Wonder Woman Versus the Sproing!

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Sproing! It happens to every athlete, young and old – but I’ve never been much of an athlete, and up until now I’ve been feeling pretty smug. Seated on the mat, folded over at the hips like a closed book, I had succeeded in comfortably resting my forehead on my knee during my post-workout stretch. I’d done this several times now, a happy result of my seven-month steady gym habit. Look at me! I’m Wonder Woman – defying the limits of middle age. Watch me fly! Watch me – OW!

But I felt better after two weeks of avoiding the lower-back press machine and extreme forward bends, so I tried a “beginners’” yoga class – and forgot, once again, that I am not Wonder Woman. A few days later I found myself in the emergency room, paralyzed with agonizing back spasms. Have you had these? If not, I pray that you never do. It goes like this: your lower back seizes your entire body and mind, as if you’ve just been grabbed down there with a giant staple remover. You know, that metal claw-like thing in your desk drawer? It grabs you with a sharp pain that takes your breath away and hisses into your ear, “Don’t. Move.” But you have to move, right? You have to summon help somehow. So you try a tiny step, only to be clamped again in a vice of blinding pain. Ladies, it’s not unlike strong labor pains, but centered in your lower back. And deep breaths don’t help – in fact, it’s hard to breathe. After two fuzzy days on Vicodin and muscle relaxers, I had to figure out how to fix this.

One of the things I’d been looking forward to doing in retirement was getting into really good shape. Oh, I wasn’t a complete slug during my working years; I’d hit the gym once or twice a week and take long walks when weather permitted, but it was always difficult to force myself to exercise after a long day of teaching high school and then coaching after-school activities. And to those chirpy morning types who tell me to get up an hour early to exercise, to them I say – well, I can’t use such language here. As it was, I had to get up at 5:30 A.M. in order to have time for breakfast, perform my ablutions, prepare my lunch, and gather my work things, including workout clothes. And I hated that alarm clock with a passion; every day I cursed that nasty, insistent beep, beep, beep that wrenched me from my dreams and into another cold, dark morning. One of the most delightful aspects of retirement is the ability to get out of bed when I’m damned good and ready.

But I digress. Now I’m free to fit in exercise more frequently, at a civilized hour, and I have been doing so. I’ve always enjoyed lifting weights, and we read how important it is for older women to perform resistance exercise in order to stave off the otherwise inevitable wasting of muscle tissue that comes with age, and the ensuing bone brittleness. According to Dr. Pamela Peeke, a physician and expert in women’s fitness, women lose about ½ pound of muscle per year after age 40 if they do not engage in regular resistance training. (I recommend her book Body for Life for Women, in which she presents a do-able, gimmick-free fitness program that includes weight training.) Less muscle mass equals a slower metabolism equals a plump, sluggish body and less joie de vivre. And how much fun is it to look in the mirror and see toned, firm arms and shoulders after 50!

Our local YMCA is a wonderful place to exercise. Unlike many commercial gyms, it’s truly a community center, and the clientele ranges from tiny children (in the pool – so cute!) to very old folks maintaining their strength, balance, and flexibility. I feel very comfortable and welcome there. Spin class is very challenging, and I merrily ignore the urgings of the younger instructors to crank it up to gear 15. I challenge myself, keep an eye on my heart monitor, and enjoy the group energy and the great music. Zumba class is an absolute hoot! I love a dance-y workout, and have zero interest in any fitness class that resembles combat – but hey, chacun a son gout. About 60 of us shake it twice a week, led by two young instructors through a series of heart-pumping hip-hop and Latin dance moves. I’m inspired by a woman I see at every class who’s 80 if she’s a day, and who does all the moves – modifying for her range of motion, of course. She’s having so much fun!

A problem with the fitness industry is that most instructors are young and very fit (of course!), and they lack experience in modifying workouts for older exercisers, for larger exercisers, or for people who have limitations due to injuries. “Of course everyone can bend like this,” they say. “Just try a little harder!” Our Y is blessed with some excellent older instructors who never neglect to mention modifications. But the computer is another matter.

Why, oh why, did I listen to that computer? The program is called ActivTrax, and it spits out a weight-training workout, based upon an initial strength test. Well, this computer was impressed with my progress, and told me to set the lower-back press for 110 pounds. And I listened – what kind of fool am I? I’d also been doing some very challenging (for me) ab exercises, heaving myself up on a slant board, waving my legs in the air like semaphore flags, and other foolishness. I’ve since read that an imbalance in the abdominal and back muscles can result from these very-targeted exercises, which can lead to lower-back pain. It’s better for people with back problems to train the whole core with exercises like planks, rather than to zero in on upper abs, lower abs, etc. Now I know.

My wonderful GP doctor, her physician’s assistant, and my equally wonderful physical therapist have taught me a great deal about how to exercise my abs without straining my back. My GP, who is young, slim and fit, also has back problems and will not even do any sort of forward-bending stretches of the type I was abusing when the sproing hit me. Well then! Obviously, I have a lot to learn about a subject, weight training, that I thought I was already pretty well-informed about. And I must face the fact that, at my age, I must take a more cautious approach to exercise. Not that I plan to “slow down,” nor do I plan to restrict myself to swimming – which is what so many advise old folks to do. No, you’ll find me in weight room again, but I’ll be planning my own workouts, rather than following the dictates of a computer program. And I’ll be listening much more carefully to my body.

But I would like a pair of those WW red boots!

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