Pumping Irony

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

Two Cheers for Yoga


As I do most Thursday afternoons, I pedaled last week with My Lovely Wife a mile and a half or so over to the eastern shore of Lake Nokomis to spend 90 minutes in the embrace of something resembling yoga. It’s a ritual I’ve been practicing for a few years now, one that seems to have marginally increased my limited geezer flexibility while teaching me the value of patience. Those hamstrings of mine are not going to loosen up anytime soon.

Our weekly yoga adventure is grounded in compassion and forbearance. Our teacher, the ever-indulgent Jinjer Stanton, asks no more of us than she knows we can muster. “You start from where you are” is one of her favorite expressions (and mine). And, except for the poses that test the limits of my poor hammies, it’s generally a pleasant way to pass the time. But’s it’s not what I would call a workout.

So I was slightly vexed today when I read in my local newspaper a piece breathlessly declaring that yoga is no substitute for exercise. “Yoga appears to be too gentle physically to be anyone’s lone exercise,” the writer asserted. “In one of the most interesting studies of the activity to date, experienced yoga enthusiasts performed their favorite type of yoga for an hour in a metabolic chamber that tracked their caloric usage and heart rate. The volunteers then sat quietly in the chamber and also walked on a treadmill at a leisurely 2 mph and a brisker 3 mph pace. Yoga was equivalent to strolling at 2 mph.”

This level of activity, according to the authors of the study, would “not meet recommendations for levels of physical activity for improving or maintaining health or cardiovascular fitness.”

Well, duh.

I don’t know anyone who does yoga who believes it’s a substitute for a broader fitness regimen. That said, I know plenty of really healthy and fit people who only do yoga. None of them, to my knowledge, have ever entered a metabolic chamber, and I’m pretty sure that most of them avoid the dreadmill entirely.

In fact, yoga is a great way to improve your circulation, balance, flexibility, and strength — all things us geezers need to keep in mind as we get older. Plus, I’m told there are cleansing and restorative properties that result from various poses, though these effects may be more ephemeral, especially if, like me, your hammies tend to attract most of your attention while you’re on the mat.

For most of us geezers, the most direct route to a long and healthy life involves a variety of physical activities — cardio stuff, strength training, stress management, and such. It’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Find out what works for you and go for it. And if that includes yoga, just make sure you warn your hamstrings.

The Joy of Manopause

Newlyweds Hugh Hefner, 88, and Chrystal Harris, 28. Poster couple for the geezer virility industry.
Newlyweds Hugh Hefner, 88, and Crystal Harris, 28. Poster couple for the geezer virility industry.

Time magazine this week featured a cover story on “manopause,” highlighting the latest trend in the geezer virility industry — testosterone therapy. It seems guys my age are flocking to these clinics in an effort to stiffen their resolve in the boudior. I think it’s more about trying to realign their reality to match their fantasies.

Lots of interesting things happen to a guy’s body as it slides into advanced middle age, but none is more vexing than when it stops doing what it used to do while in the throes of passion. You go through adolescence and early adulthood with a certain part of your anatomy always on alert (often embarrassingly so), and then one day you discover it just seems to have lost all interest (often embarrassingly so). And then, at some point slightly further down the line, you find (much to your surprise) that you don’t really much care.

This, frankly, can take some getting used to. I mean, most guys spend the greater portion of their adult lives thinking about sex, and to suddenly find that topic plummeting toward the nether regions of your to-do list is quite strange at first. Even a bit frightening, I suppose, if you feel like you’re less of a man if you’re not obsessing about your next roll in the hay.

The geezer virility industry relies upon this sort of thinking for its survival. As long as guys my age harbor adolescent fantasies about conjugal bliss, the makers of Viagra and Cialis, and the clinics offering eternal sexual vigor via testosterone therapy are going to do a brisk business.

Hugh Hefner is the poster boy for this industry. Now 88 years old, the original playboy is married to a 28-year-old model, Crystal Harris. I saw them interviewed on some TV show a couple of years ago, when they were newlyweds, and old Hef waxed poetic about the wonders of the little blue pill.

