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February 17, 2006

Age, Energy, Exercise

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

My cancer operation didn't just throw me for an emotional/spiritual loop, it also dramatically changed my experience of my body. Though I was 47 when I was wheeled into the operating room, I felt physically the same as I had at 32. I emerged from surgery-and-recovery in quite a different state. Five years after surgery, my body feels like anything but that of a boyish 32-year-old. These days it feels more than a little broken-down. Pretty much overnight, I went from having a resilient and eager physical frame to having equipment that is creaky and dilapidated.

I don't know why this should have been the case. Did being scared and operated-on take something out of me in a once-and-for-all kind of way? Or perhaps at 47 I was simply refusing to admit to myself how old I'd actually grown. Maybe the scare and the surgery shocked me into letting go of a few self-delusions.

I was certainly prepared to endure some significant disruptions. My surgeon told me it might take as long as a year before I'd feel like myself, and others who'd been through the same procedure warned me that full recovery would take much longer than that. (Expert techies though they often are, surgeons seldom seem to know what it's like to be the person going through surgery.) What I wasn't prepared for, though, was the fact that my body would change for good, and that it would never return to what it had been before.

The main indicator of these developments was my energy level. During my first year post-surgery, I conducted myself as a near-model invalid. I was calm and self-protective, but I was also gently diligent about exploring and nursing my recuperating bod. And I was rewarded; recovery proceeded encouragingly. Six months after being cut, I was making it reasonably well through full workdays; nine months after the knife I was able to enjoy a real vacation. I was walking, sleeping, and eating comfortably. I'd even begun a very modest return to the gym. Hello, old ladies in aquacise class!

God knows my emotions and my thoughts were all over the place: "I've been operated-on for cancer! Eeek!" But, where da bod and its recovery were concerned, I was content. I could feel my energy levels building back up, however slowly. I would be my fit and vigorous old self again soon, I knew it.

Soon after the first anniversary of my surgery passed, though, my energy levels stopped creeping up. They'd returned to about 80% of the usual, and there matters stalled.

Had I plateau'd? Surely it wouldn't be long until ... Maybe I was pushing too hard. Or perhaps I wasn't pushing hard enough. Maybe I wasn't getting enough sleep. I'd put on weight after surgery -- maybe that was a problem. (What good had years of being a food-and-health-nut done for me, after all? I'd come down with cancer at 47. So during my post-surgery year I treated myself to lots of rich food.) I slept more, I moved less, I moved more, I started to eat carefully again ... None of it made an impact. Though a bit of the weight came off, my energy levels remained stuck.

It was becoming unavoidably clear that I would be spending the next phase of my life with these energy resources, and not with those I'd once known. Energy, eh? You never knew you had it until you have it no longer.

There have been plenty of other changes alongside the energy-thang too. My joints are stiffer and my tendons are more brittle than they were not long ago. I'm aware of my skeleton in a way I never was before; my bones feel both heavy and fragile. My back tires easily, and I can no longer wheel my head around thoughtlessly, whenever it suits me. If I'm not careful, I wrench my neck every other week. Waking up in the morning, I'm a bag of minor aches and pains. Unable any longer to generate much combustion from inside, I need infusions of heat from the outside. There's little that makes me more content these days than standing under a hot shower. Enjoying the spray and the mist, I'm like an old dog warming himself in a pool of sunlight.

Alas, I've found adapting to my bod's new physical condition a little more complicated and confusing a matter than, say, buying reading glasses. For one thing, I really, really like spending time in my body. I'm pleased to have a lively brain, but unlike the intellectuals I've known I don't like living in my brain 24/7. I'm a much happier person when I can move and sweat, and when I can get my focus and spirit out into my bones and my flesh on a regular basis.

Gym-style exercise, when I returned to it, hit me differently than it once had. Pre-op, gym workouts had been enjoyable and efficient (if demanding) ways to regulate my moods and do my body some favors. The heavy limbs it had left me with, the calm breathing, the deep sleeps -- wow, did I love them. I felt an ease when I was well-exercised. I sometimes laughed about feeling like the owner of a horse. My body needed to be taken out to run and play and exhaust itself. Otherwise, and through no fault of its own, it went a little nuts.

Now, though, gym-style exercise (at least once I graduated out of the old ladies' aquacise class) made me feel lousy. No matter how far I crank it down or how easy I take it, gym-style workouts made me feel not just worked-out and tired but defeated -- punished and depressed. I wasn't collapsing afterwards thinking "Phew, good work-out! And boy, does that feel great!" I was collapsing afterwards thinking, "Why? Why? Why?" Lifting weights now seems like something I ought to be paying someone else to do for me. Where runners' high used to make life feel worth living, these days any kind of huffing and puffing is on my list of things to avoid.

The gym itself -- the physical place -- looks far different to me now than it once did. I'd been an OK high-school athlete, and I'd been a faithful (if not very gifted) adult runner and swimmer for decades. So the gym had once looked to me like a homey place I enjoyed visiting in order to renew myself. Now it looks forbidding and off-putting, like something meant for a foreign species.

And a not-very-appealing foreign species at that. All that stupid, pounding music ... All those youthful people grunting out their stupid and pointless energy ... All those pathetic older exercisers, bent-over from the effort and nursing gnarled joints ... Who could want any part of such a hideous scene? Incidentally, these are impressions, not considered judgments. I'm glad gyms are there and I'm happy that people enjoy using them.

