At a time when so many people are popping pills to increase their serotonin levels, I feel lucky. I’m a pretty happy person all the time which means I’ve got more than enough natural serotonin coursing through my body. It should be illegal to have this much natural energy at this age.
After every particularly difficult exercise, my trainer will check in: “How do you feel?” and my answer is always the same: “I feel great!” or “I feel fine!” And believe me, I give thanks for the gifts of my good health and great mood in my morning prayers every single day.
But my relationship with exercise has been…complicated.
I’ve said before that I come from a family of athletically oriented people. Except for my mother, who was a confirmed couch potato, everyone else worked out, skied, ran–you name it. I’ve always joked that I’m the family intellectual. Of course, now I have a nephew who is both athletic and more intellectually gifted than any of us, so perhaps i’ve lost my title. Nonetheless, I’ve always seen exercise as a necessary evil, done grudgingly or not at all.
My father began running in the 1960s, well before the running boom of the 1970s, and wanted his kids to run, too. I, of course wanted nothing to do with it. Still, he lived until he was almost 89, despite advanced dementia, and we’re sure his long life was a result of his excellent cardio fitness. Yes, both a blessing and a curse: who would want to live with dementia? My couch potato mom kept all her marbles to the end, but paid the price for sitting on the sofa nibbling bon-bons.
You’d think that my parents’ experiences would have embedded themselves more deeply into the fabric of my life, but really, they didn’t. Denial is a pretty powerful thing.
Cardio, though, is an inevitable necessity, I’ve come to accept. So every day I get on a treadmill or elliptical with headphones and Sirius oldies music and go at it. Not too long ago, the music and a little voice in my head pushed me to pick up the pace. But if I went over 3.4 mph on the treadmill, I wanted to run. I HAD to run. So that’s what I did.
Unfortunately, the body ages with time and now, on the cusp of 65, I have this little section of my left lower back that simply does not like impact of any kind. It’s the place I get injured when I don’t set appropriate physical limits for myself. Sure enough, I pounded it a bit too much one day and my back protested–so much that I had to reduce my speed and exertion for a while. Because an aging body simply does not bounce back like it once did. But that music! It kept pushing me. And that voice in my head? It kept saying come on, run a little, do it!
So I made a deal with my aging body. I’d do intervals, walking at 3.4 mph for five minutes, then pushing the speed up and jogging for one or two minutes. I’d be really careful and I’d stop if I felt that warning signal on the left side of my back.
That little bit of running? It got me high. I mean HIGH! Better than any drug. The endorphin rush on top of my naturally high serotonin levels? A better feeling than the rush of cocaine. And I do remember what THAT felt like.
Pretty soon, I found myself adding minutes to the running part of my regimen. As I added minutes, I got higher. And didn’t want to stop. Hot Trainer had to fetch me from the cardio machines for our strength training sessions.
“Are you RUNNING?” he asked me the first time.
Carefully. Touching base with my left lower back (and knees) as I go, and sticking to intervals, although the running parts are getting longer and longer. And I’m a little addicted to the high. Fortunately, my excellent bone density allows me to take this risk and I’m glad it does.
Way fun, but I thought it might be MORE fun to mix it up a little and do something else, too. You can see where this is going, right?
At my other gym, the one I go to when I don’t see Hot Trainer, I noticed a sign announcing a new cardio class:
Bollywood movies are a guilty favorite, so I thought I’d give it a try one morning. After all, my fitness level had significantly improved, right?
To begin with, on a good day I can walk and chew gum at the same time. But when it comes to complex choreography in which the hands go one way and the feet the other? Not so much. I almost got myself tangled into a knot and almost fell over in another move.
But worse than that, it’s high impact cardio, which is a younger woman’s game. Some 30 minutes into it I could feel my back beginning to complain and at 40 minutes, I stopped, fearing further pain. At home, my back was really uncomfortable, so I took three ibuprofens and berated myself for not setting appropriate limits. Would I have to give up running until my back felt better? Not do cardio at all? Worse, would I have to return to physical therapy? How could I be so dumb?
I stayed home from the gym for two days. The third day I woke feeling fine and hit the treadmill, running again and feeling that rush. The next day I did feel a little strain but nothing that would keep me down.
So. I might not look my age, but my body tells me that yes, I am going to be 65 this summer, and some adjustments are necessary, mostly psychological, but also, physical. When something hurts, it means I shouldn’t do it or I should modify it for my age and fitness level. Increased exertion should be slow and steady and I need to touch base with my body every step of the way, looking for those little warning signals and paying attention to them.
Because even though I’m naturally high? I like getting even higher. I like getting high off an endorphin rush.
And I don’t want to stop.
Have you had an experience with exercise you’d like to share? I’d love to hear it. Oh, and I’m dedicating this post to Carla, a former fitness blogger who was pretty much the only other woman in the gym at o’dark hundred at my recent Vegas conference. Lucky me, I got to meet her, too!