September 5, 2020

My Aging Body

Watching (and feeling) my body age is not much fun. Bags, sags, and wrinkles are what I see. A loss of muscle mass means the rear end seems to have left town, the area under the biceps wobbles more than is proper. And, what's with that stuff under my chin?



Starting in mid-April, I really found I missed the gym. My regular schedule is three days a week for cardio and weight-bearing exercises. For one brief period in June, it reopened. Then, a worsening of Covid cases in Arizona shut it down. Just three weeks ago, the state said it was OK to reopen..again. Frankly, my energy level and body is a testament to the importance of regular exercise.

Even so, there is no halting the cosmic joke of decay that is my future. Indeed, the time spent in physical activity means that inevitable slippage is occurring more slowly than in someone whose only exercise is using a TV remote. And, for folks with serious medical issues, my complaints seem petty.

But, the point is simple: I must make peace with what is happening. Obsessing about my aging body and erosion of capabilities only leads to frustration or, even worse, resignation. Even if I spent several hours a day on my physical conditioning, I might slow the ticking clock a bit, but I am not going to stop it.

A couple we know are several years younger than Betty and me. They think nothing of biking a dozen miles before breakfast, running up and down the side of a mountain, or hiking for longer distances than I like to drive. Heavens, I get tired just hearing about their exploits. No, really, I enjoy hearing about what they do, but I won't try to replicate all of it. Our energy levels and physical conditioning are different. What I also will not do is just give in to my body's slippage.

So, how do I make peace with an aging body? In a word: acceptance. The amount of money Americans spend on trying to look young and deny reality is staggering. In 2019 Boomers spent over $120 billion on anti-aging products and procedures.

We have all seen the older man with a comb-over that starts just above one ear, or the woman with so much plastic surgery her face is tight enough to bounce a quarter. We probably all spend some money on vitamins and supplements that most studies show are unnecessary if we have a decent diet and exercise regime. Too many of us join a gym, go for a few months, and then stop for a whole variety of excuses. Or, we find an exercise app or Youtube channel, get all enthused, and then slip back into old habits.

My hair is thinning, and there is some serious scalp showing on the crown of my head. In fact, my eyebrows and ears show more aggressive hair growth than my head. Rogaine, for me to fill in the gaps? No. This is what my head is supposed to look like at this stage of my life, thinning hair and all.

Can I bench press my weight? No. I am lucky to bench press my gym bag.

Can I run a marathon? No. Do I want to run a marathon? No.

Is my pulse, heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood work, and lung capacity all good? Yes.

Do I intend to continue to go to the gym for thrice-weekly workouts now that it has safely reopened? Yes.

I accept the reality of the limitations that an aging body imposes on me today. Hopefully, I will be smart enough to do the same as the calendar marches on, and I can avoid this fellow's fate for as long as possible.




40 comments:

  1. Why did you stop exercising just because the gym was closed? For retired people especially, I don't understand why regular daily exercise isn't part of their lifestyle. It's certainly not because they don't have the time. All it takes is a half hour daily power walk... enough that gets your heart pumping to within 70% of it's maximum for at least 20 minutes, and another half hour of strength exercises. It's easy to buy some inexpensive stretch bands for a home kit, and of course there are lots of different strength conditioning exercises that don't require any equipment at all.

    Exercise is proven to help with a myriad of physical (and mental) problems. And it's never too late to start.

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    1. Of course you are right. While walking outside in a Phoenix summer can be deadly, in-home options abound. I did use a stretch band, but it wasn't an adequate substitute. A closed gym was a convenient excuse, and a prompt to write this post.

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  2. The acceptance of the limitations of aging without giving up all together is a tricky balance. I am becoming more aware each day that there's only a limited time left, of both decent health and in the absolute sense. I am conscious that anything I want to do, like trips or once-in-a-lifetime experiences, would be better done sooner rather than later. I am in my late 60s, so not too old, but in 10 years I'll be almost 80 and after age 80 it seems to me that additional years are more likely to be in single digits than not. Talk about hearing my biological clock ticking!