So here was my quandary: Despite its reduced energy reserves, my body still craved activity as much as it ever did. And I still craved the experience of spending time out of my brain and inside my body. What to do?

I tried exercising at home. I gave the "8 Minutes in the Morning" program a try. Hated it. Then how about superslow weightlifting? Shoot me now. Swimming had always been kind to me and generally speaking it suited me still. But even swimming now felt like far more of a chore than it once had. Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth you swim ... Dumb dumb dumb. Where had the joy and the pleasure in physical effort gone?

And the pains ... Good lord. Even after shifting to the elliptical from the treadmill and setting the weight machines on the very lowest, old-lady level, I was managing to hurt myself routinely anyway. My body no longer felt like an eager, happy hunting dog. It felt like a fume-spewing, barely-strapped-together, rattly old bus.

That's where I was at when I stumbled into my first Bikram yoga class. The Wife and I had heard vague reports about a zany brand of yoga performed in a hot room. On vacation we learned that a Bikram branch was nearby, so on a whim we tried a class out.

My heavens, what a wild experience. Within 15 minutes I was so drenched with sweat that I was like a swimmer who has just pulled himself out of the pool. My body was reeling and my head was spinning. The heat, it turns out, amplifies the tiny emotions you normally feel when you exercise. All the barely-noticeable feelings of discouragement, exhilaration, and frustration that you usually shove aside and bully your way through become REALLY REALLY BIG ISSUES when you're doing yoga in a room heated to more than 100 degrees. So a Bikram class can be an emotionally as well as a physically exhausting thing to live through.

Afterwards, The Wife and I spread towels on our car seats, drove to a nearby beach, and ran into the cold water. Whoo-hoo! The waves smacked us around and I let out one howl after another. But they were howls of pleasure, I realized. Back in the car, I shyly confided to The Wife that I hadn't felt this physically good since I was a kid -- sex with her excepted, of course. Back in our bedroom, I collapsed into a blissful, blank-minded, two-hour nap. For the next couple of days, to the extent that anything was going through my mind, it wasn't much more than "Thank you, Lord!"

That first Bikram yoga class was my little breakthrough into a different way of relating to my body. In the last three years I've become a devotee of what I think of as inside-out (rather than outside-in) exercise. Walking? Works for me, and I'm callin' it exercise! Pilates? I gave that a shot too. But my real loves are yoga and Gyrotonics. Most weeks I walk a bunch, I attend three or four yoga classes, and I take one or two Gyro sessions too. This routine leaves me happy, toned, and relaxed -- perhaps even happier, more toned, and more relaxed than my old happy-to-go-to-the-gym workouts used to.

All these activities share some characteristics. For one thing, they work you out without exhausting you in the gym sense. For another, they don't take place in conventional gyms. You do them -- or I do them, anyway -- outside, at home, or in small studios. They're also, to one extent or another, mind-body pursuits. And -- a personal note here -- they're activities that I find I can perform with pleasure. No need to force myself to go to yoga or Gyro. I'm eager to jump in, and I'm sorry when I can't.

Now that I'm a few years into this new phase, I find myself reflecting that what my somatic changes did was leave me averse to -- or at least incapable of -- getting anything out of traditional sports-and-gym-style workouts. Calisthenics, sports, weights, cardio ... They all seem to me now to be matters of using your will to apply force to your body from the outside -- the assumption being, of course, that this will prove to be fun, as well as good for you. But on a typical day, I no longer have will or energy to spare, let alone surplus force. And, given my age, where on earth am I supposed to come up with any?

Meanwhile, taking a walk couldn't be more simple -- it's just a a matter of getting myself outside. Even with yoga and Gyro, there's no need to crank myself up or to summon up a lot of will. All I need to do is show up at class and start exploring where I am physically. Besides, these days, if I apply will-generated force to my physical system from the outside, two things will surely result. I'll feel emotionally resentful, and I'll hurt myself. Simple fact of life.

In case anyone's still reading this very self-indulgent posting, I'm going to treat myself to some riffs through the various inside-out exercise forms that I've tried.

  • Walking. I find walking very enjoyable. I never hurt myself. I also never break a sweat, unless the weather is hot and humid. Walking is surprisingly effective in terms of keeping weight off. I once spent 3 months in L.A., for example, and during that time put on 10 pounds -- all because, as far as I could tell, I wasn't walking. The weight came right off as soon as I returned to pedestrian-friendly NYC. What fun it is to be a walker in NYC. I happen to live three miles from where I work, so I'm able to walk to work every workday. It's a basic part of my daily routine. I listen to audiobooks, I explore different routes, and I take in the buildings, the parks, and the people. My morning walk to work is a visually and mentally as well as a physically refreshing time of day for me. But would I keep it up if I lived someplace where walking isn't as convenient?