Now, to be fair, I suppose it’s possible that young Ms. Harris carries with her some expectations for intimacy from her legendary husband, and I suppose any certified geezer who by some odd twist of fate finds himself courting the affections of a much younger partner might have occasion to rely on these products and therapies to meet the demands of the moment.

But, let’s face it, guys: You ain’t Hugh Hefner and neither am I. Most of us are wandering through manopause with wives or partners similarly occupied with the vexations of menopause, a phase that, conveniently enough, features a libido idling mostly in neutral. And if you’ve been together for a couple of decades or more, you both probably understand that this is just another chapter in a long and fascinating journey.

It’s all about companionship now, and while there will always be times when the stars align and you’ll revisit that passion that once seemed so necessary, more often it will be the small gestures of affection that will keep you going. You won’t need any pharmaceuticals to make that happen, no jolt of testosterone to appreciate how much you mean to one another.

Once you get to this place, it’s a lot easier to put this geezer virility thing in its proper perspective. I’m sure old Hef is a happy octogenarian with his young bombshell and a cabinet full of Viagra, but I gotta say, I wouldn’t change places with him for anything.

In Recovery

I hit the gym after work on Friday, but instead of ambling over to the resistance machinery, as I’ve doing in the weeks since I began mixing up my exercise routine, I grabbed a kettle bell and a couple of dumbbells and cranked out my old morning routine: squats, lunges, girevoy. Two days later, I’m having some difficulty accessing objects located below my knees.

It’s my own fault, of course. The machines at the club do not really replicate the lower-body workout you can get with free weights. And it’s a lesson, really, that I should’ve learned a long time ago: Once you stop working certain muscles, the next time you do, you’re going to pay. It’s called delayed onset muscle soreness, a common result of doing physical things your body is not accustomed to doing.

The other takeaway, though, is actually more important. And slightly depressing. The older I get, the longer it takes for my body to recover from my mistakes. It doesn’t express itself when bicycling, as MLW and I did on Saturday (a modest 7 miles), but this morning when I reached for my mat and bench for a little morning zazen, my hip flexors and glutes protested vigorously.

But, rather than push through the stiffness and pain, as I would’ve done in my younger days, I listened carefully and left my kettle bell alone. As the folks at My Generation explain:

Veteran athletes tend to have a sixth sense about their bodies, knowing how long they need to recover from common ailments like ankle sprains, knee pain, back pain and shin splints. Despite the body’s remarkable ability for recovery, it’s not immune to aging, and that recovery time will increase as the body ages. Whereas a sprained ankle might once have been as good as new after a few days or rest, aging athletes must recognize that the same ankle sprain now might require more recovery time. Returning too quickly from an injury can only make things worse for aging athletes, so don’t push yourself.

It is, of course, really easy to find a reason not to work out on a Sunday morning, and the line between injury and indolence can often seem a bit blurry. But, for geezers like me, at least, it always seems prudent to err on the conservative side.

That’s part of the general protocol for aging athletes, which includes taking the time to warm up properly before your workout (does 20 minutes on the Elliptical Death Machine count?), focus on increasing your flexibility (yoga? check), and keep lifting weights (yup). All these things will help you stay fit throughout your time in Geezerville. It’s just that sometimes, like me, you might need a reminder.

Some Aging Experts Who Actually Get It

Luigi Fontana: One aging expert who has figured it out — more or less.
Luigi Fontana: One aging expert who has figured it out — more or less.

It’s always heartening to stumble upon so-called “aging experts” who actually know what they’re talking about. And it’s even more exciting when they’re willing to call out other members of the profession for their cluelessness when dealing with the chronic diseases that beset most of the geezer population.

I’m talking about Luigi Fontana, MD, PhD, and his colleagues, who recently published a commentary in the journal Nature taking the healthcare industry to task for its piecemeal approach to treating those maladies that most commonly affect folks my age — heart failure, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. “Biomedicine takes on conditions one at a time — Alzheimer’s disease, say, or heart failure. Rather, it should learn to stall incremental cellular damage and changes that eventually yield several infirmities,” writes Fontana, professor of medicine and nutrition at Washington University and Brescia University in Italy.