    Pre-Covid I went twice a week to the gym working with a personal trainer and hiked with a 55+ hiking group twice a week. Our gyms have been closed since mid-March and the gym I go to is opening next Tuesday, the day after Labour Day, but even then it's by appointment only and no personal trainers. The hiking group is slowly, cautiously, getting going again but with no car pooling and hiking loops only the hikes aren't what they used to be. I have, however, been able to convince 2 friends to accompany me so I can hike the last 130km (81 miles) to complete my end-to-end hike of the 900km long Bruce Trail here in Ontario. I am looking forward to that.

    I am the kind of person that needs a bit of motivation to get going which is why I use a trainer at the gym and why I joined a group to hike with. These things can be done on your own but left to my own devices I tend to find excuses not to. That said I have been walking 6-7km (about 4 miles) near our house most days but it's solitary and not particularly challenging, it's just walking around the neighbourhood really. Here's hoping the virus stays relatively under control so I can once again hike in nature regularly with friends.

    This year, for the first time, I am having someone to come in to trim our tall (over 10 feet) cedar hedges that completely surround our yard. For the last 33 years I've done them myself but the last couple of years I have found it more and more tiring. In my younger days I used to do it over a single 3 day weekend, then over 3 separate weekends. Now my wife has finally convinced me that as I am getting on for 70 climbing up the ladder with my gas powered heavy duty trimmer was best left to someone younger.

    My head says I am still 35 but for some reason my body doesn't listen. Logically we all know this is going to happen but when that day arrives it comes as a surprise all the same. I’m not sure why that is.

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    1. I know it sounds like an excuse, but summers in Phoenix make virtually any outdoor activity difficult, if not dangerous. That is why having the gym closed during this time of year was harmful for me. If I were writing this in the winter months, the closing would have had much less of an impact.

      Like you, Betty and I know there is a window of opportunity that is closing for more vigorous or extensive trips. I am so happy we had the RV experience that started eight year ago (and ended 4+ years later). Driving a large rig and the physical aspects of RV living would now be enough to lessen the enjoyment.

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  3. I'm a realist, and I understand that the aging process is both normal and inevitable. But I'm striving for "compression of morbidity." ("Morbidity" is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a diseased state or symptom: ill health.") Compression of morbidity is a phrase coined by Dr. James Fries back in 1980 and, in its most basic definition, it means living illness-free for as long as possible, thereby compressing the period of disability at the end of life into as short a time as possible. (For a much better and thorough explanation: https://www.verywellhealth.com/compression-of-morbidity-2223626.)

    Basically, even though I know there's nothing I can do to permanently stem the aging process, by maintaining a healthy lifestyle I'm hoping to remain active, injury-free and illness-free as long as possible. Hopefully, my efforts at eating well, getting adequate sleep and exercising daily will translate to extra years of being well, mobile and able to enjoy my favorite activities. Aging may be inevitable, but there's no way I'll give in without a fight.

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    1. Exactly... well said Mary. This exact thinking is what is espoused in the popular book Younger Next Year. The authors say that most people who make the right lifestyle choices (diet and exercise) can live as a 60 year old well into their 80's before there is a steep drop off shortly before the inevitable death.

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    2. I like the concept of 'compression of morbidity.' That is really a sensible way to express what many of us hope to achieve.

      Kevin, I will look for the book you mentioned, and Mary, I will look at the web site you mention.

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  4. 3-4 years ago I signed up at the YMCA to work with a personal trainer four days a week for strength training. Worked out all summer long, lost 25 pounds and felt stronger but I hated every minute of it, felt like I was wasting too much time on vanity. I realized that all my life I've gotten the most satisfaction out of doing things that produces something concrete for the time spent---be it a piece of furniture made from scratch or a quilt. Too much guilt came with the gym.

    As it turned out I REALLY shouldn't have done it because I damaged an elbow surgery I had twenty years ago, popped one screw out altogether and another half way out holding the bones together and now I have to pay for that on a daily basis. Seeing the bone doctor next week who's been tracking the damage since it happened at the gym because the pain is no longer just when I forget not to pick stuff but is constantly giving me needles-and-pins. Time for Plan B.

