Am I Ill, Or Just Getting Old?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 6, 2018

When I was young I thought growing old meant going bald and getting wrinkles. That didn’t seem too bad. I assumed I would stay the same mentally. When I was young I felt great most of the time, hardly ever got sick, and I wasn’t bothered by heat or cold. We didn’t have air conditioning until I was a senior in high school. At sixty-six I go years without getting a cold or the flu, but I do have chronic heart, stomach and back problems, and cold and heat annoys the crap out of me. I keep my chronic conditions in check with diet and exercise.

The trouble is, I don’t feel like I used to. Is that illness, or oldness.

Getting old

In recent years I’ve felt my vitality run down. I can’t decide if something is wrong with me, or this is what it feels like to get old. And I’m only young old. What will it feel like to be really old?

At my last physical my doctor said all my blood work looked good. My testosterone was at a proper level, various vitamins were on the mark, my protein level was fine, and a bunch of other numbers I didn’t understand were where they were supposed to be. She said I was doing pretty good. I needed to lose weight and lower my cholesterol, but she’s been saying that for decades. For years I’ve been eating healthier, lost some weight, and lowered my cholesterol. The only time she praised me for my cholesterol and weight were the periods I went vegan. However, I can’t keep that up.

The thing is I feel best when I’m eating sweets. Ice cream makes me feel younger. Junk food gives me mental energy, but it eventually makes me feel sick too. I constantly struggle with my diet to find the right mixture of healthy eating that gives me the most vitality, yet doesn’t lead to feeling bad.

Recently I started wondering if my problem wasn’t disease or diet, but I’m just aging. At my last physical, I asked my doctor, “How do you tell the difference between feeling old and feeling sick?” She laughed at me and gave me some sympathetic words I’ve forgotten. Besides feeling rundown, I can’t remember shit. And I was told that is normal too.

My wife thinks I’m a hypochondriac. I used to feel normal all the time, now normal is a rare few hours in the week. Is this the real reason why people hate getting old so much? Not for the decline in appearance, but the decline in feeling good?

I constantly read books about diet, health, and exercise. Many authors promise renewed vitality if I’d only do what they say. The problem is I don’t have the discipline or the vitality to consistently follow their advice. I was able to stick with a plant-based diet for several months. I lost thirty pounds, and my LDL went to 90. However, my energy levels dwindled away. I’ve since added yogurt, kefir, and eggs back into my diet and mental energy has returned, but not like it was. I’ve been a vegetarian since the 1960s, but always ate a lot of junk food. I’ve never been a high-energy person, but I was fine for a bookworm.

In my sixties, I’m feeling the creep of decay. I’ve fought it believing it could be cured. Now I’m wondering if it’s actually normal. Now I know why Ponce de Leon searched for the fountain of youth. Now I know why old people in my youth swilled Geritol. Now I understand my mother’s addiction to pain pills in her later life. Now I know why people hope B12 shots will give them a boost. It’s a shame that snorting cocaine is self-destructive because it sounds like a perfect drug for the Social Security years.


Rejuvenating With Miranda Esmonde-White

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, August 11, 2016

Update: 1/3/19. I did the Miranda Esmonde-White exercises all year during 2018 and it's made a significant difference in reducing the pain in my back. Systematic stretching does wonders.

Last year I discovered Miranda Esmonde-White on a special for PBS, based on her book, Aging Backwards: Reverse the Aging Process and Look 10 Years Younger in 30 Minutes a Day. You can watch Esmonde-White lecture about aging backward here. Esmonde-White focuses on how a loss of muscle mass affects us as we age, claiming if we start stretching we can reverse the aging process. (If we don’t wait too late.) As we age, we shrink and begin to hunch over. If we start stretching before that process has gone too far, we can reverse it. Just watch her lecture. Esmonde-White was born in 1949 and is two years older than I am. She’s tall, agile, bendy, balanced and graceful. She looks and moves like a much younger person.

Classical Stretch 10

I was quite impressed with her PBS special and ordered three copies of Classical Stretch – The Esmonde Technique: Core Workout for Christmas presents. Two were for friends who never exercise, and one for Annie, who’s addicted to it. She loved the video and regularly uses it. My two friends who never exercises, and who will remain anonymous, never used their DVDs. But testimonials from Annie are making them reconsider. And now that I’ve started with the exercises, they are worried its catching.