Fontana and his crew, including researchers from the University of Southern California, suggest that the current Big Pharma treatment approach, which tends to go after the symptoms of disease rather than its sources, has only become the dominant paradigm because it’s the most profitable. Research dollars simply don’t go looking for approaches that promote good health when there’s so much dough to be made selling drugs. With 70 percentage of Americans over 65 suffering from at least two chronic diseases, that’s a big market.

“Economic incentives in both biomedical research and health care reward treating diseases more than promoting health,” he writes. “The launch of a few anti-aging biotech companies such as Calico, created last year by Google, is promising. But public money must be invested in extending healthy lifespan by slowing ageing. Otherwise we will founder in a demographic crisis of increased disability and escalating health-care costs.”

Fontana’s research suggests that those numbers could be dramatically reduced — along with healthcare costs — by focusing more on prevention through behavioral changes, such as diet and exercise. “Heart failure doesn’t happen all at once,” he said in a statement released by Washington University. “It takes 30 or 40 years of an unhealthy lifestyle and activation of aging-related pathways from metabolic abnormalities such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes to give a person heart failure in his 60s, so we propose using lifestyle interventions — such as a personalized diet and exercise program — to down-regulate aging pathways so the patient avoids heart failure in the first place.”

It’s an approach that has worked in the laboratory, Fontana says, and one that “functional medicine” activists like Mark Hyman, MD, have been practicing with notable success for several years. It’s just not often that “conventional” researchers come to that conclusion. That said, Fontana hasn’t completely abandoned Big Pharma, as he suggests that a couple of drugs (rapamycin, an anti-cancer and organ-rejection drug, and metformin, used to treat type 2 diabetes) have been shown to be useful in lab tests to increase longevity in mice.

Still, the big takeaway for me is that some folks out there in academia, at least, are beginning to figure out what a lot of us figured out a long time ago: The simple path to a long, healthy life is all about diet and exercise. Here’s hoping that the healthcare industry catches on at some point.

The Walking Dread

On the "dreadmill": safer than crossing the street?
On the “dreadmill”: safer than crossing the street?

I’m not what you would call an avid walker. I’ll trek to and from the office a mile away every winter, once the first big snowfall makes bicycling too treacherous, but that’s due more to my aversion to lingering at bus stops in sub-zero weather than a delight in high-stepping through snowdrifts and sliding across sidewalk ice. And I’ve been known to occasionally hike one of the trails that ambles along the river near my house. But I avoid the dreadmill at the gym, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who’s ever pushed the “start” button and wondered what’s going to happen next.

If the former exercise can be called utilitarian and the latter recreational, then I should be more careful when I’m walking to work. That’s the upshot of a recent study from the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Researchers there have concluded that geezers like myself are more prone to tumbling while striding to the grocery store or the pharmacy than if they’re walking for exercise. Even on the dreadmill, I presume.

“Older adults have two times the risk of falling while walking out of necessity than walking for recreation, and four times greater risk of injury from a fall on a sidewalk than in a recreational area,” according to lead researcher Wenjun Li, PhD, associate professor of medicine at UMass Medical School, who I would wager has never set foot on a dreadmill.

Dr. Li and his associates theorized that it was the physical environment of a neighborhood — the sidewalks, curbs, and streets — that made “necessary” walking more hazardous than recreational treks. And, while concrete offers plenty of obstacles to geezers striding purposefully from Point A to Point B, I’d suggest that the increased risks may have less to do with the landscape than with one’s frame of mind.

When I’m walking to work in the winter months, my mind is often occupied with the tasks facing me when I arrive. This has led to more than a few icy pratfalls, acrobatics that I generally avoid when I’m paying attention. Recreational walking, on the other hand, usually involves a more focused mindset (or so I’ve been told). This, it seems to me, would reduce the chances of tragic missteps.

Except, of course, in the case of the dreadmill, which in my experience is simply designed to kill.

The Eco-Conscious Road to a Longer Life

Watch out for that bus — and second-hand smoke.
Watch out for that bus — and second-hand smoke.

OK, so you’re getting to the gym on a regular basis, eating right, getting enough sleep, and beginning to feel that maybe you’re on the high road toward a long and healthy life. I hate to rain on your parade, but that’s not necessarily going to do the trick.