    When I was in my 20s I also spent a summer working with a trainer and took my share of exercise classes in between then and now but I just never caught the satisfaction that others feel about working out. Exercise, for me, feels more like punishment.

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    1. Wow, that sounds painful. Best of luck with the bone doctor next week! Betty had a bolt in her ankle that started shifting after 20 years; it made her life miserable until she had it removed about 18 months ago.

      I go to the gym because it does increase my energy level and I have less pain in my shoulders and hips, but not because I enjoy it. I do not.

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  5. As Kevin Read says, going to a gym has never been necessary for me to be physically active although I do agree with ddavidson that organized exercise is a good motivator. I am a great believer in what i call functional exercise. I want to be able to do my 2 acres of yard/garden work and housework without help. So far so good. I found the transition from my winter routine to spring work took more out of me this year and I'm committed to "training" for that next year. As for the physical decline in aging, I accept the loosening of the collagen and the "chromed" hair. I'm going into the last few decades of my life without any illness or medication and enough functional physicality to be very happy I'm still here.

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    1. Going into the last few decades of life in relatively good shape and not dependent on pills to keep you going is an excellent place to be, Mona.

      I stopped yard work four or five years ago when Betty refused to watch me cutting the lawn and trimming bushes in 110 degree heat. I quickly agreed. I don't want to collapse while pushing a mower or worrying about the shape of a bougainvillea bush.

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  6. I am a huge fan of weight training and I think that too many people only walk or do aerobics without paying attention to the strength component. I will ever love exercise but I do it, and I notice when I don't do it. I do agree with Kevin that one does not need the gym although some of us need to exercise with others in order to get going, be motivated and have fun. After finding silver sneakers and a host of other exercises on Utube I may never return to the gym again now that I have hand weights, bands and an exercise ball except to use the pool. Unfortuntately, some of us have disabilities that are genetic and or not necesarily lifestyle related (raising hand) that some times contribute to the other issue. I have a family history of early and severe bone degeneration. Any exercise I do is to hold me in place. I also have lifestyle issues, some of which are my own issue (sugar addiction) and some arise from the handicapp side. Like Mona and others, my goal in exercising is to do everything I can do without help and for myself (I may pay for it some day, but because I'm lazy, not because I cannot) indefinitely.. Mainly I can do that wih a llitle help from things like long handled bathtub scrubbers and a broom and dustpan that don't require bending over. Never again will I scrub the floor on my hands and needs. In other ways I accept the natural parts of aging. White hair, generally moving slower, some energy drop, loosening skin and the like. I have no desire to look fifty at sixty eight, but I want to look a damned good sixty eight (almost sixty nine).

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    1. I need the gym environment to really motivate me. Maybe it is the sight of all those 20-somethings that keeps me pumping. I completely agree that weight training is important. I am not looking for bulging arms and legs, just flexibility. So, more reps at lower weights.

      Silver Sneakers is a tremendous program if your health plan offers it and your gym accepts it.

      We just returned from a mini-vacation in the woods near Flagstaff. Too much meat and not enough greens or fruit made me feel sluggish. Back home last night for a dinner of a salad and oranges! That is more sensible.

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    2. Unfortunately my health plan doesn't not offer it. I did find about fifty silver sneakers shows on YouTube from the full program to some two minute drills. I do find the gym.to be a social experience in the extreme.

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  7. works for your mind and body is a key to staying healthy. I've NEVER liked the gym...but I do love getting outside and moving my body. Of course I have noticed that it now necessary to stretch and strengthen certain parts of my body more specifically than when I was younger. But perhaps more important that exercising and how each of us does it is recognizing that our bodies are changing and that while we want to be as healthy and have as much "compression of morbidity" as possible, every body is different so how that happens depends on many conditions out of our control. So, I try to do what I can and accept what I can't change. Hmmmm...sounds like the serenity prayer applies doesn't it? ~Kathy

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    1. Yes, very much like the serenity prayer! The SMART approach (!) is do what you can but don't stress over not being able to do what you did 20 years ago. Match the use of your body to your abilities and status....sort of like the financial rule of living within your means.