  • Tai Chi. I'm a sucker for Taoism and I love Chinese art, so I studied Tai Chi with a well-known teacher for about six months. I made it through the basics of the Yang short form but I quit anyway. Short-attention-span person that I am, I found Tai Chi fascinating but also slow and boring. And -- I gotta be honest -- it wasn't doing much for me. It wasn't making me feel calm, opened-up, or refreshed. Would I start to get something out of Tai Chi if I kept at it for a couple of years? I have no way of knowing, of course. Recently I've been growing interested in Chi Kung, a related Chinese art/exercise form. Where Tai Chi is like a long, slow-motion dance, Chi Kung is more like a sequence of discrete movement/breathing exercises. I've been following along with this DVD for a few weeks. No idea if I'll persist, but I've been happily surprised to find that a 30 minute session with the disc leaves me feeling settled, buzzed, and content. There's something wonderful that can happen when movement, breath, and intention are synched up, and Chi Kung seems to be designed to cultivate that experience.

  • Bikram yoga. I seldom do Bikram any longer except when I'm on vacation, but only because scheduling is tough. In an ideal world, I'd do a Bikram session once or twice every week. Many people flee after their first try; it can seem like a very weird thing to subject yourself to. But people who love Bikram really love it. Bikram tones and stretches you very effectively; regulars develop beautifully sleek bodies. It can also hit you on amazingly deep (as in psychological and emotional) levels. I got more out of six months of regular Bikram yoga classes than I did out of years of psychotherapy. Bikram wrings you out, and it flushes you out. In my case, it seemed to melt and dissolve many (ahem) "issues" that were bugging me, and it allowed me to become more forgiving, to see life a little more clearly, and to let a lot of garbage go. But Bikram works for me. The Wife, who isn't a fan, says that she doesn't even consider Bikram to be yoga at all, but instead a bizarro form of calisthenics that for some unfathomable reason is performed in a sauna.

    During my year as a regular, I became a heat junkie -- this despite the fact that I'm a northern-European mongrel who generally prefers cool weather. Though I initially found the heat in the Bikram studios overwhelming, within three or four months I got to craving it. I wanted heat, more heat, ever more heat, and I could feel very disappointed (if forgiving!) when the room's temperature wasn't cranked up to the max. It's wise to be careful, though. Bikram instructors tend to be barkers and exhorters; the heat lets your muscles and tendons relax more than usual -- and if you get carried away and try too hard, you can easily hurt yourself. (Though I never have.) Taking a Bikram class, it's very important to stay in touch with yourself, and to work at your own pace.

    Small tip: If you ever do try Bikram yoga, please make an agreement with yourself that you'll attend at least a dozen classes before deciding for or against. The first few classes feel overwhelmingly strange to most people; with the heat and the sweat, it can be hard enough just to stay in the studio for 90 minutes, let alone to perform all the postures. Until you've taken at least a dozen classes, it's impossible to make a balanced decision about whether or not you're enjoying yourself. FWIW, I'd advise anyone older than 70 to forget about Bikram yoga. I don't think I've ever seen anyone that old in a Bikram class, and I assume there are good reasons why.

  • Hatha yoga. I've been going to Basics yoga classes 2-4 times a week for almost three years at this beautiful, and beautifully-run, studio. There have been few things I've done in my life that have delivered as much in the way of satisfaction as yoga has. I'm a happy, loose, and grateful person generally -- but I'm a much, much happier and looser and more grateful person when I'm doing yoga regularly. It delivers so much and it creates such a sense of relaxation and space that the rest of life goes by more easily too. One unexpected consequence: I'm more easy on the arts than I used to be. I don't get peeved if they don't supply great, or even very good, experiences. I don't need them to any longer.

    Yoga is effective physical exercise, god knows. The stretching and stressing are combined with breath-awareness, which means that you're strengthening and toning at the same time that you're learning how to relax -- yoga is big on teaching you how to put out effort without losing your calm. But yoga can be much more than mere exercise. For one thing, it's full of helpful little life lessons. It's also intellectually/ aesthetically/ philosophically fascinating -- a combo of exercise, philosophy, self-help, and religion. (And a match, at the least, for any Western school of religion or philosophy.) You can take whatever you want from yoga, if anything. But, even if you practice only semi-regularly, it's hard not to get something out of yoga. The Wife is an example. She isn't terribly crazy about yoga, but as a favor to me she attends a Basics class once a week. Afterwards, she's inevitably an even sweeter, funnier, and more kittenish person than she usually is.

  • Pilates. The Wife has a love/hate relationship with Pilates. Pilates is tough and it's not a lot of fun -- she doesn't live to go to Pilates classes the way I live for my yoga sessions. But Pilates also whips her body into shape more effectively than anything else does. When she's doing Pilates regularly, her posture is beautiful, her figure is curvy and taut, and she's feelin' good about herself. Results-oriented doesn't have to be bad!

    I, on the other hand, have had lousy luck with Pilates. I attended about 40 beginning Pilates classes and I even took a handful of private lessons. But, despite these efforts, I never really got started. I seem to have zero midsection muscles, for one thing -- and even the easiest of the beginning-Pilates exercises require at least some core strength. Also, and god only knows why, I was forever wrenching my neck. Anyway, I got nowhere at all, and I spent a lot of time feeling frustrated and discouraged.

    Women seem to take to Pilates far more easily and avidly than men do. Is this because the female hip/pelvic/stomach area is built so differently than the male core is? In any case, if most yoga classes are around 75% female, most Pilates classes are at least 90% female. I was never crazy about the surroundings. It wasn't just that the air was so very thick with estrogen; I like hanging with the girls. It's that the atmosphere is often a bit rigid and cultish, even when friendly and attractive. There are many, many debates in the Pilates world about what Joseph Pilates, the legendary late founder of the approach, would approve of and what he wouldn't approve of. Who cares?

