It was Scott’s birthday recently. His doctor gave him x-rays. The last time he had x-rays it showed cervical arthritis in his neck. This time it showed arthritis in his lumbar spine (lower back). He says next year he’s hoping for a nice set of thoracic x-rays so the mid-back doesn’t get left out. A kind of arthritic triple crown. Don’t worry. He’s just fine. But his reward for years of gymnastic abuse is arthritis. As his doctor rather flatly put it with a sigh, “Uh huh. Where there’s been injury, there’ll be arthritis.” Happy birthday to you.
The prescription however, is actually perfect: Lots of exercise, and lots of core strengthening. Don’t sit in a desk all day. Good luck!
Welcome to middle age. It’s a big change for both of us, but especially for my husband. For years, people who know him thought maybe he was freakishly immune to time.
About 15 years ago, Scott and I and two of our favourite friends had just returned from a long and grueling hike up Mount Garibaldi. It’s a pretty steep and relentless climb that takes several hours going up, and almost as long coming down. We were all exhausted. Except for Scott. He was always ahead, standing there waiting for us to catch up. As we approached, he’d seem to glide effortlessly ahead a few dozen meters more. I’d yell at him to slow down. He’d stop again and wait before floating away, the whole demoralizing ritual repeating itself all the way up.
Coming back was much the same. The three of us would kind of stumble on the rocks, careful of our knees as the relentless pounding took its toll on our legs. Not Scott. He just seemed to be walking along a flat paved road, babbling away, making jokes or random observations. I seem to remember he was the only one laughing. One friend – we’ll call him ‘Mark’ – prided himself on strength and fitness; or at least how he remembered it. Years earlier, he had competed in sports at the college level, and had even run triathlons. Now on Mount Garibaldi, he would stop every 20 minutes or so to “stretch” his tight calves, or his Achilles heels, or his back. After a while it seemed like a ploy to get a break, making Scott slow down. I was grateful to him.
When we all finally got back to the parking lot, our feet felt broken. Our bodies hurt everywhere. But we also felt accomplished. And relieved. It was finally over and food was obviously going to be our reward.
As we drove away, Mark noticed something on the side of the road and shouted to stop. It looked like a backpack. It took a while for his shouting to register before Scott finally pulled the car over. Scott jumped out and ran back to the spot to investigate. He ran – as in sprinted – the 100 metres or so…. like he was fresh out of bed, fully rested.
Incredulous, we watched him out the back window from the comfort of the car as he bounded into the distance out to the bag and back. When Scott got back to the car, he didn’t even seem to be breathing hard. Stunned that Scott could even get out of the car, never mind run effortlessly down the road after a full day of hiking, Mark shouted, “Jesus Christ! You’re not human. You’re a robot. You’re f***ing Legolas.”
We all burst out laughing. And Legolas stuck. Legolas, of course, is one of the main characters in The Lord of the Rings, a woodland Elf who is eagle-eyed, fleet-footed, and ageless. His best friend – and opposite – is a short, grumpy, heavy and fat Dwarf named Gimli.
Though I’m no Legolas, Scott and I have always been active. Some might call us gym nerds. We’ve also run half-marathons, training for it in the dead of winter. I’ve even taught fitness classes for almost 20 years.
Gym nerds. As Nikki once said “who looks that happy at the gym?”
And yet, despite all that, as we go into our forties, everything gets a little harder. Like Al Bundy from Married with Children, it is so easy to be deluded that despite our daily decay, we can somehow maintain our eternal youth.
We think the activity of our youthier selves will protect us as we age. After all, we remember our more active days as if they were just yesterday, so it’s easy to forget that with each passing year our body is becoming less like the person we were in our 20s.
We can also delude ourselves that maybe we’re different from everyone else. Somehow in the back of our mind we believe aging will happen without the unpleasant decay. We’ll just age smoothly, we’ll take vitamins, ‘getting old’ will happen to unhealthy people, not us.
But eventually physical reality catches up to everyone. No one is immune.
Maybe it’s the accumulated impact of sitting at a desk job, barely expending physical energy. Or the natural retreat of our metabolism as we age, or just the mounting wear and tear on our bodies over time. Whatever the cause, our age starts to show up as achey knees, back pain, and a longer recovery times. Stress also takes a toll. You don’t bounce back from a flu or a cold as quickly as you used to. You need more sleep just as sleep becomes harder to come by.
