It’s now 1999, and I’m 50. My move-regime was by now complete: daily hill-walks, mat exercises (sit-ups, push-ups, pelvic lifts), and even newly acquired, relaxing tai-chi.
I managed to keep my weight – but for some reason my tummy had begun to bloat and I’d lost some of my usual vitality. While family problems at the time didn’t help, I was quite sure the cause was physical.
I saw my gynaecologist, and had an MRI which showed nothing unusual. He suggested I try a testosterone implant and estrogen/progesterone patches. This seemed to work, and I lost the bloat. I slept better, had my energy restored (so much so I exhausted my friends!) – but also found I felt close to normal even when the implant wore off.
I was working full-time, and needed regular physiotherapy to treat my neck and back.
The now familiar catchcry ‘Occupational Health and Safety’ was unheard of in the 1980s and even up to the early 2000s – most workstations were not set up ‘ergonomically’ as they are now. I had to sit on awful chairs and use desks which didn’t accommodate computer keyboards. I was frequently on the phone, resting the handset on my shoulder, neck bent to one side for long periods. No wonder that I suffered chronic low back pain and locked neck muscles!
I applied Dencorub nightly, parked my hot water bottle under the sheets and took a pill containing pseudoephedrine (a common drug for nasal congestion). The pills helped me relax, ease the pain and eventually sleep. I didn’t know they were addictive. To my horror, I endured a week of hallucinating and breaking out in cold sweat when I was forced to get off it. (The drug is now prohibitive, dispensed only under prescription.)
After that ordeal, I vowed never to take painkillers again. I took comfort only with my heat rub and therapy. The pain would go in the morning, but would gradually increase during the day.
I saw a team of great physiotherapists (including Maria King who appears in my Physiocise video), who treated me when I would rush to their practice every fortnight. They got me through the days when the pain was at its worst. Results were almost immediate, but unfortunately only lasted a week to 10 days – after which the dull ache became pain again.
Looking at my x-rays, the physios were consistent with their advice: “Shirley, come to our Pilates classes – your posture is bad, you need to get it assessed and fixed. You can manage this pain with the right exercises.” I didn’t heed their advice, and thought continuing with physio was easiest for me. Besides, I was also able to have a short nap as I lay under the heat pad during therapy …
I really didn’t have the time for another exercise load. Working full-time during the day, I was also building a business network and share-portfolio in the evenings. So I bought a pair of 3kg weights instead, and used them on the weekend on top of my standard mat drill. I worked on my posture, but don’t think I won. I did however later join a Pilates class and felt good for it, but didn’t continue.
It was only in 2016 when I first retired from work that I got serious and joined a gym. I felt better in 6 months, and developed strong leg and back muscles. My core strength (which I thankfully maintained with the weekly home exercises) improved even more. Better stability and posture eased the chronic neck and back pain I suffered for years, and I could now stand for much longer in the kitchen. I was shown how, by stretching, I could get rid of my muscle spasms – even sciatica – almost immediately.
Friends, I encourage you to take more proactive action to fix something similar that could be totally treatable without medication.
We have so many options today. Many organisations partner with fitness studios and gyms to give discounted memberships. Places offering Pilates, stretching and muscle toning with qualified practitioners are abundant.
But get professional advice from a physiotherapist first, or request an x-ray if you’re in pain.
My physio Kate continued to help with my tight muscles right up to 2016, when I had my first go at retirement. And you know what? I tripped twice on uneven footpaths. Luckily, my wrists (strong from years of orange-squeezing) broke my fall. Oh, how my joints and muscles felt that impact! It continued for many weeks, and I had yet more pain to add to my list.
I realised that with age, my thighs, knees and calves were not strong enough to keep me stable if I lost balance. I thought again of my youth in Singapore, seeing ‘old’ people struggling to walk or get up from their chairs, clutching their knees.
Bone mass & osteoporosis: The facts
According to the American National Institutes of Health (NIH), ‘peak bone mass’ occurs up to the late 20s for both men and women. But:
From age 30, women lose little mass – until a few years after menopause, when bone loss accelerates. This commonly leads to osteoporosis. It is suggested that genetics, determined by gender and race, affects up to 75 percent of a person’s bone mass, while environmental factors (e.g. diet, lifestyle and lack of exercise) affects 25 percent.1
While men start with greater bone mass than women, this declines in their 30s, when bone loss exceeds formation. Men in their 50s do not suffer the same rapid loss as menopausal women, but by 65 or 70 both lose mass at the same speed. Calcium absorption also drops in both sexes.2
So, men: the big ‘O’ also includes you.
Twice as many men as women die from post-operative complications (e.g. chest infections and heart failure) in the first year after a hip-fracture. This is true even if men are a few years younger than women.3
The NIH lists the following important genetic and environmental risk factors which can increase the likelihood of osteoporosis:
- being thin or having a small frame
- family history of the condition
- early menopause and loss of menstrual periods
- long use of asthma, thyroid, lupus and seizure medications
- poor calcium intake
- lack of exercise
- high alcohol consumption.4
Okay, so we all lose lean muscle and bone as we age – but we also commonly gain fat to boot. But do you know what’s missing? It was not until my late 60s that I realised what it was: MUSCLE STRENGTH.
That dogged (now that I reflect on it) solitary hour I spent on the mat at home for so many years helped, but just wasn’t enough now. I needed expert supervision to guide me in my quest to build some brawn.
A decision was made: I would find a gym that would cater for a 68-year-old without a stitch of lycra in her wardrobe. But no deafening music, sweaty bodies or shouty mic instructors please!
I tried two fitness centres; both had caring, knowledgeable trainers. I picked the one closest to home – DirksHealth in North Bondi, Sydney. The gym had a small group of lovely men and women, mainly aged 55 and over. What’s more, I could bring my own playlist!
I signed up, and never looked back.
In Move! 4.0, you’ll read first-hand the huge gains I made to strength, overall fitness, wellbeing, and HRT/diet-monitoring to get the calcium I needed. And I didn’t overdo the supplements.
1 National Institutes of Health. (2018). Osteoporosis: Peak Bone Mass in Women. Retrieved from https://www.bones.nih.gov/sites/bones/files/pdfs/osteopeakbonemassinwomen-508.pdf
2 National Institutes of Health. (2018). Osteoporosis in Men. Retrieved from https://www.bones.nih.gov/sites/bones/files/pdfs/osteopinmen-508.pdf
3 Kannegaard, P.N., Van der Mark, S., Eiken, P., & Abrahamsen, B. (2010). Excess mortality in men compared with women following a hip fracture. National analysis of comedications, comorbidity and survival. Age and Ageing, 39, 203–9. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/ageing/article/39/2/203/40731
4 National Institutes of Health. (2018). Smoking and Bone Health. Retrieved from https://www.bones.nih.gov/sites/bones/files/pdfs/smokingbonehealth-508-12-18.pdf
Share your thoughts on our Let’s Talk page