Longevity is a tricky thing. You can make all the right choices, such as those above, and walk across the street tomorrow and get hit by a bus — nothing in this life is guaranteed except death (and brief episodes of embarrassment, confusion, and contrition). We don’t completely control our destiny; there are environmental factors beyond those healthy behaviors we adopt that can dramatically impact our life span.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina have pinpointed a variety of environmental factors they call “gerontogens” that can lead us to an earlier than expected grave. Cigarette smoke tops their list, along with ultra-violet rays from the sun, chemotheraphy and everyday stress. “We believe just as an understanding of carcinogens has informed cancer biology, so will an understanding of gerontogens benefit the study of aging,” Norman Sharpless, MD, professor of medicine and genetics at the University of North Carolina, told Rodale News. “By identifying and avoiding gerontogens, we will be able to influence aging and life expectancy at a public health level.”

We’re not powerless in this struggle, Rodale reminds us. We can limit our exposure to these popular household toxins:

  1. Coal tar driveway sealant
  2. Synthetic pesticides
  3. Antibacterial soap
  4. Synthetic fragrances
  5. Conventional cleaning products
  6. Nonstick cookware
  7. GMO foods
  8. Vinyl products
  9. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
  10. Flame retardant chemicals in furniture
  11. Bisphonol A (BPA) in canned foods
  12. Dry-cleaning chemicals

Stay away from these and other gerontogens while you maintain your healthy lifestyle and your chances of living to a ripe old age will improve. Meanwhile, look both ways when you’re crossing the street.

A Longer Wait, a Longer Life

The Man of Few Words (left) and The Boss Mare, circa 1993. Worth waiting for, in more ways than one.
The Man of Few Words (left) and The Boss Mare, circa 1993. Worth waiting for, in more ways than one.

My Lovely Wife and I bicycled over to our favorite local bistro the other day and found ourselves surrounded by young parents and their relatively tiny offspring. We have a practiced eye for such things, so we were estimating the age of the infants and toddlers and recalling those long-ago days when we were saddled with similar, vaguely joyful baggage.

It’s a wonderful (and rather protracted) chapter in one’s life, we agreed. And having been through it, we have some genuine sympathy for the twentysomething parents trying to fend off various tabletop tragedies as they attempt to complete their meal. It’s not easy — even for young, energetic moms and dads.

There are a couple of ways to look at the timing of parenthood, it seems to me: You can get started early in marriage, taking advantage of all that youthful energy and vitality to get you through the long, sleepless nights walking the floors with a 25- to 30-pound bundle of joy (great excuse to work on your core) and get it all over with by the time you hit your early 40s. Or you can wait awhile, satisfy your youthful energies and excesses into your 30s before building your nest and raising your brood.

MLW and I took the latter approach. Our daughter, Nora (AKA The Boss Mare), was born when MLW was 31 and I was 36; Martin (AKA The Man of Few Words) came along a little less than three years afterward. Twenty-six years later, they’re both out on their own, we’re wandering around a big, quiet house, and according to a new study, by waiting as long as we did to have kids, MLW is likely to live a longer life than those women whose child-bearing years ended in their 20s.

Here’s how the Los Angeles Times explained the research:

“Compared with a woman who wrapped up her childbearing by the age of 29, a woman whose last child was born after she reached the age of 33 was roughly twice as likely to survive long enough to outlive 95 percent of her female peers born in the same year. Women who bore their last child between the ages of 33 and 37 had the best shot at becoming a longevity champion. They were 2.08 times as likely to live to an exceptional age as moms who had no more children after 29. Women whose last child came after the age of 37 were 1.92 times as likely to live so long.”

There are, of course, plenty of theories about why this might be. The authors of the study suggest that it’s evolutionary: Women capable of conceiving and bearing children for a longer period of time tend to be more active and involved in family life and, as a result, more vital and healthy. I suppose that’s as likely an explanation as something having to do with hormones (which the study does not address), but I suspect an emotional and psychological component to all this, as well: Young mothers may feel they’ve lost their youth and vitality and are not able to reclaim it when the kids have all grown up and left the nest.