I recently went off my diet. I lose discipline now and then, and binge on unhealthy food. I quickly gained five pounds, started skipping some of my daily physical therapy exercises, and my back went out. I immediately returned to my diet and exercise routine, and slowly started turning things around. But while this was happening, I decided to try the Classical Stretch program. I figured I could use some extra help. The Core Workout I bought my friends was 55 minutes and wanted something shorter to do before PT. I researched on Amazon and found Classical Stretch – The Esmonde Technique: Complete Season 10 – Strength and Flexibility.  Thirty 23-minute lessons. I thought $70 was kind of expensive for a 4-DVD set since for $65 I can buy the entire three seasons of Star Trek original series on Blu-ray. But what sold me were the customer reviews that claimed it help their backs. $70 is not much compared to doctor visits.

I’ve never liked going to the gym, and especially disliked exercise classes like yoga, even though I like the concept of yoga. What I like about Classical Stretch is Miranda Esmonde-White has designed a workout that’s appealing to the aging me that requires no extra equipment, special clothes, and can be done practically anywhere and anytime. She claims we have 650 muscles and we need to systematically stretch them. I’m just starting out with this workout but I can already feel the difference. My back recovered in days, much faster than usual. And the rest of me feels different too. Moving around is easier. I notice my body much less. That might not mean much to someone who is young, but getting older is all about noticing the body.

Don’t let me mislead you. These exercises are easy to try, but hard to follow exactly like Esmonde-White. I think it’s going to be a while before I’m doing them right. I feel like a gorilla taking ballet lessons. The daily lessons are varied, and I assume after weeks or months, I’ll memorize them and won’t need the videos. Click on the image of the back of the video box below. It lists all the thirty lessons.

I’ve always wondered why classes for aerobics, yoga, or Pilates were mostly filled by women. Now I know. This kind of exercising is like learning to dance. Most women I know love dancing. Guys generally don’t. I’ve always felt completely inept and foolish trying to dance. I’m doing these exercises alone, and I don’t even worry about what I look like, or that I’m not doing them perfectly – I just keep doing them. The 23 minutes goes by pretty fast. It’s not an aerobic workout, but I get a bit winded. Esmonde-White is right, these stretches make you feel younger – or at least looser. Whenever my back goes out, it feels like I age ten years. So when my back feels better, I feel younger.

I’m hoping if I make these exercises a permanent routine, I’ll actually rejuvenate. I limit my activities now because of my back problems. I’m faithful again to my plant-based diet and losing weight. I hope between weight loss and these exercises I’ll feel young enough to want to travel, or just be more active.

[click on covers to enlarge]

Classical Stretch 10 - frontClassical Stretch 10 - back


Health is Like a Laptop Battery

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 30, 2015

Health has to be more than the absence of disease. I sometimes hear the phrase “optimal health” or “maximum health” as if health is a fuel tank and we can fill her up. We often think of health as giving us vitality, but what then, is vitality? Our bodies and brains are the most complex “mechanism” we know of, but we can’t actually fathom how they work. Not without analogies. Our body is dead when we come to the end of health, and run out of vitality.

The ancient Greeks used the concept of the soul to explain how the body was animated. They claimed the soul made our limbs move, but that was long before science knew about different forms of energy. Getting old feels like we’re running down, running out of energy, or our mainspring needs rewinding. I shall make my philosophical analogy for health be the laptop battery. Before batteries, philosophers used the mechanical clock as a model. In the future, some future blogger will have a new technology to use in her essay.

laptop battery

I went to my annual physical today, and told my doctor she made me nervous every time I visited her because it felt like I was up for an important examination. I worried I’d flunk. At the end of our visit, she laughed and told me I passed. But even though I passed, I don’t feel very healthy, or more precisely said, I don’t feel very energetic, not like when I was younger. At 64, I am not old, but I am not young either. I know my body and mind are in decline, and I wished I could recharge my battery to its maximum capacity again.

On my birthday, I went for a long walk in the botanic gardens with my friend Anne, and then she helped me change out a pole for my outdoor TV antenna. While I had the ladder out, I raked some leaves and limbs off the roof (I’m too old to be climbing on the roof). I probably spent two hours walking and climbing, and that exhausted me. It felt like all the cells in my body were screaming for glucose. When I was younger I could work ten hours at manual labor before I felt that way. Why does my battery run out of juice sooner now that I’m older? Health appears related to stamina, and stamina feels like energy. Does our battery for health shrink as we age? Does it become more inefficient?

