While Still Trying to Hang Onto My Health

As much as I’m trying to get rid of a lot of the old stuff around here even when it means throwing out cherished mementos of the past, I’m spending more time trying to stay in good shape. Unfortunately, that seems to mean eating half as much and working out twice as hard as I used to — slowing the inevitable decline. I’m spending an hour or two in the gym 5 days a week unless I’m out birding, where I walk even further and longer but never realize that I’m exercising.

I’ve always needed exercise to feel well, and that seems even truer now than it used to be. Although I suspect most people considered me a “nerd” and I love learning, I’ve always seen myself a jock-wannabe. As a child I desperately wanted to play football like my dad had done. As a teacher, I played basketball twice a week until I was nearly 60. Walking and hiking have been an essential part of my life. Over the years I’ve had some of my best discussions with walking and hiking partners. For me, at least, exercise and thought aren’t opposites; they complement each other.

Now that I’ve retired, I have to spend more time than ever exercising to feel comfortable reading, sitting in front of my computer, or bent over my iPad. I’ve never been fond of exercising at the gym unless it’s playing a game of basketball. I’ve gone through periods of lifting weights ever since I took weight-lifting in college, but like most resolutions I’ve seldom stuck to any kind of program. I hate treadmills, considering them little more than Sisyphean torture machines .

Skye was a godsend because he demanded to go walking nearly every day for two or three miles, rain or shine. I didn’t always enjoy it, but he did and that was enough to keep me going. Now that he’s gone, I can’t bring myself to walk in the rain, so I’ve taken up walking 2 miles in forty minutes at the Y when the weather doesn’t encourage birding. Often I add a half hour of Tai Chi and a half hour on the weight machines, generally focusing on core muscles and upper body strength. If it’s sunny, though, I’ll gladly skip the gym and go birding instead. When birding I usually walk four to six miles, which feels like plenty of exercise at the end of the day.

Since I was diagnosed with COPD I’ve been much more conscious of my blood-oxygen level and monitor it regularly. I’m not entirely convinced that I have COPD, but since “denial” is one of the traits of people who have it, I’ve accepted that I may have it and I’m taking my two medicines religiously, and, more importantly, I’m pushing myself more at the gym, trying to insure that I push myself to do 40 minutes of aerobic exercise at least five days a week.

Often I’m tired after I’ve worked out for two hours at the gym and don’t get much done the rest of the morning. In other words, exercising and blogging, I guess, have become my job, though exercise takes priority over blogging, as you may have noticed lately. My biggest problem is actually not overdoing the exercise. If I do, the arthritis in my hip will come back and bite me. Luckily, though, I tend to get the same pain if I sit too long at the computer. Otherwise I might be tempted to avoid exercise for a while, and at my age that is a big mistake.

My Tai Chi teacher likes to tease me in the morning because I refuse to fake being in a good mood. When he asks, “How are you this morning?” my usual reply is, “I’m here.” That’s as good as it gets at 6:30 in the morning. Still, I appreciate being able to work around the yard without being in agony the next day. I love that I can walk nearly all day carrying 20 pounds of photographic equipment while birding. I’m proud I can still spend the day walking in the mountains and drive home without collapsing.

Since discovering several iPhone apps that measure pulse and stress levels, and even help you reduce stress, I suspect I’ve become a bit of a hypochondriac. Luckily, I haven’t given in to my desire to buy the blood pressure meter that automatically records your score on your Mac because I’m already staying busy trying to make sure that my resting pulse remains below 60, and preferably in the low 50’s. When I started measuring my stress levels a few weeks ago, I would almost invariably be told that I was “moderately stressed.” Now, most of the time I it says I have low stress.

Considering my three bouts with cancer, I have no faith that any of this will extend my life a single moment, but I’ll be content if I can do everything I want to do up to the moment I die. For me, I would be perfectly happy to die next week of a heart attack while cross-country skiing, climbing a mountain, or photographing birds in some remote wilderness .