When I was in college I remember putting on a pair of cut-off pants and sneakers and trying to jog four blocks in the Park View residential area near campus. I weighed much less than I do now, and though my heart was younger and stronger, I was completely exhausted, sweating profusely by the time I finished my jog. The next day my leg muscles hurt so much I could barely walk up the hill from my dorm room to class. I was convinced then, that a lifetime of exercise was not in my future.
The only reason I’d attempted a run that day was to lose weight and a four-block jog did nothing to the numbers on my bathroom scale.
Fast forward forty-seven years, an aging body and the beginnings of arthritis, and now I’m an exercise evangelist. Movement, I told my 87-year-old mother, is key. Mom grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s when people believed preserving energy was more important than expending it.
“Back then we didn’t have to exercise. We worked!” mom told me. “My mother stood over a hot iron and ironed clothes for hours. Dad came home tired every day from working in the Dupont Powder plant.”
She almost sneered comparing modern-day notions of physical activity with how hard people labored when she was a girl.
I was a little frustrated because mom has some heart problems, and yet she enjoys sitting in her grey recliner watching the neighbor kids play outside her big picture window. When I went for my yearly physical, I complained to my doctor about mom’s sedentary habit.
“Oh,” the doctor told me matter-of-factly, “lots of older people like to sit in their chair much of the day. Their energy levels are low, and they’re often worried about falling. Sometimes it hurts to move. I understand why they feel this way. Find some ‘exercises-for-seniors’ videos for your mom. That might help.”
I made my doctor laugh when I recounted what a farmer friend told me once about movement and cattle. The farmer said if cows don’t stand up and move around, they’ll “go down and stay down.” He said it’s important to get new-born calves up and moving, looking for their mother’s milk. And, if a cow is injured or sick, she’ll often do better if you can get her on her feet and foraging, as opposed to laying in the barn stall.
Mom is taking drugs to combat her heart problems, but I wanted her to read an article with a compelling title:
“Closest Thing to A Wonder Drug? Try Exercise!” (New York Times, 6/20/2016).
She batted away my outstretched hand when I offered my cell phone to her. I thought she might want to scroll down and read the article online. I knew I was being pushy, but I couldn’t help myself. I cared about her.
“Why don’t you just tell me the gist of it?” she kindly suggested.
“It says,” I gazed down at my cell phone, “‘…of all the things we as physicians can recommend for health, few provide as much benefit as physical activity.’ And then here it says that exercise is the ‘miracle cure.’ It helps your heart, your arthritis, depression, diabetes, and other diseases. It says to realize a benefit you only need to exercise just 30 minutes—on weekdays. That means weekends are off!”
I looked up excitedly from my cell phone to gauge mom’s reaction, only to find her eye lids drooping, ready for her nap. I was reminded then the many times she’d tried to school me: “You just don’t know what it feels like to be this old,” or “When you get my age you’ll think differently.”
The clock ticked quietly in the kitchen, and I waited a moment before I pocketed my cell phone and left. I lightly patted my mom’s hand, “Hey, I need to go. I’ll give you a call this weekend and see how you’re doing.”
As I gently clicked the front door shut behind me, I sighed thinking how ironic life is. I didn’t like exercising when I was a young college co-ed, and now my old mother feels the same way. The burden of movement is life-long.