If health is a full charge, then shouldn’t eating recharge our battery? Eating too much can make me lethargic. Eating the wrong foods can make me feel unhealthy. But it does feel if I eat the right foods, in the right amount, that I feel healthier. That I have more energy. When I was exhausted after my birthday efforts, I ate lunch, took a nap, and I felt better. But I didn’t feel back to normal until the next day, after two more meals and a good night’s sleep. Food and sleep can recharge my health battery, but only slowly, like how old laptops need longer hours plugged in to recharge.

Getting old feel exactly like an old computer battery that won’t hold a charge as long as it did when it was new. I think one reason why I don’t exert myself like I did when I was young is because I need to conserve my battery. Unfortunately, we can’t buy a new battery like we can for a laptop. Human bodies don’t have user replaceable batteries. Image if they did. I’d buy a high capacity one that recharges quickly.

Is it possible to recondition our built-in battery? When I was a kid, I could eat junk food all day long, and my battery didn’t wear down until the end of the day, often late into the night. Now I can burn up a full charge in a couple of hours. That sucks.

Getting old means learning how to nurse my battery to last out the day. I eat better to make my health recharging more efficient. I exercise to regain a bit of a charge, and keep my contacts from corroding. And sleep cleans out all the bad chemicals that using up a healthy charge creates in byproducts. We often euphemize sexual attraction as chemistry, but it seems everything about our body can be explained in terms of chemistry. Batteries are a chemical process.

Getting old means learning to be efficient. Getting old means learning to conserve energy wherever I can. It’s like being a hybrid car that does everything not to drain the battery, or even recharge on the go. Maybe I should use an electric car as my model of health. Then I could describe exercise as  regenerative charging.

No model is perfect. What I really want to know is exactly what to eat and when, that would optimize the functionality of my aging battery. How much exercise will recharge the system, and when does exercise deplete the daily charge I get from sleep? Sometimes naps are better for recharging than walks. Why? The new health mantra is “Sitting is the new smoking” but getting old seems to require more sitting. Hell, I could claim, “Napping is the new jogging.”

I just wished I knew how I worked. Reading about health, diet and exercise is very confusing. There’s no simple model to understand. I know my health is not an old laptop battery, but it certainly feels like one.

Essay #983 – Table of Contents

Treating Back Pain Without Drugs

Most people I meet with chronic back pain only fight the pain with drugs.  I’ve discovered some other techniques to try.  Overall, what I’ve learned is my back is trying to communicate with me and all pills do is tell it to shut up.

I am not a medical expert of any kind.  I’m only recounting my personal experience with living with back pain.  I’ve greatly benefited from going to physical therapy (PT) and the training the PT doctors gave me to do daily exercises on my own.  Although you can find all kinds of PT exercises for back pain online, I highly recommend talking to a doctor before doing any exercise if you are suffering from chronic back pain.  The point I want to make is I’ve discovered some ways to avoid back pain without depending on powerful drugs.

Years ago when my degenerative back disease began and I was in a lot of pain I took prescription pain pills and muscle relaxers, but when I learned my condition was chronic I stopped taking those pills

I have three kinds of symptoms:

  • inflammation/tension/tightness (lower back)
  • numbness/nerve sensations (foot and leg)
  • muscle pain (lower back, hip, leg)

The inflammation/tension/tightness is almost always present in my lower back but in varying degrees of discomfort.  If things get worse, my foot goes numb and the numbness works up my right leg.  When things get even worse, my left leg goes numb too.  When things get really bad I have increasing constant dull pain and infrequent sharp shooting pains in my lower back, hip and leg.

I can keep the sharp and shooting pains away if I do my PT exercises daily, do regularly rowing exercises on the Bowflex, and if I don’t walk or stand for longer than 10 minutes.

I can keep the numbness to a minimum if I take B vitamins and exercise regularly, and don’t stand straight or lie flat for any length of time.

I used to keep the inflammation/tension/tightness to a low level with anti-inflammation pills, over-the-counter pain pills and regular PT exercises.  However in recent months the anti-inflammation pills have messed up my stomach and intestines and I’ve had to stop them.*[See update below]  I’m learning how to keep this kind of pain at a minimum without those drugs by carefully babying my back and not inflaming it.  No lifting, lots of rest, more exercising.

