One Foot in the Grave?
Paddling on After 50 Winning the Battle of the Bulge
By Tamia Nelson
January 1, 2008
Hippy New Year! Yes, you've read that right. I really did mean to type "hippy." But it's not an invocation to the Ghost of Woodstocks Past. My concern is more fundamental than that. While my attention was elsewhere, some mysterious Force has been at work in my closet. The result? All my clothes have shrunk! Pants that were comfortably loose only a month ago are now a snug fit. The Force is obviously not with me. Of course, there are other possible explanations. The Economist magazine may be right in claiming that the age of cheap food is over, but this unwelcome news hasn't dampened the generosity of most holiday hosts. Eggnog, Stilton (not forgetting the accompanying port and biscuits), roast beef, pumpkin pie
none of them are in short supply in my corner of Canoe Country. And I have to confess I've done my best to see that nothing in this cornucopia of good things went to waste. With one all-too predictable result: it's all gone to my waist, instead. Hippy New Year, indeed.
I'll bet I'm not alone. In fact, I know I'm not. Farwell has just emerged from the bathroom after a brief encounter with the scale, and I can tell by his unhappy expression that the interview didn't go well. So it's quite possible that you, too, are lamenting the sudden downsizing of your wardrobe. If that's the case, it's best to face facts. There's probably no malevolent poltergeist in your closet. In all likelihood, you've just succumbed to
The explanation is distressingly simple, and with apologies to that charming rogue Micawber (from Dickens' David Copperfield), I'll summarize it this way:
Daily caloric intake three thousand, daily expenditure three thousand, result happiness. Daily caloric intake thirty-five hundred, daily expenditure three thousand, result misery.
And that's just the beginning. Not only have I been eating more in these last few weeks, but I've been spending less time out-of-doors. This, too, is easy to explain. Paddling isn't often an option in Canoe Country during the season of hard water. And bicycling, Number Two on my list of favorite outdoor activities, is also out of the question: if riding on roads carpeted in salty slush and crowded with fishtailing cars weren't bad enough, the two-hour clean-up that follows each trip is even worse. To be sure, snowshoeing and skiing are there to take up the slack at least they are when we have snow, and this year we have but midwinter days are short and time presses. The holiday season is a busy one, after all. So my personal equation is even more skewed than I first suggested. It's not "daily caloric intake thirty-five hundred, daily expenditure three thousand." It's more like "daily caloric intake thirty-five hundred, daily expenditure twenty-five hundred." Misery compounded, in other words. What's the bottom line? Well, at thirty-five hundred calories to the pound, it adds up to about two pounds a week, each and every week that my personal food-energy equation is out of balance. That explains the rapid shrinkage in my once-comfortable clothes!
Not to mention the flabbiness of my once-firm muscles. It's a truism among serious athletes and trainers that fitness has a very short shelf-life. Where our muscles are concerned, it's definitely use it or lose it. And it doesn't take long to lose it. Strength and endurance that took months of hard work to acquire can evaporate in a matter of weeks. It's always easier to coast down a hill than struggle up it. Faster, too. My own experience bears this out. The road from lean and mean to Michelin Man (Michelin Woman?) is a short one. And it's downhill all the way.
I wish this were the end of the bad news, but it's not. There's also
The Looking-Glass Law
Age takes its toll. It's a fact: nature favors the young. Regaining lost fitness after a lapse of weeks or even months is relatively easy if you're on the sunny side of thirty. Members of the Over-the-Hill Gang aren't so lucky, however. We're innocent victims of what I'm tempted to call the Looking-Glass Law. Why "Looking-Glass"? As Alice (of Wonderland fame) discovered in Louis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass with a little help from the Red Queen it takes all the running we can do just to stay in the same place. Actually getting somewhere requires that we work even harder. But maybe you're not content to take the Red Queen's (or my) word for it. OK. Then let me dazzle you with science, instead. A team of Yale researchers led by Dr. Gerald Shulman recently reported that AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) activity declines with age, at least in mice. And that's presumably true of men as well. Why is this important? Well, AMPK "promotes mitochondrial biogenesis," and mitochondria are the powerhouses of skeletal muscle. The upshot? It looks like the Red Queen was right on the money. If you're over 50, it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place.
