The van was pulled up to the curb at the entrance to the Littleton health complex in Colorado. As I came through the entrance and started towards the parking lot, I could see a young woman struggling a bit with her wheelchair.
As I approached, I realized she was steadying the wheelchair for her mother, who was attempting to get out of the front seat and into the chair, about two feet away. The mother, who was easily three hundred pounds, was terrified of distance between the van and the chair.
I stopped and offered my hand to steady mom, whose birdlike fingers grasped mine hard. She reached with the other, grasped the chair, turned and eased her great bulk into the chair. The daughter thanked me while I closed the van door. We put the brakes on the wheelchair while the daughter parked.
As I headed to my car in the moody October weather, I considered what I’d just seen. Yesterday morning I had posted a few comments on a website that caters to women over sixty. The woman who runs it is constantly, albeit gently, haranguing her followers about diet and exercise. The woman in the van that I had just helped was younger than I am. I’m 64. She was hardly elderly. But her weight, and the diseases that her weight, and constant sitting, combined with the dietary choices she has made for some time, have made her a cripple, and have aged her horribly.
People can be obese, active and quite healthy. Obesity has a great many forms and faces. As someone who has once been obese myself, I can testify to the fact that you can be heavy and athletic. At the gym last night I met a 71-year-old woman whose workout would put anyone to shame. A casual passerby would call her overly hefty. She’s pear-shaped. That’s the body she was born with, and by god she has learned to live with and love it. I can also testify, having been severely anorexic myself at times, that plenty of thin people can be horrifically ill.
There is no one prescription for healthy.
The addictions that our society have developed to sugar, sugar-laced foods, to too much sitting (up to 14 hours or more a day), far too many carbs, alcohol, our devices from cell phones to televisions to Facebook have led to women like the one I helped the terrifying two feet to her wheelchair. I am not privy to her personal story. However she is being replicated many times over in families all across this country, and indeed all over the Western world and the globe, for that matter.
But that’s for another article. Let’s stay home here.
In America, older women- all of us for that matter- spend far too much time sitting. Since August 11th, when I got home after having broken my back during a horseback riding adventure in Kazakhstan, I’ve been somewhat housebound. This has been damned difficult for someone who runs, rides, cycles, works out regularly about 2-3 hours each day. But there has been a superb lesson along the way, and one that has been instructive about how and why our mothers can end up like the one I saw yesterday.
As I have been forced to sit more than I’m accustomed to, I’ve lost strength in certain lifting muscles in my hips. While I’ve been speed walking for weeks, the lack of other exercises and the additional time at my computer has cost me tone and power. I have done more than my share of planks, pushups, pullups, and weights at the gym. But my hip muscles have deteriorated.
This became abundantly clear when I made my second visit to my physical therapist last Friday. When I lay on my side I had to lift my leg repeatedly in a smooth motion until I reached exhaustion. I used to do this with a fifteen-pound weight attached to my ankle.
Even with nothing attached, my hip barked at me quickly. “Holy cow,” I said. Dave laughed. Humbled, so did I.
“This is what happens when you break your back.” Or your hip, I might add, which is a very common accident among older people. I could easily see why people just give up and stop trying. It’s hard work. Especially if you weren’t strong before an accident.
That night I strapped weights onto my ankles and hit the floor while I watched a favorite movie. It hurt. Tough. Four days later I’ve doubled the weight. Twice a day. The beauty of muscle memory is that the strength comes back. Not without a price, but it comes back. Lots and lots of reps, and not without the barking.
The other exercise Dave assigned me I call the “Dyslexic Stork.” I balance on one foot and lift the other leg in a pattern from a crane pose in front all the way around to the back far behind me, without falling. Boy does that build hip strength. It’s superb for balance and total body awareness, which we can tend to lose with age. I love this one. Three times a day to exhaustion.
After an accident, older people often say “The hell with it, it’s too hard.” It IS hard. However consider the alternatives. The commenters on the sixty plus website spoke of depression, overeating, feeding themselves crap food because they felt sorry for themselves, adding to the weight that pulled on their damaged bones. Hospitals, hospices and old folks’ homes are filled to the brim with people like this. Millions of them are headed that way after a life time of bad habits. Rather that stride with vigor to the bank to take out their retirement money to go kayaking in Greenland, they can barely manage two feet from van to wheelchair. Not the retirement they had in mind.
And let’s be frank, folks. The cost of this eats up every single penny of their money, and whatever inheritance might have once been earmarked for the kids or the grandkids’ college fund. That’s not to be sneezed at these days.
It’s not just old people who have this issue now. It’s all of us. We’re the Land of the Obese, Home of the Wheelchair Bound, and getting worse all the time. However, you can turn this around at any time. It’s all about small, daily, moment to moment choices. It IS hard. Damned right it’s hard. Ask my barking hips how hard it is.
When I see a woman like that, it motivates me like crazy. Can’t speak for anyone else, but when my doc gives me permission to run again, nobody better be standing in the way at my front door.
They’re gonna need a wheelchair.