    The field also seems to attract a lot of ballet dancers, many of whom become instructors. Ballet dancers of course can be wonderful and beautiful. But they can also love strictness. Many of them seem to love being told what to do; when they become instructors themselves, they often behave in very commanding ways. And, probably because they've been dancing since the age of five, dancers often have zero awareness of what it's like to be a normal, not-very-fit person -- ie., to not be in phenomenal dancer-shape. As far as many of them are concerned, if the rest of us are struggling, it's because we simply aren't trying hard enough. So try harder! I don't find this kind of attitude helpful. I tend to flourish when I encounter somewhat more in the way of humor, sympathy, and verbal flair.

    Still, The Wife is one happy and well-toned gal when she's doing Pilates. Me, I felt much better when I gave Pilates up. But I've recently grown interested in Pilates again, ever since I turned up a "Winsor Pilates Endless Fitness For Beginners" DVD. It can be bought here. Full of ultra-EZ, pre-basic exercises, it's a wonderful, 25 minutes-long, Pilates-ish workout that even core-less I can do.

  • Gyrotonics. I've been attending Gyro sessions for about four months, and I'm in deep, deep, L-U-V-love with it. A little bit yoga, a little bit Pilates, a little bit kooky, Gyro comes in two flavors: Gyrotonics, which is performed on a weird-looking machine with pullies, light weights, and leather straps; and Gyrokinesis, which is a mat class that uses many of the same movements, minus the straps and weights.

    The system was developed by Juliu Horvath, a Romanian dancer. His main contribution, it seems to me, is an emphasis on big, circular movements. He calls the system the "Gyrotonics Expansion System," and, oh my goodness, does it work for me. My hips, my spine, and my shoulders feel loose, wiggly, and full of mischief after a Gyro session.

    Gyro doesn't hit me smack in the face like Bikram does. It's more subtle. An hour or two after a session, I'll find myself smiling at the young-feeling limberness in my spine, or sensing and relishing the sensation of my ball-and-socket hip joints. I'll find myself thinking, Wow, what a pleasure it is to have a body! Many people compare the effect of a Gyro session to getting a massage, only one that was somehow applied to your body from the inside-out. I concur with that. It's a wonderful sensastion.

    Gyro is an exercise system that I suspect many middle-aged-and-older people would find rewarding. (Dancers love it, but so do golfers.) The weights on the machine aren't used to exhaust your muscles; they're used gently, to enhance the movements and to help you open up. And the range-of-motion expansion that Gyro promotes is just what many aging people need. One Gyrokinesis class I attended, for instance, was full of no-longer-young people, and you could sense the happiness and the relief in the air. These people were thrilled to have found a decent workout that they could both do and enjoy. And many aging people, with or without arthritis, find that Gyro lubes their joints up and provides some ease and relief. Gyro fans find that they stand taller, move more freely, and feel cheerier when they're doing Gyro regularly.

    Af first, Gyro can seem simple and dumb. There's very little technical-speak -- it doesn't seem to be a complicated and arcane "system" in the way that Pilates does. And Gyro movements can seem repetitious. You practice a lot of seaweedy movements, a lot of arching-and-curling, a lot of swaying, and a lot of circling and rocking. (You do have to pay attention, though. Mindlessly grinding through a Gyro workout is to miss the point of it.) But as your mind sinks into your bodily frame and the movements start to have their effect, the magic of Gyro becomes unavoidable. Your spine starts to feel wiggly, your shoulder girdle yawns, and your hips want to dance the samba. What bliss. It's amazing how much happier you can feel when your spine, your shoulders, and your hips are freer than they usually are.

    A couple of tips for those who might be interested. Gyrotonics -- which is Gyro on the machine -- can be expensive. You can't work out on a Gyro machine by yourself without first having had a lot of training. And master trainers often charge as much as 80 bucks an hour. Yet a Gyro workout is something to be savored. What to do?

    There are a couple of workarounds. One is to ask your local studio if they have any trainee coaches. Trainees typically get paid around $40-45 an hour -- quite a savings. Also, once you've had five or ten private lessons on the machines, you might then be able to join group classes, with one trainer guiding four or five people through machine workouts. Group classes often go for $25 an hour.

    You might also want to Google "+Gyrokinesis +yourhometown" to see if mat classes are available where you live. Gyrokinesis classes can be hard to find, and you have to endure an opening 10 minutes of woo-woo silliness. But the workout that follows is well worth the annoyance, and it's as pleasant in its effects as a workout on the machine. Gyrokinesis classes are very reasonable. They cost the same as a yoga or a Pilates class -- typically around $12-$20 for a 90 minute session. Though there's no philosophy or poetry to Gyro, I think I may love Gyro as much as I love yoga. You can begin exploring the likably zany world of Gyrotonics here. I attend Gyro sessions at this friendly little studio, and at this one too. I'm thrilled to notice that this place just opened, but I haven't visited yet.

The first two items on Forbes' list of hot fitness trends for 2006 are Bikram yoga and Gyrotonics. Never say I ain't a trendoid! The Patriarch writes a funny posting about struggling through his first spinning class.