Still, anyone who paddles her own canoe (or his own kayak, for that matter), isn't cut out to be a quitter, whatever her (or his) age. So, even if biology is against us, we're not the type to take the assaults of the years lying down. Our motto is a familiar one: When the going gets tough
The Tough Get Going!
Unfortunately, there's no easy way to upsize your wardrobe after the holidays. You have to shift your personal energy equation away from surplus and into balance, and then you have to continue working till you're running a calorie deficit. This means both reducing intake and increasing outgo. In other words, you have to eat less and sweat more. Luckily, once the last carton of eggnog has been emptied, some of the temptation to overeat is gone. But finding ways to get regular exercise in midwinter isn't as straightforward as cutting out holiday treats. And regularity is important. Very important. The basic prescription for fitness is 30 to 90 minutes of aerobic exercise each and every day. (Well, it's not necessarily this draconian. You should probably give yourself a day off for good behavior each week.) Weekend outings alone just aren't enough. That's why bicycle commuting is such a good way for paddlers to get (and stay) in shape. But not in winter. Snow and ice make cycling impractical for all but the truly committed. And after a couple of bike trips on icy roads with cars sliding past you at 50 miles an hour, you may decide you should be committed, that is. That's only natural. It's hard to get regular exercise in a hospital bed, and you don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out who'll be the loser if a car slides into your bike when you've stopped for a light. Winter jogging? It works for some folks, but it has many of the same drawbacks as cycling, as well as being hard on aging knees. Skiing and snowshoeing are good alternatives, of course, in addition to being great fun, but you can't do either one on the street, and not too many paddlers have a pocket wilderness on the doorstep. Even if you're one of the lucky ones, you'll probably be hard pressed to find the time to change clothes and then go out for an hour or more of exercise right after getting home from work, no matter how beautiful the scenery.
What's left? Indoor exercise, that's what. If there's a health club near you, or if the gym in a nearby school is open to the public at hours that suit your schedule, your problem is solved. If not, however, or if you just like the idea of getting exercise on your own terms, and in your own time, there's another way: buy your own gear. Treadmills, stair-climbers, and ski-machines are popular choices, but they all take up a lot of space, and good ones are expensive more expensive than a tandem canoe. Moreover, except for ski machines, they don't do much for your upper body, and paddlers can't afford to neglect their arms. My solution? A rowing machine. Piston machines are comparatively cheap (they cost no more than a combo DVD-VCR recorder) and reasonably compact. Mine can be stood on end and stored in a corner when not in use, for example. Better yet, they give a good whole-body workout. Heart, legs, and arms all benefit. You may even grow to like rowing for its own sake, and if you do there are a number of ways to fit a rowing rig into a canoe or kayak.
The downside? Rowing indoors is boring. I find that half an hour is about all I can take. And I need to do more than that. So
I got on my bike. But first I brought it indoors and put in on a magnetic-resistance trainer. Now, when I tire of rowing I can spin my wheels instead. The trainer was cheap. I got it on sale, and it cost no more than a quality canoe paddle. It also folds for storage. But it's not without drawbacks. The range of resistance is limited. You also have to find a place to store your bike indoors. That's simple if you have a big garage, but not so easy in a small apartment. And speaking of small apartments, mounting and dismounting a bike on a trainer is time-consuming. Plus, most trainers are pretty noisy not deafening, to be sure, but they generate enough noise to make conversation difficult. They can even annoy your neighbors. That's not all. Hard spinning on a trainer is hard on your bike, as well as your body. This won't matter if you have a "beater" bike that you don't mind abusing, of course. But I don't, and I didn't see much point in buying a bike just to destroy it.