In any case, this is good news to me, since I’d like MLW to hang around into a robust old age, but it’s apparently also good news for TBM and TMOFW. Their mother is likely to be around to confer her sage wisdom to her grandchildren, if and when they may arrive — hopefully not before both of them are into their 30s.

Lift to Live

I'm growing old with Charles Atlas.
I’m growing old with Charles Atlas.

After probably way too many months away, I wandered back into the gym this week — and I’m glad I did.

For last several months, I’ve been working out (sporadically) at home in the mornings before work. Body-weight and kettlebell stuff between 7 (sometimes 8) and breakfast. I don’t have a long commute — 10 minutes max on my bike — but there were days, more frequent than I’d like to admit, when I just didn’t pick up the iron because I didn’t want to be late for work (gotta read the sports section first, you know). And, to be completely honest, flinging around a 25-pound kettlebell after awhile loses its appeal. Most fitness experts will tell you that you need to shake up your routine or you’ll find yourself marooned on some fitness plateau — wandering around looking for the benefits you once took for granted.

When you hit that plateau, what tends to happen is that you lose momentum in your muscle-building program. And, when you get to be my age, good health and longevity is all about building muscle. This remains a mystery to most geezers. I was drinking beers with my brother, The Tin Man, last week after a round of golf (in which, as usual, he crushed me — which has nothing to do with muscle mass), and he asked me what I did to stay in (such great . . . I’m extrapolating here) shape. And I told him you’ve got to lift weights as you get older. Here’s why:

It’s the plague of sarcopenia (significant loss of muscle mass) that contributes to a variety of chronic illnesses among geezers. I’m talking about diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. It’s also a major reason why folks take a tumble at advanced ages and end up getting their hips replaced.

This is not just me talking. New research from Tufts University not only endorses the idea of strength training for geezers, but identifies the mechanism that helps older muscle grow.   The study’s lead author, Donato Rivas, PhD, can explain it better than I can:

“In order for the body to make proteins that build muscle, certain genes need to be turned on. We noticed that older people had a lot fewer genes turned on compared to the younger people, showing us their muscles weren’t responding as well to the exercise.”

The problem is that geezers like me have fewer small RNA molecules in our muscle tissue, hence we don’t respond as well as young people to strength training. So Tufts researchers are thinking that gene therapy, nutrient supplementation, and hormone replacement therapy might be the answer.

Not for me. The big upside to going to the gym is that there’s a lot heavier iron to lift than what I find in my feeble workout room at home. And after 45 minutes communing with the iron there, I come home feeling like Charles Atlas and not worrying at all about diabetes, proprioception, or heart disease. I just want a cold beer. Which is not really an appropriate beverage before breakfast.

The Soccer Solution

The great Pelé, circa 1960. I did not aspire to such heights.
The great Pelé, circa 1960. I did not aspire to such heights.

When I was in grade school in the 1950s, our recess activity during the warmer months always included a soccer game. This was odd for several reasons: No one I knew played soccer back then, there were probably 200 kids on the field chasing the ball around, and the goals were chain link fences that stretched the width of the field — maybe 200 feet. Tough on a goalie’s self-esteem.

It was during one of these post-lunch contests that I lost any enthusiasm I might have generated for the sport. At some point in the random stampede that passed for play, someone gave the futbol a good kick, it ricocheted off my head, and knocked me out cold. At least that was the report from the field relayed to my mother when she came to pick me up from the nurse’s office. I had no recollection of any of it. Only that one minute I was running around trying to kick the ball and the next I was waking up somewhere on a strange bed.

Years later, it became obvious to me that my initial contact with something resembling soccer didn’t really resemble soccer. Our principal, who presided over this chaos, was just trying to give the kids a way to blow off some energy midway through the long school day. Still, childhood experiences can have an impact on the way one sees the world, so I focused my feeble athletic aspirations on good old American games — Little League baseball, and junior high basketball and football. This was a bit ironic, given that my (lack of) size and (lack of) strength were probably more suited to futbol than to any other sport.

Of course, there were no soccer teams in my part of the world until I reached high school in 1966 (no one knew who Pelé was), and only because I had by then realized my relative limitations (see above) did I sign up for a tryout with our inaugural squad. I didn’t make the team for a number of reasons, the chief one being that I didn’t know how to play soccer. But I had apparently overcome any residual psychological effects of my grade-school collision with the sport, and while I never played the game again, I grew to appreciate its subtle pleasures vicariously, watching my kids chase the ball around from the sidelines when they were young, and tuning in every four years to the World Cup.