I now ask younger people to lift stuff for me, and I even take the elevator sometimes.  I’m getting old and creaky.

The exercises I learned from my PT classes are very simple, like these:


I’m writing this because I’ve had to stop taking any anti-inflammation medicine because it’s tore up my stomach and intestines, and I’ve learned that I can get about the same relief without those drugs if I’m careful.  Although my doctors have prescribed some powerful pain pills I’ve avoided taking them.  I have lived off of various anti-inflammation drugs over the last few years, but I can’t take them anymore.  Doctors keep prescribing drugs that are easier on the stomach, but evidently my stomach is on the wimpy side, or years of taking pills have beaten it up badly.

I’ve always liked the anti-inflammation drugs because they reduce the feeling of inflammation and tension in my lower back, but when I had to quit these drugs I realized that those drugs were the cause of some of that inflammation.  Taking a pill would reduce the tension, and the wearing off the pill hours later would make it spring back.   After several days of not taking the anti-inflammation pills, I had much less inflammation and tension.  I’ve started and quit several different kinds of anti-inflammation pills and I’ve noticed this affect twice now.

Lower back tightness and inflammation builds up during the workday, especially when I do a lot of walking and standing, and time and again I’ve discovered I can quiet my back by just exercising and/or resting.  That made me think some of the stuff I was feeling as inflammation was drug withdrawal or drug craving.

I’ve been dealing with my back problem for years and it’s a degenerative disease.  Walking, standing, or lying flat makes my back worse, so I’ve learned to live with limitations by altering my lifestyle.  For instance I no longer sleep in a bed.  Sleeping in a recliner significantly reduced my daily pain.  Not walking for exercise reduced my pain.  Getting a better office chair at work and home help too.

I also bought Z-Coil shoes and they have been a huge help.  Before I got Z-Coil shoes when my back was stressed I’d get weird sensations when walking.  I’d feel like I was stepping into a hole or sliding on ice with some steps.  I assumed I was compressing a nerve.  The Z-Coil shoes act like a shock absorber so I don’t compress the nerve and feel those weird sensations.  I also tried Gravity Defyers but their springs weren’t powerful enough to help me.  Z-Coil springs are very large and visible so they are very ugly shoes, but I wear them because they let me keep working, and they let me walk further than I can without them.

Z-Coil shoe
Z-Coil shoe

I’ve tried all kinds of drugs over the years, various pain pills, muscle relaxers, and anti-inflammation meds.  For my particular problem I’ve learned that physical therapy is the most effective treatment.  I do take an occasional Tylenol or aspirin, but daily PT is best.  If I don’t do my PT my back will slowly tense up, and over days I’ll get hip pain, pain down the leg, and numbness in my foot, and then a lot of lower back pain.  When the pain is very bad I have a hard time getting up or down.  Doing daily physical therapy keeps the worst pain away.

I seldom skip my daily PT, and when I do, I regret it.

I still have a certain amount of discomfort, but not the major pain.  I’ve learned I need to do  Bowflex exercises once a day to reduce a lot of tension in my lower back and fight off leg numbness.  I do a rowing exercise daily, just 130 strokes.  I’ve also learned from trial and error that taking a B-complex vitamin reduces the numbness in my foot and leg.

The last technique I’m working on to help myself is losing weight.  I’ve been overweight for decades, and at 235 pounds, just existing is like carry two sacks of cement with me at all time.  However, feeling bad makes me eat, so I’m always gaining weight.  When I get up to 240 my back gets much worse and that pain makes me diet for awhile.  As I drop back to 230 it gets better, I treat myself to junk food, and then I yo-yo back up to 240.  I’m hoping in the next year to get down to 200.

My back doctor has told me time and again to avoid surgery at all costs.  And before I consider surgery to try nerve block shots.  I’ve never liked the idea of nerve block shots and now they are in the news because of contamination, I doubt I’ll ever try them.  I did hear about a new surgical technique that’s just finished clinical trials and could come online in 2014.  The new technique involves regenerating the discs in the back, and I like that idea.  So I’m hoping exercise and losing weight will keep me going until this new technique is FDA approved and my insurance covers it.

JWH – 12/2/12

*Update 1/16/14

Last year I learned I had problems with gluten and gave it up.  I did it because of stomach and chest pains, which went away immediately.  But over the weeks of going without gluten I realized my inflammation was much improved and much of my joint pain had disappeared.  My knees seem twenty years younger.  I still have problems with the spinal stenosis, but much of my other pain has disappeared.  Over time going without gluten has made me feel much better.