How are you finding the experience of your aging body? And what are your tips for getting the most out of what remains?

Best,

Michael

UPDATE: Tyler Cowen wonders why so many people have such trouble getting themselves to exercise. Commenters kick in loads of hunches and theories.

posted by Michael at February 17, 2006




Comments

Tai Chi drove me nuts as well. Instead of relaxing the mind, my thoughts were racing at the wasted time it took to move my hand from here to ooovvveeerrr there. Yoga is something I was into years (decades!) ago, and enjoyed it, but again, I remember trying to clear my mind of all thoughts but having trouble with this last one: "Here I am, sitting in full lotus, staring at a candle and trying not to think."

Posted by: susan on February 17, 2006 6:03 PM



There's nothing wrong with not caring for traditional gym-type exercises. They work just fine for me, but everyone's different. Exercise, and physical activity in general, is most definitely not a one-size-fits-all thing. If yoga and gyrotonics work for you, that's great.
Speaking of age and exercise, I was basically a couch potato until three years ago at age 45. Sometimes I have moments of reget, when I think that if I had started pumping iron in my teens or 20's as most people do, I'd be putting up huge numbers today. But I didn't, so all I can do is make the best of the present situation.
Most of what I've heard about that superslow weightlifting isn't very good.

Posted by: Peter on February 17, 2006 8:44 PM



This old lady (66) was just diagnosed with Type II diabetes. I leapt to the ramparts, took my pills, went walking, stayed on a low glycemic diet until I lost ten pounds. The effect was that all these things interacted and I went to 44 on my little blood sugar tester. it was jumping up and down and beeping like R2D2. I grabbed some sugar cubes and was okay. Below 50 people are supposed to be incoherent. 100 is roughly normal. That was pretty scary. I was afraid to go to sleep.

Called the doctor, a ranch girl, who said, "Aw, just don't take any more pills." So I didn't and now all my blood sugar readings are floating nicely around 100. Must've managed to give my pancreas a good kick in the slats. The weight I took off came out of my hands, neck and (ahem) cup size.

This doc didn't provide any booklets or recommend any classes or offer a coach or any of that stuff. I have to drive 80 miles to get to her, my pickup needs a thousand dollars worth of work, and it's twenty below. My floors are far too cold to get down on. The cats want to sit on me while I read, for my body heat. That kind of overheated yoga sounds very attractive. Maybe after I pay off the pickup I can look into saunas.

But I feel frisky. I survived so far. And I hadn't realized how much I'd sunk down into a sort of gray state. Anyway I've sold the book I came back to Montana to write, though I sold it to the University of Calgary Press in Canada which means there's very little money. And the second book is written.

In Montana you have to save yourself. Fix your own plumbing. Jumpstart your own car. Think of sneaky workarounds, like bringing the battery in at night to keep it warm.

I love reading about exercise. Maybe I'll try some. Thanks for the inspirational motivational talk, Michael!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 17, 2006 9:14 PM



I guess I'm not a fan of anything that you need a machine or a philosophy to perform (bicycling excepted: I guess that counts as a machine). But I mean things like treadmills and stationary bikes and stairmasters and weights. Like you, am allergic to the traditional gym scene.
Full of middle-aged aches and pains (I'm 47 and overweight), but I find the old-fashioned isometric stretching warm-up exercises from PE class do it for me. Just 40 min. a day (after a hot shower) and I feel like a new woman.
Like you, I laud both swimming and walking. But these people who run every morning, then do yoga and ballet all night, are too holier-than-thou for me. Like the staff who insisted on eating every day at Whole Foods when I worked at Ohashi shiatsu. Just to spite them, I went and brought in McDonald's!
My dancer friend (predictably) is hooked on both Tai Chi and Pilates.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 17, 2006 11:13 PM



I know I've mentioned before here that I have multiple sclerosis. One of my family members has ulcerative colitis (something autoimmune going on in the family, eh?) We used to joke that having a chronic illnesses in our 30s was like turning 50 overnight - that's how we felt. We skipped a step! Rats! The family member is mondo in shape and works out a ton - he'd like to cut back on work, though, and I know he feels it. He naps and naps and naps, if he can. We both, at times, crave sleep. Too bad he's a cardiologist. And silly me, working in a teaching hospital!

My energy levels are always an issue now, from the MS and the medications. The funny thing is, I'm more physcially active after the diagnosis, but I am less capable of doing a variety of life things, if that makes sense. Basically, I take care of work, my health, and have cut back on my social life, such as it ever was: and by that I mean I have also cut back on my expectations. Yikes. I hate writing that. Oh dear. That's the first time I've admitted that in public. Maybe I won't make it to an associate professor and write the great American novel. I work 10-12 high-energy hours a day at the hospital, with weekends too, and I work out with a personal trainer 2 times a week. But I have nothing else left energy wise. My personal time is now spent watching movies or having coffee with friends, or the museum - I tend to favor small social activities now, instead of running here and there, all Terry Teachout like (don't you just love that blog?). Anyway, work won out for many reasons - one, because for me being a doc is more than work, it's something that's so part of my fibers and sinews I don't know how to do anything else, two, I gotta pay the bills and ain't no one else gonna do it for me (I wouldn't want them to), and three, I was tired of the twenty something life. I want to be an adult, in the best sense of that word. This trying to be youthful all the time just doesn't appeal to me. Isn't there something depressing about thirty-somethings getting gray hair and still wearing hello Kitty t-shirts and talking about men as if they were teenagers?