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  8. Compression of morbidity sounds perfect to me. Thanks Mary. I do not believe in life extension through exercise. The ages of my grandparents, parents and in laws at death: 84,85,88,91,88,87,91 & 91 and still going. I guarantee none of these people exercised or even ate what would be considered a healthy diet. Good genes and good luck are the largest factors. I will admit though even with these facts staring me in the face I do walk over 4 miles everyday. Walking is very enjoyable and just maybe I can put off the worst effects of aging till the very end.

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    1. Four miles a day does you (and anyone) a world of good. Not only are the muscles and joints worked, but fresh air, deep breathing, and enjoying nature equal a win-win.

      My mom died at 84 after a whole raft of issues. But, Dad made 91, and my grandmother hit 92. We will see.

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    2. Fred, I honestly don't like regular exercise (I can't make it through my morning strength training and stretches without a good playlist going), but I do believe in its power to extend our lives. As Barb mentioned, when I don't exercise, I feel the difference. I notice it in my flexibility and in my energy level. I believe that older generations had much more physical activity built into their lives than we have now. More of them were gardening, milking cows and raising animals for sustenance, kneading bread, washing floors on their hands and knees, jacking up cars and agricultural equipment to make repairs, etc. Back in the day, they didn't have to work at exercising like we do today; life itself was hard work. Plus, they probably weren't drinking soda or enjoying restaurant burgers and wings that are so easily accessed in today's society. Like you, I enjoy walking, among other outdoor activities. It's good exercise that can be adjusted for age and ability and done almost anywhere.

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  9. As several others have said, strength training is a keystone habit as you age. Preserving muscle mass (while simultaneously "waking up" your bones) makes everyday tasks (groceries, grandchild play, etc.) much easier, lessens the chance of falling, improves sleep, strengthens the heart, and postpones cognitive decline. Skeletal muscle is "expensive" tissue for the body to maintain, so it's prioritized in young people and supported by growth hormones. Unless you do resistance work, you'll inevitably lose some muscle every year beginning in your late 20's. This high-intensity work is no fun, but you can get all the exercise you need in 20 minutes, once a week.

    I highly recommend "Body by Science" by McGuff & Little. (Their "Big 5" movements are push up (shoulder press), pull down, push out (chest press), pull in (row), and leg press. I've done this weekly routine for several years, with remarkable results.

    Let's compress that morbidity!

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    1. Mary has given us a new phrase (compression of morbidity) that seems to capture what we want to accomplish very well.

      I use weight machines to ease the pain of bursitis in my shoulders, hip adductor and abductor machines to help flexibility and lessen lower back pain, as well as weights to keep the triceps from becoming too flabby.

      I will take a look at he Body by Science book you reference.

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  10. Bob, I discovered both a physical and an emotional loss when the gyms closed earlier in the year. For many years I have gone to the gym 4-6 days a week (depending on schedule and instructor changes at my gym’s group fitness classes). My motivating anchor being group indoor cycling classes, with some strength training thrown in prior to class a few days each week. The cycling classes certainly were excellent for my physical conditioning, but they were also a key supplement to my social life. In addition to the usual pre and post workout conversations that always occurred, our group maintained their own Facebook page for communication, scheduled Happy Hours at neighborhood Pubs/Restaurants and even had occasional post-ride breakfasts at a local Taco place. I never “dreaded” going to the gym. Some days I was tired. Some days I was sore. Some days I just could not work as hard as I would have liked. But I enjoyed going to the gym because I would be meeting my friends. Even on a day without the cycling class, chances were good that I’d see someone from one of the classes at the gym doing a non-cycling workout.

    When the virus struck and the gyms closed down I was surprised at how much I missed both the physical exercise and the social interactions. When the gyms reopened in my area (without any group fitness classes) I started going for workouts again, but after about 3-4 weeks I decided that the crowds and the lack of social distancing inside the gym was not something that I was comfortable with, so I stopped going. After trying several different approaches I have found some things that I can do for exercise, but I have not found any solutions for the lack of socializing.