I’ve told some of my friends about pain reduction through avoiding gluten, and one lady who had regular joint and arthritis pain gave up gluten and she reported she was eventually able to go without her pain pills.  If you have chronic pain of any sort, you might experiment with going gluten free and see if it helps.

Table of Contents

Damn, I’m Out of Shape!!!

I went swimming today, the first time in probably a quarter of a century.  It was an eye opening experience.  If I fell off a boat without a life preserver I’d be dead in 2 minutes, maybe even 1 minute.  I was never a good swimmer, nor could tread water well, but I had the stamina to struggle along for maybe 50 yards.  I could have put up a good fight.  At 60 and weighing 232 pounds I’d just go under immediately in open water and not come up.

When I was first married, and we lived at an apartment with a pool, I weighed 155 pounds and could run for miles.  I thought before I got in the pool today that fat floated.  Boy was I wrong.  My fat don’t float!  I sink.

For years people have been telling me to take up swimming to help my back.  I’ve always said no because swimming is inconvenient.  But my neighbor, who has a pool, has been urging me to use her pool, so this morning I gave it a try.  I jumped in off the ladder at the deep end and immediately discovered my lack of buoyancy.  It was a struggle to get back to the surface.

At first I thought her pool too small to do laps, but then I tried to do a lap, on the short length, which can’t be more than 20-25 feet.  I made it, using my flailing doggie paddle style, but I had to grab on the edge of the pool and catch my breath after just the first crossing.

I did some experiments trying to hold my breath under water using the stop-watch feature of my Casio.  At first I could only go 8 seconds.  Eventually I worked up to 13.  That’s pitiful.  I guess that’s a sign of getting old.  When I was young it wasn’t much trouble to hold my breath under water for 60 seconds or more.

I stuck with doing laps and I went back and forth maybe 10 times, either doggie paddling, or some kind of crude breast stroke.  I tried the normal crawl one time but I just don’t have that kind of coordination.

I’m not completely out of shape.  After swimming I did 20 minutes of physical therapy and then 10 minutes of Bowflex.  But it’s obvious that being overweight and 60 that I’m at a lifetime low point when it comes to stamina.  Before my back got bad I did stair walking at work and could do 20-24 floors on my break.  I can ride my bike for 30-45 minutes now, but I’ve discovered that unless I’m riding uphill, bikes are so efficient that it’s not much exercise. 

It so weird watching my body decline, because mentally I feel like I did when I was 19.

So far I’ve lost 6 pounds on my diet.  I do believe if I worked hard I could regain some of my stamina – but will I?  I’ve discovered in recent years I’ve adapted to a very sedentary lifestyle.  My back limits my activities, especially standing or walking, so I’ve just accepted doing less.  I think I need to get an exercise bike to push myself.  Sitting on a bike, leaning forward on the handlebars, doesn’t hurt my back.  Swimming, or more precisely, trying to swim, didn’t seem to hurt my back either.  So I’ll keep it up.  At least in warm weather.

On one hand I feel like just accepting getting old and doing less, on the other hand I believe I should fight the inevitable.  I see all these natural catastrophes on TV and how old people need so much help just to run away from danger.  I don’t want to be like that.  I see news reports of people rushing to rescue stuff in their homes before fires engulf them.  With my stamina I couldn’t rescue much.  And living in an emergency shelter would be very hard on me.  I’ve gotten old and soft and addicted to creature comforts, the crutch of modern air conditioned living. 

I wouldn’t be much of a survivor in a post-apocalyptic world.

I’ve become an animal highly adapted to a very specific environment.  I’ve developed a routine where I expend very little energy to survive.  But what will life be like at 70?  Or 80?  I would ask about 90, but I just can’t imagine my declining stamina letting me live to 90.  But I see 90 year-old people all the  time – but most of them move very little.

Do I ride the current slope of my declining stamina, or do I made a big effort and bend that declining slope into a rising one?  Could I regain the stamina I had at 50 or 40?  That might be dreaming, but I do know people my age that are many times more active than I am.  However, I think they’ve always been many times more active than I was.

I’ll keep you posted.  I need some way of measuring progress though.  Have to think about that.  Are there standardized tests for stamina?

JWH – 6/30/12

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