Oh, wait, how did I get so far off track? I used to do yoga and loved it, it is a wonderful excercise for those with chronic illnesses, it seems to give energy, anecdotally anyway, but I love the trainer thing too (they are so cute and friendly!). What I think is best is to spend parts of the day being 'quiet.' Take it easy. Take it slow. I'd love to leave Boston and move somewhere, oh sunny and spacious - last year visiting San Antonio, I thought: why can't I live somewhere like this?

Your body changes, not just as you age, but obviously, with illness, with how you are feeling mentally about your life, your personal circumstances. It's okay to take it slow. And walking is a wonderful excercise, always has been. Sometimes I think the general public equates the hard body with health: uh uh. It's a scary thing, isn't it, to realize your body has really, really changed?

Boy, I sure had a lot to get off my chest, didn't I? Anyway, we don't have to always 'get the most out of life', how exhausting! Maybe we can scale back and find, in this slimmer and sleeker life, some real grace. I dunno.

Prairie Mary - I love reading about your life and your funny, generous comments!

Posted by: MD on February 18, 2006 8:09 AM



At 56, I used to consider myself a strong person as I regularly lifted weights and engaged life's home chores, like raking the lawn or helping to put in a new oil furnace, with vigor, reveling in the intense physical activity. That is, until I broke my leg and ankle with the ladder slpping out from under me while cleaning the gutters last fall.

Three operations later, including the acquisition of the dreaded staff infection, I've begun lifting again. It's amazing how much can be lost after having achieved so much.

I accepted that I would be diminished during my rehabilitation but as I am nearing the end of the healing process I wonder if I'll regain the strength and endurance that was lost.

I've always looked at exercise as solely a means for giving my body the physical wherewithall to engage life to its fullest. Exercise was simply one of life's chores to be done. I think that us Type A folks are similar in this regard. In sales we set goals and we achieve them. I reached 250 lbs. on the bench press and because a friend, a couple of years older, had achieved 265 lbs a new goal was set, until I fell.

As a result of the injury I've become more cognizant of the fragility of the human body and the need to care for it. Perhaps it's simply that at my current age we take a little longer to heal. I'm not sure. However, I've always viewed the glass life as half-full and I will move ahead with optimism. The life of the mind requires certain props and I have to be mindfull that I'm no longer 25 years old.

Maybe I will consider Bikram Yoga. Maybe it isn't too late to teach an old dog new tricks.

Posted by: Mike Doherty on February 18, 2006 9:59 AM



Prairie Mary summed up my attitude toward exercise nicely: "I love reading about exercise. Maybe I'll try some."

Lately I've been reading about it at Art De Vany's web site.

A summary of what he calls the "evolutionary fitness" approach to exercise ("High intensity, intermittent and brief training mixed with power walking and play...") can be found here.

Posted by: Dave Lull on February 18, 2006 3:20 PM



Big hugs to all those who say nice things about me!

Today looked great -- clear blue sky, ascending temp, blood sugar behaving, etc. But my newspaper horoscope said, "Don't get too cocky." Half an hour later my kitchen water line froze. It was twenty below last night -- now it's twenty above. So why did it freeze NOW? Anyway, it's thawed again.

The point is that human bodies are at least as complicated as houses and what happened in the past often turns out to affect the "now." (Lack of insulation, former floods) All the dings and dents I acquired as a reckless twenty-year-old in the foundry and on horseback now come back to me as bad knees and funny twitches. And I've acquired a whole lot of hitchhikers in my tissues -- by now, the scientists say, there are more cells in my body from other entities than belong to my own body. (They all have more room in there since I've lost a bit of weight with this diabetes thing.)

More seriously, maybe you know about those notorious Sun Worship ceremonies among the Plains Indians where men skewered their chests through the muscles and then danced, staring into the sun, until they tore the skewers loose. Very trendy among a certain kind of young men these days. But I ran across some anthro stuff once that was interviews with the widows of these men. They said they recovered, but they were not the same. Not just psychologically and spiritually changed, but not so vital and strong as they had been. David Quammen used to write Outside columns about the "life energy" of various creatures (the one about salmon was one of the most memorable) and how it was allocated through the lifetime. A salmon has just enough cumulative power to get up into the headwaters and spawn. Then they're eagle food. Maybe we should talk to young people more about such things.

And our military leaders as well. Pray for amputees. To say they can make a total recovery is simply to lie. Which is not the same thing as saying they can't have a good life -- it just won't be the same.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 18, 2006 5:43 PM



I came back to take the edge off my rather dire-sounding post.

Just this: the salmon in the Brit mythology is a symbol of wisdom. It dwells in a great clear well under the tree of knowledge and life (an oak in their system) which drops its acorns into the water where the salmon eat them. Salmon do more than spawn and die. And even if you burn your fingers on a roasting salmon and put them into your mouth to soothe them, you will be wiser.

(Oh, those darn myths! A person doesn't know whether they're kidding or not. But classically, wisdom has been the trade-off for loss of power.)