I’m not seriously considering taking up the sport again at this point in my life, but a new study out of Denmark suggests that it’s never too late to kick it around a little. Researchers at the Copenhagen Centre for Team Sport and Health found that untrained guys as old as 75 can gain dramatic health benefits by playing soccer a couple of times a week.

“The study revealed that inactive elderly men improved their maximum oxygen uptake by 15 percent and their performance during interval exercise by as much as 50 percent by playing football for one hour two times per week over four months,” lead author Professor Peter Krustrup reported in a statement released by the center. “Moreover, muscle function was improved by 30 percent and bone mineralization in the femoral neck increased by 2 percent.”

It makes sense, of course (except the bone mineralization thing). There’s a lot of running around in futbol, a lot of stops and starts and turns. All accomplished on a field of soft grass that’s probably not too hard on aging knees. Probably a lot more prudent for a guy my age than trying to hit a 15-foot fall-away jump shot over a 6-foot-something teenager on the hardcourt.

Except that I know something about basketball. I’ve played the game for years. Never been knocked out. And that probably counts for something.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

A large part of my admittedly lame social life involves monthly lunches with two old colleagues of mine who have more time on their hands than is sometimes advisable (hence lunches with me). Both are in their early 70s, have tasted success on the big stage, and now find themselves seriously worried about the future.

Not worried in the way most of us worry about stuff — jobs, bills, kids — but chronically anxious about big things they have little control over. The kind of anxiety that often plagues geezers and, if the research is to be believed, can seriously impact your quality of life and, in some cases send you to an early grave.

I was particularly struck by this during my last two get-togethers with these old friends. Some of this anxiety is understandable: My old friend The Prairie Editor has navigated the political and literary landscape for the better part of the last half-century with no visible means of financial support. I’ve been in his shoes, financially, so I know what it’s like to wonder where the next paycheck is going to come from. But he’s also become more frail in recent years, and like the rest of us in Geezerville, he’s discovering that mortality is less theoretical than it once was.

Then, just last week, while lunching with The Captain, an old publishing pal, I learned that he, too, was struggling to untether himself from the weight of the world. The Captain worries about lots of things he has no control over, stuff like Tea Party politics, the Keystone pipeline, the NRA, Ukrainian sovereignty, and the like, but his anxieties incline more toward the existential: What role is he supposed to play in the world, now that he’s a decade into retirement? How can he still contribute in a meaningful way? Plus, why do all his friends have cancer?

I’m not much good in these situations — not because I don’t care about my buddies, but because I have a little trouble relating these days. That’s not to say I haven’t sailed through these stormy seas myself in the past. It was only eight years ago that I gave up our home to foreclosure and filed for bankruptcy after the newspaper My Lovely Wife and I launched went belly up. I know something about angst. And maybe because my two old pals have never been through that financial cleansing experience, they’ve never had the opportunity to come out clean — and clear — on the other side, where you really begin to understand the power of that old question: What’s the worse thing that could happen?

That’s all economics, though. Which, in a lot of ways, is less worrisome than the angst that many of us pack into our bags when we embark on our journey to Geezerville. That baggage is all about purpose, path, and, most urgently, mortality. We want to know if we can still make a difference in the world and whether we’ll be around long enough to figure out how.

These are all good questions to ask, all good intentions to have. But when I looked across the table at my anxious pals, all I could say was, “Don’t worry. It’s fatal.”

I know it sounds too simple, but it’s backed up with research. Numerous studies have shown that anxiety actually shortens your lifespan. A 2012 study from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that chronic anxiety may be a risk factor for premature aging. (Do you worry too much? Check out this site for more information.)

An ancient Buddhist axiom tells us that we are all going to suffer in our lives. It’s just the way life works. The key is to be unattached to outcomes, because we really don’t have that much control over the way things play out. So enjoy the good when it comes and work through the bad in its turn. You’re going to get plenty of both as you pile on the years. Just don’t worry about it.