Negotiating an Aging Body


August 17, 2015 by Jean

imageThe year I was fifty, after a lifetime of exceptionally good health, I found myself facing a series of medical issues – a visit to the emergency room with sudden and unexplained abdominal pain, my first (but not last) course of physical therapy for a herniated disc in my spine, major surgery, and a serious cancer diagnosis. During one of many visits to the radiology department at the hospital, I suggested to the technician that having a body that had turned fifty was sort of like having a car that had just turned 100,000 miles; all kinds of systems that had previously given unremarkable service suddenly started breaking down and needing repairs.

Now in my late sixties, I am realizing that if turning 50 is like an odometer reading of 100,000 miles, turning 70 is like rolling over 200,000 miles. With a car, you might be tempted at that point to just junk it in favor of a new model – but that option isn’t available for the aging body. Sooner or later, most of us need to figure out how to live with our aging bodies. All of this is a process of negotiation – between our expectations and our reality, between our minds and our bodies, between our medical providers and ourselves.

My own negotiations with and about my aging body mostly revolve around my spine, where chronic problems with arthritis and disc degeneration occasionally flare into pain radiating down my arm or leg from pinched nerves in the neck or lower back. As a person solely responsible for the care and feeding of a rural house, I need a healthy back in order to keep living here. I know that I will someday have to give up my much-loved house and garden, but I’m trying to put that off as long as possible.

My goal is to prevent acute episodes of spinal pain. I spend about 30 minutes each day doing a set of back stretching and strengthening exercises that I have assembled from several courses of physical therapy. Making the time for this even when I don’t feel like it is part of my negotiation with my aging body. Another part is not to overdo activities that stress my back. Recently, I had a flare-up of pain radiating down my leg severe enough to keep me from sleeping well or from getting out for my morning walk. Then, over several days, the pain gradually went away. When I analyzed the situation, I realized that the pain began after several days of heavy work digging my new flower bed and subsided when I laid off this work for several days in a row. This led to a new negotiated agreement with my body: I am not willing to give up gardening, but I will limit heavy gardening work to no more than two hours at a time, will always take at least one day off between garden work days, and will limit those heavy work days to two or three in a week.

I know that I can also reduce the wear and tear on my body by reducing the weight I am carrying around. I have struggled with weight for years and, when I try to lose weight, the disparity between my very healthy appetite and the number of calories I actually need gets me in trouble. A few weeks ago, inspired by Kathy Merlino’s post about this topic at Kathy’s Retirement Blog, I signed up at and began tracking my eating and exercise.  I began by entering my current weight, my desired weight, and how quickly I wanted to lose the difference (in my case, a half-pound per week). With that information, MyFitnessPal calculated how many calories I could eat per day. I blanched when I first saw that calorie allowance, which is far less than I normally eat. It turns out, however, that when you log exercise, the program figures out how many calories you have burned and adds those to your food allowance for the day. That is one of my favorite features of MyFitnessPal; it provides a great incentive to get out and exercise even when I don’t feel like it! I have two other favorite features: First is the extensive database of food and exercise. It’s almost always possible to find the food I ate or the exercise that I’ve been doing (it even includes gardening!), making the process of logging food and exercise very easy. Second, because I love to cook, I love the recipe box. When I cook something, I enter the ingredients and how many servings those ingredients are divided into, and MyFitnessPal figures out the nutritional information for the recipe and saves it so that the information is available whenever I eat that dish. With the help of MyFitnessPal, I am eating less, exercising more, seeing results, and not feeling deprived.

A recent annual visit with my primary care physician assistant, followed by a series of MRIs of my spine, brought home to me that my rural lifestyle is most vulnerable to problems with this part of my aging body. Since I can’t trade in my body for a new model, I am trying to negotiate compromises and practices that will help me keep my house and garden as long as possible.