The problem for Scott and I is that in less than 50 days, our new adventure will suddenly require a lot of physical activity. Hiking and camping across Canada, followed by more hiking and camping across England. It’s been a long, lazy winter and we need to get ready.
Although generally, Canadian winters are pretty tough, this year was particularly hard. Our sluggish middle-aged metabolisms and narrowing muscle mass ratios coupled with arthritis and sciatica (our newfound age-related companions) kept us on the couch watching Netflix instead of at the gym or marathon-training.
We will require an extra long runway if we’re going to avoid hitting something on takeoff.
And then there is the added challenge for me….This next phase will involve spending a lot of time in nature.
I know what you’re thinking, doesn’t everyone love nature? I’m going to be dead honest here. I’m not really a wilderness type. I mean I love the sounds of the birds outside my window in the spring and I enjoy a walk in the park as much as anyone. But I’ve never been a huge fan of sleeping in a tent. I don’t like being cold, even a little bit. I hate wind. And I fear insects, especially spiders [shivers].
“I’m just happy you’re happy honey”
So then why would I do this camping and hiking challenge?
When I’ve hiked into the mountains, I’ve protested loudly and steadily, most of the way. But I’m painfully aware that with each passing year, the extended desk time in our concrete overcrowded city, is shaving years off my life. I’m tired of losing the fight with gravity. I want to learn to be self-reliant, able to carry everything I need. I want to learn to sleep outdoors, to get friendly with my creepy, crawly fellow beings.
But most importantly, I want to become more comfortable with discomfort.
This may seem like a crazy idea. Why on earth would anyone want to get comfortable with discomfort? The thing is, we live really comfortable yet very stressful lives these days. Think about it. We order everything on line; some of us even order our food online. If I have a question, the Google will answer it in seconds. I don’t have to walk to the library. I don’t have to use my arm to open a book. Everything is so convenient; yet it’s making us averse to any physical or emotional challenge or change. We’ve become so impatient. We get agitated waiting for the elevator doors to close (they’re so slow!), or for the light to change. Sitting at a desk all day, being agitated by everything around us, working long hours and never turning off. All of this convenience is creating unreal expectations in all of us for everything to be perfectly suitable, exactly to our liking. And the reality is, that’s not possible.
I’ve concluded that learning to be ok with discomfort is actually one of the keys to a happy life.
Discomfort is unavoidable, especially as we age. Just ask Scott. Or my sciatica. So better to become more comfortable with it; to accept and embrace the discomfort.
There is a ton of evidence to support the health benefits of spending time in nature. I accept that fact, even if I find hiking and camping a big uncomfortable challenge. Like medicine, I can find nature hard to swallow. But at the same time, Scott and I are a little drained by city life.
Toronto’s high-altitude skyline means it’s easy to go months without seeing the actual horizon, or much of the sky. In winter, it can feel as though nature has been physically removed from the landscape. All that’s left are the hibernating (i.e., dead-looking) trees and greenery covered in burlap to avoid frost damage. The world goes dark, monochromatic, cold and dreary. Like living in a claustrophobic box of glass and concrete for six months. Then it’s like living in an oven.
The decision to learn how to thrive (read: survive) in the outdoors [LINK: Scott’s previous post] includes two personal goals for me:
(1) To get more comfortable being uncomfortable, learning more about myself along the way.
(2) By spending time in wilderness, challenge myself physically and mentally – because, as we age and get caught up in careers, we do much less of either. Stress and work-related anxiety don’t count as genuine physical and mental challenges. They’re mostly an assault on wellbeing.
The past year has been particularly tough in the healthy-eating and physical-fitness part of our life. But, given the ambitious agenda we’ve set for ourselves starting July 1, we know it would be foolish to try to strap 30 pounds on our backs and hike for weeks without some preparation.
So… for the next 50 days, there will be more salad and less poutine. More hiking and fewer movies at the VIP Theater in reclining chairs. And much more running to get us ready for the exciting (read: terrifying) adventures ahead.
In the end, all I know is we can’t stop aging. We’re all getting older every day. You can’t fight it, but you can accept and adapt to it. Push back on the numbing delusion that the passage of time isn’t happening.
I know that age is inevitable but we’re trying to live a life awake and on our own terms, not sleepily following along wondering one day where the time had gone?