    Now I do Peloton cycling most days, workout with a couple of sets of dumbbells when I can force myself to do it, use resistance bands reluctantly, and walk in the neighborhood on most days….I live in Texas, so we also have issues with heat in the summer. I’m doing OK on getting exercise, though it’s not enough to completely offset my two main vices: pizza and wine. But what I really miss are my gym buddies.

    I would love to get back to going to the gym and taking my group fitness classes again. Maybe next year. Maybe.

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    1. Thanks for mentioning the social aspects that you receive at the gym. That is something I hadn't considered since that isn't part of my reason for going, but I can understand how its loss would be a blow.

      Except for a few dumbbells (the people, not the weights) who insist on wearing a mask below the nose, my place is being quite strict about both mask and social distancing. The last time they were not, and that is one of the reasons they were shut down in June for the second time.

      Weight machines and treadmills have every other piece of equipment shut off, and half the weight benches are gone. Sure, friends still spot each other and young men and women flirt up close, but overall I feel pretty safe.

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    2. Bob, I like your gym’s rules. Unfortunately, my gym only requires staff to wear masks; almost no gym members wear them. The treadmills and ellipticals have every other machine taped off, but weight machines and weight benches are next to each other and being fully used.

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  11. I started wearing black socks the other day. For some reason, I had always gone by the idea that only white athletic socks would do. Now that I'm in my early 60's, I am finding that it is time to let go of some of the ideas I had lived by in my active and athletic younger days. My wife didn't like my black socks and let me know about it. However, I have found them to be very comfortable and my feet actually feel more happy in my shoes because the black socks are a little thicker than the athletic socks I had been wearing so religiously all those years. I still work out with weights (in my home) three times per week and walk every week day. It works for me. The change in socks was a long time coming but I have now begun to accept the inevitable decline in my once athletic body. It is about being realistic, managing the aches and pains while still getting out there and doing the best I can with a focus on enjoying it more so than competing or trying to live up to some impossible image.

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    1. That is an interesting observation. Changing socks that are thicker and more comfortable, even if the color doesn't please everyone, is an example of making adjustments to better accommodate our changing bodies and lifestyle. Thanks for adding this to our discussion. I like the fact that you found something that worked better for you and made the switch.

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  12. I ride an e-bike every morning at 6 a.m. in Tucson's summer. I follow the directions of my physical therapist to preserve my back and my hips. I wish the fitness center was open but I know it will be, eventually. My husband Art went to Seattle twice this summer to do the electrical work on our remodel project. He hurt his back because he hadn't maintained physical conditioning. Still, he was doing what he loved. And that's the most important thing, I think. Find what you love and do it. You're going to age no matter what, unless you pass away. We are all in this together, aren't we?

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    1. So, are Art's days acting in plays in Tucson over? I remember how much fun he had doing that a few years back.

      "Find what you love and do it." Yep. That about sums it up. Keeping ourselves in the best shape we can is important, but not to the point where we are afraid to do something that we enjoy. And, we will all leave this earth at some point, so enjoy all we can while still here!

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  13. My problem is that I find exercise is extremely boring. I have tried running, walking, the gym, the bike. The next more boring than the last. My solution? I play games: golf, tennis, ping pong, pickleball. However, every solution brings new problems. Now I spend half an hour a day doing knee and back exercises to manage the one-time injuries caused by the other sports (which I continue to play). So the one thing I have accepted as I age: you can't win for losin'!

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    1. Yes, exercising is boring for me, too. I've tried watching the TV screen attached to the treadmill or listening to music on the phone. It is still a long slog to get through 30 minutes of walking in place!

      Thanks for mentioning sports as a way to keep active, muscle toned, and flexibility increased. If your body can still do those things, that is certainly more enjoyable than being inside a gym.

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  14. Since we moved in June, I've been struggling to replace my 3 mile walking loop. I'm almost there, but must admit the only way I can motivate myself to get out there is to listen to podcasts or audio books. I guess whatever works. And now that we're getting more settled, I'm going to add some strength training into the mix. I have some genetic arthritis and find that I ache more without exercise.

