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health and aging with exercise and fitness

Image by karabulakastan from Pixabay

I hear this a lot.

At a friend’s house: “My sister is just your age and she’s not doing well. She doesn’t take care of herself the way you do.”
At the exercise class: “Wow…you really stay in shape.”
Even a doctor: “Well, you take care of yourself.”

But then I also hear:

“She likes to talk about her fitness level.” That’s what the only disgruntled reviewer (so far) said about my book.

I plead “no contest” to “takes care of herself” and “guilty” to “talks about her fitness.”

Frankly, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about health. I go to doctors when I have symptoms. Several years ago, I was forced to deal with a very young doctor who emphasized screening with missionary zeal. She was visibly horrified when I declined all the tests. She even left her office to run after me: “Are you sure you don’t want blood work?”

As I wrote in my book, I resisted the temptation to give her the finger.

I’m not a doctor.  I don’t go around telling people how to manage their relationship with their bodies any more than I would tell them how to manage their relationship with their spouses.

But in response to the intense pressure to get screening tests, I started doing my own online research. Over the years, I’ve found…

…a couple of good books by Dr. Gilbert Welch – Overdiagnosis (which is fairly technical) and Less Medicine More Health.
…an NPR investigative report: How A Bone Disease Grew to Fit the Prescription.
… an excellent video by a British cardiologist on the subject of blood pressure.
…an article in a well-respected medical journal on the very low impact of statins (article has been summarized here)
==> “Framed this way, our analysis found that when considering the absolute risk reduction of statins, the benefits are quite modest, and most trial participants who took statins derived no clinical benefit.”
…lots of research showing fitness is more important than BMI (also see a NY Times article summarizing these findings)
…and much, much more.

Doctors didn’t appreciate my new medical literacy. To this day, I find snarky comments in my medical portal (“she declined tests because she said she did the ‘research'”).

I didn’t understand why till I read this article in the New York Times, admitting that doctors don’t like patients who read too much. We ask too many questions, which takes time. It’s faster (and far more lucrative) for doctors to say, “Go take this test and we’ll review the results.”

But I never miss an opportunity to call attention to my fitness level.

I didn’t care about fitness or exercise till I was twenty-six years old. I had a job with a lot of travel. Visiting New York, I met a friend for what was supposed to be brunch. Instead, she handed me a clean leotard and tights, saying brunch would happen after we visited her exercise class.

I couldn’t think of a way to get out of it and besides, I wanted brunch, which was not a solitary activity in New York.

I went to the class. I got hooked. Then there was aerobics (thank you Jane Fonda) and other dance exercise classes. Eventually, I got more coordinated and at some point, my muscles got better definition.

People noticed. I got compliments. I looked like I belonged in the gym. It felt like I belonged, too.

Some people assumed I’d been a “tomboy” as a child. (That’s what athletic girls were called before Title IX.)

They couldn’t have been more wrong. I was a total wuss in all my gym classes – the last one picked for teams, finding excuses to sit on the sidelines…the whole nine yards.

Along the way, I developed my lifetime commitment to fitness. It wasn’t health. It was pure vanity.

Many years ago I co-authored a paper on motivations for commitment to physical fitness. We found that women who exercised because they enjoyed the activity and the feelings of fitness were likely to stay committed, often for years. Those who exercised for a short-term goal (“fit into a dress for my son’s wedding”) didn’t last very long.

I didn’t just enjoy being fit.  My ego expanded. I began to feel distinctly superior to all those couch potatoes.

I exercise for bragging rights – not health. After all, as I’ve written elsewhere, you can do everything right and die young; you can do a lot of things wrong and live to be very old.

I don’t focus on “taking care of myself.” That’s something other people do. I’ve resisted efforts to do “what’s good for me,” whether it’s annual checkups, giving up bacon and ice cream, or intermittent fasting.

Somehow I ended up healthy. I don’t deserve credit…after all, my former 82-year-old neighbor smoked like a chimney, rarely exercised, never shopped at the farmers’ market, and could be described as “slightly obese.” She did go for checkups and she made fun of me because I didn’t.  She was filled with energy and her heart was just fine.

Me? I’m not there yet. I do what feels good. Often there’s plenty of research to support my choices if you get past the newspaper headlines.

I’ve even found a couple of nice doctors who support my values. They still write snarky comments in my medical files. But we all know they have to go through the motions of following the guidelines. We’re literally on the same page. And I’m still working out and trying to look modest when I get a compliment.

Just a week ago someone in barre class asked if I’d done ballet. “You look so strong,” she said. She’s at least 20 years younger than I am, too.

I had to explain that I’ve never done ballet. I tried to look modest and humble and probably failed. And then the class started.