I love to jog. But lately, as I trot along, sometimes my shins feel like they’re splintering and my knees ache. The pain is usually worse the next day.
I’ve tried everything. I’ve bought shoes with high-tech insoles. I’ve jogged on grass. I’ve even attempted a low-impact shuffle that earns me some weird looks on the jogging trail. Nothing works. My legs still protest.
One day, a disturbing thought struck me. Maybe I’m getting too old for this. If you’re reasonably active and over 40, you’ve probably had a similar experience. Like that afternoon you realized the younger guys in your weekly pickup basketball game are just too strong and fast. Or when your racquetball partner stared at you after a match and asked if he should call the paramedics.
Everybody slows down eventually, but some experts think it may be harder for men to accept the physical limitations that start creeping in during our middle years. Women, explains University of Massachusetts psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne, tend to question their failings and be critical of their bodies throughout adulthood, starting at a younger age.
“Because of that, it’s easier for women to adapt to the aging process,” says Whitbourne, who has done research on how the physical changes that occur with age affect self-perception and identity. “When age-related changes occur to them, they take it more in stride.”
Whitbourne acknowledges that these are general observations about the sexes. One suspects that, in particular, boomer women who have become fitness addicts in recent years may feel a degree of despair when they lose a step or two. Still, for many men, the sense of self-doubt that comes from realizing that you can’t keep up with the young Turks anymore is especially unsettling.
“It taps into our fear of aging. We think of being old as being dependent and less powerful,” says Dr. Gary Small, a gerontologist and director of the UCLA Center on Aging. Recognizing these physical changes is part of a larger phenomenon known as “age reminders,” Small says like when you can’t remember why you opened the refrigerator or the name of a high school girlfriend. These moments when you realize your physical abilities are slipping remind you that you’ve entered the transition from youth to, well, non-youth.
Some of us begin to downshift sooner than others. A friend who’s 20 years older than I, for example, jogs every day, pain free. Likewise, people react in different ways when they realize their bodies are changing. Some reactions are healthier than others. The most obvious is what Whitbourne calls “over-accommodation” –scientific jargon for throwing in the towel.
“You see that a lot in professional athletes,” says University of Illinois kinesiologist Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, chair of the Active Aging Partnership, a coalition of health organizations and government agencies that promotes exercise among people older than 50. Robbed of their capacity to perform at the highest levels, elite jocks often abandon physical activity, turn flabby, and thereby increase their risk for a range of diseases.
Then there are guys who keep on pounding the pavement despite their throbbing joints. “If you continue to work out like a maniac,” Chodzko-Zajko says, “you’re going to get hurt, get injured, and that will reduce the quality of life.”
He knows. A former competitive runner, Chodzko-Zajko developed tendinitis and chronic soreness in his legs in his late 30s. And even though he’s an expert on the mechanics of muscle, he kept abusing his physique until one day he realized his workout was doing more harm than good.
But your joints and waistline aren’t all that’s endangered when your favorite form of exercise or sport turns against you.
The result can be a serious bout of depression, cautions Dr. T. Franklin Williams, a gerontologist and scientific director of the American Federation for Aging Research. The blues often surface among people older than 50, he says, as they realize that they can’t do what they used to do.
There’s got to be a better way. And there is, of course. Whitbourne says it’s critical to do what psychologists call “positive reframing,” that is, focus on your strengths, especially the gifts you possess today — wisdom, experience — that you lacked as a strapping lad. Williams suggests channeling your enthusiasm for a sport that’s become too taxing in another way; former pickup basketball devotees might consider coaching a youth team, for instance.
Stay active, though you’ll probably need to make some adjustments. Chodzko-Zajko, 46, still jogs some days, but on others he works on strength, flexibility, and balance by taking Pilates and tai chi classes. Williams is 85 and an avid cyclist.
Me? I’m just north of 40, and I think they both have the right idea. I lace up my running shoes a few times a week, but I’m saving my knees by riding my bike just as often. And believe me, when I fly down a hill with the wind at my back, I feel just like a kid.
Interview with Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, kinesiologist and chairman, Active Aging Partnership
Interview with Gary Small, gerontologist and director, Center on Aging, UCLA
Interview with T. Franklin Williams, gerontologist and scientific director,American Federation for Aging Research.
Interview with Susan Krauss Whitbourne, psychologist and professor, University of Massachusetts