One of the things that concerns me the most about aging is staying physically fit in a moderate, healthy and effective way. A dual focus of that concern is keeping my arms and back in shape while strengthening my core; the first so that I do not have the dreaded “bingo wings” and the second to reduce and prevent chronic back pain.
I am never going to be one of those middle-aged people who suddenly start training for the Iron Man or engaging in extreme sports. I’m never going to bike 40km/day or walk for hours, join a softball team or aerobics class. I work on a computer for a living and all of the volunteer and side projects that take up the rest of my time also involve sitting, usually also on a computer. Finding a spare hour or two to devote to exercise each day is such a exhausting thought that that alone is enough to keep me from even trying.
When we were in our thirties, my husband and I decided to rent a farmhouse for a couple of years, with visions of long walks in the country, beautiful clean air, fields and forests to explore – all the outdoor activities we could never do in the big city. What I discovered instead was coyotes, allergens, wildly unsafe drivers, and insects, plus the necessity of driving to get any supplies, all of which were successful deterrents from living out our active lifestyle daydreams to the extent we had wanted to.
Instead of walking two blocks to the subway, down the stairs, standing on the train, walking up the stairs and two more blocks to work, I was walking 100 ft, getting into a car and driving for two hours, only to park and walk maybe another 100 ft to the office and desk where I would sit for the rest of the day. At 5pm, reverse that process and I would proceed to sit at home all evening. Occasionally I would work from home for periods of time so even that 200 ft walk to the car wasn’t there. The winters were so cold we merely huddled in toques and long johns and double sweaters in the kitchen near the wood stove to save on heating oil. No one wants to work out in that environment.
Not surprisingly, I gained nearly 35 pounds. I had never been more than five pounds overweight before in my life. My diet had not radically changed; it was simply caused by my near-total inactive lifestyle. And the two most disturbing things (amongst many) that emerged from personal weight gain and lethargy was – you guessed it – bingo wings and back pain. Fat, flabby arms and a state of permanent discomfort. Aces.
Anyone who has experienced chronic pain knows that it alone is reason enough to feel like you cannot exercise. The obstacles the countryside provided, combined with the time and effort of driving into town to go the gym, plus my busy but sedentary professional and volunteer life, added further support to the internal argument to not work out.
Eventually we decided to move back to the city, where the city itself would force us to get more exercise than we were able to get in the countryside. We moved into the opposite of a 100 year old farmhouse: a fancy (but small) condo in the core of the city, complete with pool, gym, harbourfront paths, etc. At first I used the gym and pool with gusto, but like so many others, I found that to be a time-consuming hassle as well, and soon I barely went at all. Yet I still had the drive to work out; I would think, if I could just work out, right now, just a bit, then I would – but changing my clothes, going down to the gym, waiting for the machines, having to shower, even longer if I swim first… who has time for that?
It was then that I realized in order to get myself back into a physical state I considered healthy, I needed two things: Accidental Exercise and Instant Exercise.
Accidental exercise is a pretty easy thing to find in the city. It involves having to go somewhere, like work, and figuring out a way to do it that forces you to exert more energy than you might normally have to. Like walking an extra bus or subway stop or two, taking stairs instead of elevators. It’s pretty easy to suddenly have accomplished a total of a 30-60 minute brisk walk in your day without even noticing.
Once walking became too easy and I wanted to get places faster, I joined a bikeshare program, where you can pick up a bike at one location and just drop it off a one of the dozens peppered throughout the city. The docks are close enough together that you can get in a good ride without getting sweaty, then just walk to another one to cool down. It wasn’t long before I was back in shape, my cholesterol was down, and I felt great, all through the accidental exercise of simply needing to get places.
Instant exercise is even easier to get. One day last year I saw a woman, who was only a couple of years older than me and not even overweight, wearing a tank top and displaying what can only be called my living nightmare of flabby, muscle-free arms. I was so horrified that the minute I got home I dropped to the floor and did ten pushups. And by *did* of course, I mean *struggled* after six and giving up on eight with wobbly, shaky arms, filled with shame that I could no longer do ten pushups.
But the amazing thing was that it took under ten seconds to do that, I wasn’t dripping in sweat, I was able to just continue on with my evening and get on my computer. When I next got up to go to the washroom, I dropped and did eight more pushups. I did that another time throughout the evening.
The next day I was in pain, but it was that delicious sort of pain you get from properly working out your arms. I did a set before I got in the shower, one when I got out, and one before I left for work. Total disruption of my life so far: under 30 seconds. I did one when I got home, one part-way through the evening, and one before I went to bed.
Within a week I was doing reps of ten, within two months I was doing reps of twenty, and now I do a mixture forty and twenty reps, so long as I total 120 per day. My shoulders and arms look good enough to not mind wearing a tank top and sitting in a room with Jennifer Aniston. My back is stronger than it has ever been and my back pain is maybe 15-20% of what it used to be. All for a total commitment of two minutes per day, and no wasted time changing clothes or having to go somewhere.
Someday I’ll hopefully be in a better position to craft and adhere to an even better physical lifestyle. But in the meantime, I refuse to fall into the middle aged trap of getting in even worse shape by not doing anything just because I don’t have the time or ability to do everything. Even a little goes a long way toward curbing these uncomfortable aspects of aging.
– R.K. Finch