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 18, 2006 6:20 PM



A lot to think about, Michael...
I'm now 40. I'm in the best condition I've ever been, not that that is saying much: I've always been tall and generally slender, with the computer geeks belly flab when I got lazy.
But no matter what my condition, my energy as always been very low: I can drink a pot of coffee and still marvel at the drive of Type A people, and then contemplate a nap.
After six too-peaceful years in the mountains, I am planning to move back to the city for a while... But I have my doubts. Can I live like I was 20 again? Did I really enjoy life in SF when I *was* 20?
I still believe I have to try a change, as the alternative seems to be a lotus-eating stagnation.

Paul

Posted by: Paul Worthington on February 18, 2006 7:54 PM



And master trainers often charge as much as 80 bucks an hour.

Okay, we're almost in small-cap CEO salary range here. I'm beginning to think a certain generation of Americans has too much money.

Posted by: onetwothree on February 19, 2006 12:07 AM



123: from the plumbers' point of view, every American homeowner has too much money. I paid $420 in labor last winter for fixing 2 burst bathroom pipes (2.25 hrs of work for 2 workers), and my neighbours told me it was cheap.

[Prairie Mary, imagine how much money you save every day for being your own handy..er..woman]

Posted by: Tat on February 19, 2006 9:55 AM



I hate to piss on your sticky mat Michael, but after reading your post I'm more inclined than ever to agree with the 80 y.o. Jewish psychiatrist who told a friend that "yoga is just masturbation."

First off "Bikram" yoga is just "hatha" yoga with more hot air and a marketing scheme. As far as being able to open you up, wouldn't rolling around in pig slop and squealing serve a similar function? (I could just see trendy practitioners insisting that the slop used in _their_ pens is more organic and creates a better "flow".

For guys, yoga substitutes as a religion for guys who can't handle religion. Role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons serve a similar function. There's no actual religion at work, but there's a sensibility at work. A sensibility where one can find the guru of Astanga-brand yoga getting his feet kissed by American girls after a sunrise class in Puck building. Is there actual belief at work there, or just mindless devotion (yoga already has its own suicidal death cult with a charismatic leader -- Aum Shinrikyo.)

And then you're in class with some nubile teacher giving a mini-sermon about yoga ethics in California upspeak. When she gives her interpretation of chastity, "brahmacharya", it's about as convincing as a guy holding a Koran with TNT sticks coming out of his ass-crack saying that Islam means peace and jihad is really about controlling internal urges.

And look at your constant references to sexual hungers, like a man going to a massage to relieve stress, only to become increasingly more agitated while getting massaged because he's busy wondering if he'll be given a "happy ending". You ever bother doing yoga when you're alone?

Lots of nonsense, to say nothing of bad teachers who are responsible for many injuries, violating the principle of non-harming. And finally if it's a religion, shouldn't class payments be offered as donations?

Where I'm posing from: a 40 yo man who started doing yoga at 30 and stopped around 35. I mainly bicycle now for exercise, mostly on dedicated paths because the cellphone mentality is making drivers on the roads crazy. I also commute via train about 12 hours/wk, and in that time I use a posture pillow to do various exercises and breathing routines to enliven the spine, which include alternate-nostril breathing among others things. Spine and breath awareness are positive aspects of yoga, but yoga has no monopoly on these things.

But like more conventional forms of masturbation, it's ok as long as you don't make too much noise and clean up after yourself when your done.


Posted by: James M. on February 19, 2006 3:15 PM



James M -
Hmmm, you certainly don't seem like a yoga fan :) The thing is, if you're looking at yoga as a form of exercise, it IS quite good, burning calories at a rate that compares well to aerobics or using an elliptical trainer.
Yoga may include a fair degree of New Age blather, but you don't have to pay attention to it. And it's no worse in this respect than some of the martial arts.

Posted by: Peter on February 19, 2006 8:02 PM



MB, hang in!

Posted by: Jonathan on February 19, 2006 9:39 PM



I wonder if dance doesn't fall into the inside-out category as well. I never let the dust settle on my weights in the basement -- until I turned 40. Suddenly all this push-pull stuff just seemed like one more onerous chore. But my daughters had no trouble getting me to work up a sweat: all they had to do was put The Clash, or some vintage Van Halen on the stereo and start bouncing around the living room.

This, too, is likely to pass (shortly before my daughters enter their teens). Perhaps then I'll give yoga a try.

Posted by: whiskyprajer on February 20, 2006 7:40 AM



Susan -- That's a funny line about tai chi. I can't really figure out why it doesn't work for me. In principle, it should, but it doesn't. I hate it when that happens.

Peter - I had no idea you'd taken up the gym so recently. I'd love to know what got you there! You certainly seem to get a lot out of it. Sigh: I did too, once. This shift I went through from outside-in to inside-out exercise was very confusing, at least initially. Back pre-op, I was someone who by and large snickered at girly stuff and avoided classes...

P. Mary -- Congrats on the book, that's great news. And here's hoping your publisher does a good job with it. I'm just guessing, but I suspect that, diabetes or not, you don't have the same kinds of problems with energy levels that I do. Just a hunch...

WS -- Stretching is magic, no? And god knows dancers are a species unto themselves.