That's why, after a season's dalliance with a trainer, I bought a bicycle ergometer (aka "stationary bike") instead of a beater bike to use with my trainer. It's compact and sturdy, with a micrometer-like resistance unit that offers workloads ranging from Easy Riding to Mont Ventoux. It was a bit pricey, I admit, but it still cost less than a top-of-the-line trainer. I could have gotten something cheaper, obviously, but good stationary bikes have heavy (40-pound plus) flywheels, and they accept standard bicycle saddles. These things are important. Moreover, the saddle position is fully adjustable, fore-and-aft as well as up and down. A stationary bike without all these features isn't worth buying, no matter how cheap it is. In any case, I'm happy with my choice. Working off my holiday excesses is now as easy as getting up from my desk and sitting down on the saddle. Well, maybe it's not quite as easy as I've made it sound. I still have make the pedals go round, after all, and while I find stationary cycling less boring that rowing indoors I can read while I'm riding, for one thing it gets old in a hurry. That's why I ring the changes, moving from rowing machine to stationary bike and back again as the mood strikes. I also work out with weights.
At this point you may be wondering if I've painted too rosy a picture. Fair enough. There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all fitness program. What works for me may not appeal to you. If so, follow your own inclinations. The destination's the important thing, not the road you travel to get there. But what if we are of one mind? What then? I'm afraid there are still
Cautions and Caveats
Let's get the most obvious one out of the way at the start: Any time you plan to crank up your activity level or start a new exercise program, check with your doc first, whatever your age. Most members of the Over-the-Hill Gang already know their limits, but it's still a good idea to get a pro's blessing on any new exercise. It's your life on the line, right? And even after you get the green light from the doc, start slow. If your primary interest is fighting winter bloat, time in the saddle (or on the seat of a rowing machine) is far more important than speed. Need more guidance? It's easy to get. There's an entire literature devoted to getting in shape, and there are all sorts of gadgets to help you find your optimum "training zone," including heart-rate monitors and "power meters." If you like to keep things simple, however, you can just use the talking test: If you can't carry on a short conversation while you're exercising, you're probably working too hard. Just slow down. What could be simpler?
Or are you worried that you're not working hard enough? To find out, try singing. (Don't be shy. Nobody's listening.) If you can get through more than a couple of choruses of, say, "Speedball Tucker" without running short of breath, you probably need to pick up the pace a bit.
Anything else? Yes. Chill out. Overheating isn't just a problem when you're paddling in the summer sun. Keep the temperature down in the room while you're working out. Moreover, if you're exercising hard enough to raise a sweat and you will be if you're doing it right you'll want a fan blowing over you, even in a cold room in midwinter. Otherwise you'll find yourself in the middle of a puddle at the end of your stint. It's also important to drink enough water to replace what you lose. If your sessions last more than half an hour or so, you'll want to keep a water bottle right at your elbow.
Boredom can be a problem, too, but it's easily remedied. Read this is easier on a stationary bicycle than it is on a rowing machine! listen to music, or watch television. (Better stay away from the cooking shows, though.) Alternate exercises. Row one day and ride the next. Best of all, take advantage of any break in the weather to go outside. Snowshoeing and skiing are great off-season activities, as are jogging and cycling (when the roads are clear and the traffic's light). If fortune really smiles, and if you have the right gear and like-minded companions, you may even get a chance to do some midwinter paddling. Be warned, however: Solo paddling simply isn't an option in winter. And both you and your companions must be experienced boaters. No exceptions. Winter paddling isn't for novices, even in groups. Hypothermia is just one of many dangers waiting to ensnare the unwary. So if you're tempted by open water in winter, be sure you go prepared. If you go at all, that is. What you don't know can kill you. It's far better to be bored than dead. Winter's grip on the waters won't last forever.
And that's why you need to fight the battle of the bulge right now and fight to win. Then you'll be ready to pick up your paddle and head for the put-in just as soon as the sun returns to Canoe Country.
Has the festive season left you wondering why all the clothes in your closet have suddenly shrunk? Me, too. But we don't need new wardrobes. We just need to get our personal energy equations back in balance. The prescription is simple: eat less and exercise more. Neither is easy, though, particularly when short days and crowded schedules make it hard to find the time to work out. But help is at hand. For less than the price of a canoe you can change a corner of your living room into a gym. It's never been easier to go nowhere in style. And that's all the edge you'll need to win the battle of the bulge. Good luck!
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