On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 2/1/2015
Good for what ails ya
Is there anything quite so banal and shopworn as older folks moaning about all their aches and pains? I don't mean this to be a slap in the face to all the wheezing geezers out there, or if I do, I must include myself in their doddering, tottering legion.
When we boomers were in the springtime of our youth, we used to listen to our parents or grandparents grousing and griping about getting old; about how many ways there were to hurt. We'd hear their droll little witticisms, such as, “If you wake up in the morning and nothing hurts, you know you died in your sleep," and we'd think: not me…no way. I'm not going there! I won't be that mumbling, stumbling old fart!
And yet, while we were busy with the business of living, somehow we turned into our parents. The years rolled by, like miles under our wheels, and here we are, somewhat the worse for wear, with our warranties expired and our sell-by dates way back in the distant past.
Recalling the pathetic litanies of infirmities that became the bill of fare for our elders, most of us make at least a token effort to, indeed, not go there, at least in the sense of not boring everyone within range with our grisly butcher's bills of broken down body parts. But in spite of our best efforts to keep a lid on these tales of woe, they do come up in our conversations. We can't seem to help ourselves. They are the common currency of our lives. And they of course form an almost inexhaustible arsenal of useful ammo for sandbagging at the starts of club rides: all the slings and arrows of outrageous aging that are going to keep us from kicking butt on today's ride.
Anyway…yeah. We're getting on, and to one degree or another, depending on luck, genes, lifestyle, etc, we all have our demons of decrepitude to deal with. Some of us are in better health than others. Some are coping with their challenges better than others. But almost everyone who is now into the latter half of their life span is dealing with the downside of the accumulated years.
Even if we manage to avoid the more serious medical crises—the ones that ambush us out of the dark alleys of our anatomy and entail drastic surgeries and remediation—we all still have to suffer those garden variety aches and pains. They may not be life-threatening but they are quality-of-life-threatening. Many of us can tell you exactly what the maximum daily allowances are for ibuprofen and acetaminophen. We may not hit those limits too often or even come close, but it's a rare day that doesn't include a few Advil or Aleve or Tylenol. (In my bathroom, I don't even put the caps back on the bottles; they're open and available 24/7.)
But into the midst of all this doom and gloom, I am happy to introduce a sunnier perspective: the value of exercise…of some form of an active life. And as this is ostensibly a column about cycling, I will offer that activity as my therapy of choice. I think about the healthful benefits of cycling pretty much every time I go for a ride. But I only think of them because I can literally feel the benefits, right there, in the moment, on the bike. I can stand here before you today and testify—hallelujah!—that just a short ride on my bike will alleviate almost all of the aches and pains that plague me when I am not on my bike.
I'm sure I don't need to convince you. We all, at least in an abstract, intellectual sense, understand that exercise—cycling, in our case—has all sorts of beneficial aspects, chief among them the cardio-pulmonary workout…the heart and lungs and blood flow all getting put through their paces. We all understand that, sure. But you don't need to go to the doctor and get your blood pressure or cholesterol readings to understand this. You can feel it, right now, right this minute, as you ride down the road or out across the mountainside. There is nothing abstract about it. No deferred gratification. It's real and immediate.
I am not, in this space, going to be that boring old fogey who itemizes all his own particular aches and pains. Let's just say: I have my share. On any given day, something, somewhere, is going to be hurting. But within half an hour of getting on my bike…poof!…like a magic trick, the assorted aches vanish into thin air, and I am riding along in as close to a pain-free state as I ever get, almost as pain-free as I was as a callow 20-something. It truly feels like a miracle, but it's really just the nuts and bolts of getting my body up and moving and revved up a little…swapping out my desk chair for my bike saddle. For the most part, the need for painkillers goes away and I feel great for the rest of the day. Sooner or later though, back at my desk—where I spend way too much time—the sedentary, slouchy, lazy-boy life catches up with me again and I start to feel it in all my creaky places. Then it's time to get out there again for another dose of two-wheeled physical therapy.
This is preaching to the choir, right? You've been there too. But in case you're still a bit skeptical about it, consider the findings of a new medical study addressing the effects of exercise on aging. A recent article in the NY Times reported on an experiment conducted in England, measuring the benefits of an active life for older people. The study tracked several medical indicators for a group of 126 men and women between the ages of 55 and 79, all of whom bicycle regularly. (Their definition: men able to ride 100-K in under 6.5 hours and women able to ride 50-K in 5.5 hours.) In all cases, the study participants produced numbers that would equate with people decades younger. It's a good article. Not too long. Rather than have me repeat everything in it, hit the link and check it out.
The bottom line is that exercise—some form of regular activity—will keep your body operating at the level of someone 20 years younger. I think we all get that…a no-brainer for most of us. But it's nice to see our subjective sensations quantified with some solid science.
To be fair, I'm not such a pollyanna that I can honestly ignore some of the aches and pains that are not only not alleviated by cycling but are possibly aggravated by cycling. You've been there too. There are all the ugly gremlins of fatigue that chase us around and sink their talons into our low back or neck or knee joints when we ride too long or too hard. And then there are the old war wounds from hitting the deck or having been hit by a large car or truck: the broken collarbones and fractured ribs and worse. Sometimes those traumas heal up completely and never bother us again. But sometimes they hang around and remind us of the damage we did to ourselves, sometimes every day and sometimes only when it rains…whatever. Most old injuries file some sort of grievance that we notice now and then.
As for the fatigue and repetitive stress discomfort, there is a relatively easy way to deal with all that: ride a little less. We all have our comfort zones where riding is easy and non-stressed. For various reasons, some of us choose to push beyond our comfort zones. We accept the suffering as part of some larger, self-imposed challenge. That's fine, as long as you are happy with how that's working out for you. But if it ever gets to be too much like work and not enough like play, then maybe it's time to redefine your priorities. You can still get all the healthful benefits of the exercise and movement without beating yourself like a rented mule.
And the accidents and their injuries? Yes, they do happen, now and then. Cycling is not really any riskier than most of the rest of life, but we do put ourselves in the way of blunt trauma from time to time. But how bad is the carnage out there, really? In my case, I've logged somewhere close to 250,000 miles over a long cycling career, and the sum total of accidents requiring medical attention—meaning a trip to the ER—amounts to two. (I am knocking wood as I write this.) I can accept that toll in exchange for nearly a half-century of cycling and all it has given me.
Some non-cyclists might draw the conclusion that the flame is not worth the candle; that the lumps and bumps of biking are too high a price to pay for the theoretical benefits. I'm not sure I could argue that point with enough compelling evidence to convince an entrenched doubter, although showing them the recent NY Times article might be a good place to start. But I doubt there are too many doubters reading this column. I expect most of you have convinced yourselves that when it comes to cycling—or an active life in general—the medical upside outweighs the medical downside. I hope so anyway. And if you were by any chance wavering, wondering whether getting kitted up to go for a ride on a nippy morning really makes sense, perhaps this column will get you out the door and rolling down the driveway.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org