MD -- I was hoping you'd join in, tks, lovely thoughts and surmises. What kinds of workout do you do with your trainer? Being quiet and *not* doing things is much underrated, don't you find? And -- so shoot me -- if you're working as a doc 10-12 hour days plus managing to do a couple of workouts a week, I'd say you're managing what you're managing *very* successfully.

Mike -- It's amazing how a little physical damage (even, in my case, something like a flu) can slow the system down, isn't it? Healing and patching-up turn out to absorb an amazing amount of energy, or at least more than I usually expect them to, though I've never been blessed/cursed with a Type A personality, let alone a Type A kinda drive. You might enjoy Bikram yoga -- I've met a bunch of guys in their 50s who get a lot out of it. They tend to be active types (surfers, runnerrs, sporty guys) who use Bikram to keep limber and to relieve aches and pains, and they seem very happy about how effective it is. Sigh: age does make the darn joints and muscles more brittle than they were.

Dave -- Reading about exercise is a lot of fun, isn't it? Thinking about it is too Recently I've gotten semi-hooked on watching exercise DVDs. I've probably spent more time with them than with movies. Which is embarassing, but maybe worth a blog posting ...

Paul -- 40 can be a great age, can't it? You're still peppy, still reasonably limber. You still have a sharp mind that you can push around. But you have some experience, and life has begun to make a little more sense. Power plus comprehension is a nice combo. Funny lines about energy levels. I never thought of myself as having much energy until I lost some of what I had with the operation. My energy levels, or the ones I'm aware of, seem to correspond to 1) being a kid 2) being a teen 3) my twenties, and then 4) right up to my late 40s and my operation. That 3 period was pretty darn nice. Now that I look back on it ...

Onetwothree -- Amazing price, no? I wonder how many people pay retail, and how many are like me, scrambling by on trainees and group classes. I sometimes dream of how lovely it'd be to be rich, and have a personal trainer workout every day, followed by an hour massage every day. Or maybe an hour and a half massage every day. I bet I'd feel mighty good.

Tatyana -- I keep wondering about the impact on the massage world of all those "Tui-Na" massage places that have been turning up in the last 5 years. Conventional massage people were charging an awful lot (sometimes over $100 for an hour's rubdown). And here come these little Chinese women, charing $45. Suddenly there's competition. Sounds like the plumbing world could use some too.

James M. -- Given what a load of hooey yoga strikes you as, I'm amazed you were able to endure it for as long as you did. Glad to learn you're enjoying your new routine, though ...

Jonathan -- Tks!

WhiskyPrajer -- Dance does seem like it'd be a good way to get some inside-out activity and work up a sweat. As old and broken-down as I am and feel these days, every now and then a song comes along that makes me jump up and flail about happily. Nothing quite like Motown for a blast of sheer funky happiness. Embarassing as I am as a dancer, of course ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 20, 2006 10:59 AM



Ah, Michael, but there is a difference between my plumber and your Chinese massagist: a city license.

Just a few weeks ago a great Chinese acupuncture/massage place 1 block from me was closed by ever-present authorities (yeah, it's all for public good!)- these women weren't officially certified.

Your personal gym/out of gym history sounds like you're a perfect candidate for the spas. A plus: you can attend with the Wife, and they will customise the program for each of you.
I can't believe it: "bliss" is your favorite word and you're not a spa maniac!? Inconceivable!

Posted by: Tatyana on February 20, 2006 11:39 AM



As a dedicated runner/hiker occasional weightlifter, I found this post scary and depressing. I just have always counted on my body and physical exertion as a refuge, a source of relaxation and reconnection and a storehouse of energy. Of course I know *intellectually* this will go away at some point, but to see it described so thoughtfully and well is...scary, as I said. Like an advance preview of death. Sorry, Michael, nothing personal, in fact my negative reaction is a product of your writing skills.

Posted by: MQ on February 20, 2006 3:01 PM



Yikes, Michael, I sound like a moron! Lots of people work long hours and, and, and.....I was venting. I just needed to vent :)

Anyway, the trainer knows and we have a varied routine and some days I go full throttle, and some days I say: I need to do this slow. Really slow. We do lots of abs excercises, light weight lifting with free weights and sometimes the machine, lots of medicine ball stuff and those stretchy, stringy things? You know, those big elastic rubber band things! My trainer will laugh and laugh that I can't name them - anyway, I sort of go with the flow and we switch excercises if things seem to much. Plus, it's a private place that only does personal training so it's quiet and small and clean and family-like. I can't take the whole gym atmosphere - it makes me tired. But working out in a quiet, peaceful room with one person, laughing, chatting, trying different excercises and taking it slow. Perfect.

*Boy, I sure did sound whiny with the work stuff. I sit at a microscope all day and talk to residents and fellows and teach and cajole and laugh and sometimes 'yell': it's kind of a joy, except when it's not.

Posted by: MD on February 20, 2006 5:27 PM



From Robert Sapolsky's _Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers_ (3rd edition, 1st Owl Books edition. Henry Holt, 2004) page 401:

"Exercise is stress reducing so long as it is something you actually want to do. Let rats voluntarily run in a running wheel and their health improves in all sorts of ways. Force them to, even while playing great dance music, and their health worsens."

Posted by: Dave Lull on February 27, 2006 9:39 AM






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