August 17, 2015 by Jean
The 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 MyFitnessPal.com 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.