    As for aging, it's more obvious whenever I look in the mirror, but I'm not one to invite unnecessary needles or surgeries. God knows, we have enough medical intervention from things we need. My mom is 88 and still going strong, so I know I need to keep moving, too. That said, that's only 21 years older than I am, which if I really think about it, isn't that far off in the big picture. I guess denial is a friend now, too. Ha!

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    1. I only look in the mirror if I absolutely have to. The reflection I see is not what I still look like in my mind's eye.

      Yes, what seemed like forever in the future isn't that far. In your case, it is years you are away from where you mom is now. In my case I have almost the same gap between my age today and when my dad died. Sometimes that is hard to accept.

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  15. I have found I need a specific goal in order to stay motivated when it comes to exercising, something beyond “I want to feel better” or “I want to lose weight.” Brett and I have committed ourselves to walking all 102 miles of the Cotswolds Way in 2022 (when hopefully the pandemic will be behind us). There are days when we’ll have to walk over 10 miles, so that’s what we’re working up to. We walk every day, and are at a point where we get restless if we can’t get out and walk. We are lucky to live in a place where we can get outside almost every day, and be rewarded with beautiful views as well - it helps. I’m also having fun discovering walking tours around the world - just found a company that does them in Japan!

    As for my aging body, back in my mid-40s there was a machine at the science museum in Portland that took your picture and then “aged” you up to 80. My picture back then didn’t change at all, all the way up to 80. Yikes! The happy result though has been that I’m finally starting to look younger than my age. I have minor aches and pains these days but I’m dealing with them and so far there’s been nothing that’s grounded me.

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    1. Walking to or from Bath on the Cotswolds Way sounds absolutely beautiful. That is a tremendous goal. Betty wants to go back to England in the worst way. She has discovered ancestors dating back to the 15th century. She wants to find their castles and what she can about their lives.

      I have tried specific goals before in terms of physical health and maintenance; they don't seem to work well for me. So, I just plod forward and celebrate small victories.

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  16. I look at mh parents and say I'm going to be different. I don't want the aches and pains as I age. But I know it's my fate unless I take charge of it. Easier said than done. Good for you to make the gym a priority. I find getting started is the toughest part and I'm working on developing some good habits. Not going to the gym but walking outside and on the treadmill. Working my way up to some weights and other resistance work. One step at a time.

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    1. It truly is all about "one step at a time." I send you encouragement to keep you on track (or the treadmill). It is not easy.

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  17. I can honestly say that in most ways, I don’t mind aging. But Bob, you put your finger on one thing that bothers the heck out of me — becoming less physically capable. I’ve always been fairly athletic (despite my sedentary career). I find it distressing that I’m no longer very strong or energetic. I walk, hike, and do yoga every week. I garden and do some cycling and swimming, and am planning to add kayaking to my list of activities. In the winter we ski and we bought season’s passes for 20-21. I also occasionally cross-country ski and skate. But the duration of each activity and the vigour with which I do it continues to diminish. Hikes are shorter and on easier terrain. Injuries happen so much more often and take a long time to heal. For example, this June I pulled something in my lower back while weeding the garden, and I had to abandon weeding for 6 weeks. I love riding my mountain bike, but I can’t manage hills very well anymore. My arthritic knee swells up if I hike or ski or cycle too intensely. I want to wail, “it’s not fair!” Having a little trouble with acceptance...

    Jude

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    1. You may be having problems with acceptance of the degradation of your strength and recuperative powers, but he list of what you still do is more than impressive. Cut yourself some slack. This is an activities list any of us would be proud to match.

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  18. I think it's fantastic that you demonstrate the mental facility of acceptance and understanding of one's body. As of late I have changed my focus from aesthetic training to running. The health of my heart is now much more important to me than having a muscular upper body. I want longevity so that I can possibly enjoy more time with my daughter in the future and so my mentality has taken a major shift when it comes to how I work out.

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    1. I want to live long and prosper for my wife, daughters, son-in-law, and grandkids. They are worth the effort to do what I can to stay upright and breathing for as long as possible.

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