17 thoughts on “Negotiating an Aging Body

  1. Jeanette Gomez | iSeniorSolutions says:

    Reblogged this on

  2. All too true. We should retire when we’re young and well enough to enjoy it.

    • Jean says:

      John, I have mixed feelings about this sentiment. On the one hand, I understand and agree with the admonition not to put off the things you want to do in life so long that you can no longer do them. On the other hand, I don’t want to buy into the ageism that youth is better, happier, more enjoyable than older age. My goal is to enjoy every year of my life, keeping in mind that the sources of enjoyment may change over time. When I was in my thirties, I got a lot of enjoyment from backpacking. I’m glad I did it then, because my days of strapping 40-50 pounds on my back and carrying it up and down mountains are over! But that doesn’t mean that I can’t discover new sources of enjoyment (I didn’t get into gardening in a serious way until my fifties).
      My younger sister once suggested (via a humorous birthday card) that people like me who think life gets better as you get older are delusional. Maybe she’s right; time will tell (but, in the meantime, I’m enjoying believing that life is going to continue to get better 😉 ).

      • Jean, you’re right, of course. It’s too easy for me to give in to the fallacy that getting older is all downhill. In many ways, we improve as we age. We gain knowledge and have the experience to put it into perspective. I really don’t want to be a teenager again.

        • Jean says:

          I shudder at the thought of having to remain a teenager forever — seems like a version of hell!

        • It is, but it’s only one of at least seven or eight levels of hell. After the teen years are over, one still might have to contend with failure at college, career failure, addiction, mental illness, physical trauma, divorce, death of a child . . . stop me before I make us all depressed.

  3. Diana Studer says:

    years ago an older colleague said she wished we could get spare parts for our bodies, like cars. And yet, we become the bionic generation. I have my first dental crown – which I guess is better than the false teeth my 1906 father had when he was a student. His father wrote to him – wear your second-best teeth for rugby!

    • Jean says:

      Diana, Love the story about your father. I’ve had dental crowns (more than one) since I was in my forties. Soon, I’ll need to get replacement lenses for my eyes. But I’m inclined to resist replacement parts for my spine — too many stories of people who had more back pain after the surgery than before. But I think we’re lucky to be part of a generation with so many available options for replacing worn parts!

  4. Carole says:

    Great post; love the analogy to a car with a lot of mileage!

    I admire your practical approach to the inevitable aging process. For a while, I was using fitbit to track my exercise and food intake. My weight is OK, but I wanted to fine tune my eating habits to eat more nutritiously. It worked, and while I no longer use the food tracker, my eating habits have changed for the better, with more calcium, more fiber and more fruits and veggies. And I feel better! By focusing on improved quality of what I was eating, I found my self eating less “junk”. I still crave chocolate, and have found room for a little every day 😊

    • Jean says:

      Carole, Are you telling me that chocolate is not one of the foundation foods for good nutrition? How could I have misunderstood that all these years?!? I agree, though, that a little chocolate every day is a good thing; the trick is to keep those portions little.

  5. Jean R. says:

    I can identify with this post big time. I have bone/back issues, too, and realized reading this that I need to be more proactive with doing exercise to strengthen my back muscles. Thanks for writing about this!

    • Jean says:

      Jean, One of the things I like about physical therapy is that they always give you exercises to do at home. My strengthening exercises are actually for the abdomen and thighs (so that the back doesn’t have to do so much of the work), and I also have stretching exercises for my back.

  6. I am currently in this negotiation as I near 60. Back and joint issues, hernia issues and other health problems has me rethinking how much gardening I can do and take on in the future…it is a constant negotiation and I have been struggling with weight loss as well. I have changed the food I eat and now exercise I need to get back to….stress from years of work took its toll and I am still healing from that. It is a constant vigilance to keep our bodies healthy enough to manage aging. My next house will have no steps.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, At this point my negotiated contract with my back of limiting heavy work to no more than two hours at a time, never two days in a row, and no more than 3 days a week seems to be working. (Of course, my primary care practitioner may disagree when I see her tomorrow to discuss my MRI results. 😐 )

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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