Monday, February 5, 2018

Active Middle Age: The Inside Game

You rounded the corner of 40 or 50 a few years ago, and, thinking little of it, you kept at your climbing, biking, or running with as much gusto as always. In the hazy corner of your vision, though, you’ve been noticing a loose network of aches and pains slowly amassing. They're sticking around, too, colonizing body parts in worrying ways. 
Welcome to active middle age (though you might need a gun to your head to actually call it that). My advice? Don’t get too worked up this isn't going away.

In my own ten-year dance with those little devils, I’ve spent enough time with doctors and physical therapists, and in my own time-consuming research, to have earned an ersatz masters degree. Below, I share a few of the less obvious bits of wisdom I’ve picked up along the way—a few thoughts to mull while twiddling your thumbs in the waiting room for your next doctor’s appointment.

1) Sometimes it’s healthy to push through pain. When we were young, the byword for recovery was, “rest and ice until you feel zero pain; then (and only then) build back very slowly.” In the new school of physical therapy, though, some pain is okay when getting back to baseline. If you’ve put in a fair amount of healing time, and you’re working on re-strengthening an injured area, you can experience discomfort that feels just like re-injury.  Don’t let middle-age keep you in 1990s recovery mode; your stiff, new tissues are stretching and growing, and possibly trying to break up old scar tissue, too. That hurts, but it’s not bad.

Of course, I’ll insert the usual “consult your local expert” here to cover my asphalt. But then again, that brings me to the next point:

2) Doctors and physical therapists are often wrong. I’ve lost count of the number of doctors, therapists, bike fitters, body workers, and so forth I’ve consulted over the years just for my chronic knee pain — it must be around twenty. For a while, each brought the breathless promise of full recovery, if only I stuck religiously to their special brand of therapy. In recent years, I see it more holistically: “This is the person for me today.” I still use something from each approach, though, so none of that time and money was actually wasted (though it might often seem otherwise).

A corollary: don’t necessarily avoid the Internet. Don’t get me wrong: don’t start there! If you haven’t seen at least a few doctors and physical therapists in person, do not pass “Go.” Do your due diligence, because you can quickly drown in the bottomless ocean of conflicting opinions on the Web (or amongst your active friends). 

However, if you’ve seen a bunch of experts and are still far from the goal, check out the alternatives that thoughtful, experienced people offer out there. I’ve picked up useful pieces of PT that way.

You’ll eventually discover there is no one expert who’ll get you all the way there. In fact—and this may be the most important, and hardest, lesson of all—there is no “all the way there.” You’ve put enough wear and tear on your bod over enough years that the best you can probably hope for is managing the discomfort down to a workable level. It’s an endless process of trial and error, and yes: it can be maddening. There have been many times when frustration and hopelessness got the best of me. 

And voila! That brings us to thought number three:

3) Buck up, and go with the flow. Yes, you need endless persistence to stay active in middle age, to let go of the unconscious ideal of recovering the invulnerability of your youth. That idea is what will make you suffer the most. It’s not easy to settle into the idea that you’re now in the pain management business.

However, you have all the psychological fuel you need. Let’s face it: you couldn’t give up if you wanted to. You’re not yourself when you don’t get out there regularly; you’re depressed, irritable, lost. You’d do anything to get back in the game. So, you might as well spend a solid portion of energy on being good company to yourself and those around you, while you slog through the constant appointments, and spend an obscene amount of your leisure time stretching and strengthening. Negative thinking, doom and glooming, will just make a hard job harder.

Your family will thank you, your activity buddies will thank you, but most of all, you’ll be doing your best for yourself. Maybe you’re not the young buck you were ten years ago, but you’ve got a lot of fun left in front of you. Focus on what you can do, and get after it.

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