won’t bore you with the details except to say that I leapt out to a three-games-to-one lead only to find my game quickly deteriorate as TBM swept the next five games to cap a 6-3 set victory.

Tennis, for those of you unfamiliar with the sport, is all about muscle memory and motor skills. The ball comes your way, you measure the distance between your body and the head of the racquet, place your feet in the proper relationship to where you want to send the ball and give it a whack. When everything aligns, the sound of the racket hitting the ball is as satisfying as almost any sound in sport, as far as I’m concerned. (I’d compare it to the pleasant thwack I hear when I hit a golf ball 250 yards straight down the middle of a lush green fairway, but I can’t recall ever managing to do that.)

I’m nearly a dozen years older than TBM, so I’ve always been able to claim some disadvantage due to my advanced age, but now I see that new research from the University of Texas at Arlington has rendered that excuse moot. The study suggests there is no substantial difference in motor skills between twentysomethings and geezers in their early 60s.

“We have this so-called age decline, everybody knows that. I wanted to see if that was a gradual process,” the study’s co-author, Priscila Caçola, an assistant professor of kinesiology, said in a statement released by UT Arlington. “It’s good news really because I didn’t see differences between the young and middle-aged people.”

Before a person moves, the theory goes, the brain has to make a plan. So Caçola and her colleagues compared the time the study participants (who ranged in age from 18 to 93) needed between imagining the move and actually moving. And they found very little difference in performance between younger and middle-aged participants — at least up to a point. Apparently after you hit 64, all bets are off. (Which reminds me of that old Lennon-McCartney tune.)

“What we found is that there is a significant drop-off after the age of 64,” noted co-author Jerroed Roberson, a senior kinesiology major at UT Arlington. “So, if you see a drop-off in ability before that, then it could be a signal that there might be something wrong with that person and they might need further evaluation.”

The good news is that I don’t think Roberson was referring to my lame backhand or my general inability to keep a cross-court passing shot inbounds yesterday, so I’m going to assume that I can avoid “further evaluation.” The bad news? I’ve got another two-and-a-half years before I can blame my lousy serve on my advanced age.

Experience Life Magazine

A Real Stretch

Normally, there’s not much in the newspaper that makes me happy, but yesterday I discovered a piece in the New York Times that really made my day. The story, by Gretchen Reynolds, described all the reasons why we should not be stretching prior to a workout.

This made me happy because I don’t stretch. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to stretch, but it’s just not something my body wants me to do. I’m not special in this regard; most guys lack flexibility. It probably has something to do with an unwillingness to compromise. Who knows? We tend to be resolute.

The main reason we should avoid stretching, Reynolds explains, is because it loosens us up too much. Makes us “less able to store energy and spring into action.” She compares it to a worn-out elastic waistband. You stretch these things too much and they just won’t snap back into place. It’s really not any more complicated than that.

I should mention that we’re talking here about static stretching — your basic bend-down-and-touch-your-toes kind of stretching. Dynamic stretching is another thing altogether. Think jumping jacks, burpees and other vivid memories from junior high phy-ed classes. These kinds of moves actually prepare your muscles for action rather than loosening them up. (Check out this piece in EL on the whole stretching debate.)

Stretching after a workout is a different story. Even I will admit that a good stretch of the hip flexors after basketball or the quads after a bike ride is really quite sublime. And the stretches that result during my weekly yoga session can be rather eye-opening, as well. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them pleasant, but I’m told they’re good for me.

And I’m OK with that, because punishment via yoga carries a certain exotic allure that static stretching just cannot match. So I’m going to toss that bit of fitness advice into the trashbin of history and stop feeling inferior about not loosening up before my workouts. I may not be flexible, but I am resolute.

Experience Life Magazine

Now Hear This!

If there’s any upside to hearing loss it’s that you’ve always got an excuse to fall back on when you’re not practicing good listening skills. My excuse is called tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. Imagine a high-pitched squeal running in a reliably endless loop in your head (sort of like a John Cage symphony). It doesn’t work on My Lovely Wife, of course, who knows instinctively when I’m not paying attention — which is much of the time. But I can use it on friends and coworkers, to a certain point. People tend to be sympathetic; I’m an old guy.

Most folks tend to think of hearing loss as being an inevitable product of aging. Like anything else, you get old and the ears gradually become more proficient at sprouting hair than at interpreting sounds. But that’s not necessarily the case. As Jane Brody reports in the New York Times, we live in a very noisy world, and we’re not very good at protecting our ears from all that racket.

“Tens of millions of Americans, including 12 percent to 15 percent of school-age children, already have permanent hearing loss caused by the everyday noise that we take for granted as a fact of life,” Brody writes.

And this hearing loss is cumulative, so every time you plug in your ear buds and crank up the volume to listen to your favorite tunes you’re killing off some of the fragile hair cells that stimulate the auditory nerve fibers that allow your brain to interpret sounds. Anything above 85 decibels (about as loud as a hair dryer) is going to do some damage.

I’ve never been an ear-bud kind of guy, but I’ve attended plenty of concerts and sporting events that have left my ears in a state of white-noise-induced shock. Add to that the high-volume urban cacophony of sirens and traffic I encounter every day, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m often asking people to repeat themselves. The bigger surprise, given the number of hearing-impaired Americans out there, is that more people aren’t asking me to repeat myself. Could be they’re just better listeners than I am.

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