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Staying fit and strong as we age

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 23 September 2008


Do you have to walk carefully around your house? Do steps ever bother you because they are too steep? Are you scared of  falling in the shower or when you step out of it? Do you refrain from joining a yoga class because you’re afraid everyone will hear your knees creak?

You’re getting a bit older every day. Welcome to the club.

I can’t pretend to be an expert on these issues. I am not an osteopath or physiotherapist. But I can write about my own experiences. And maybe I can be of help to someone.

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There can be various causes of mobility problems. Some people are born with difficulties which restrict mobility and flexibility. Some of us have had motor vehicle accidents. In my case, a car bumped me some 20 metres down the road. My tibia and fibula were broken and the doctors let the leg heal without the 35 mm that were smashed. As a result, I have a spine that tends to get stiff and inflexible, sore, wobbly knees, and a stiff neck.

Others are injured in sport. Sport is a wonderful way of becoming fit; but also a great way for people to injure themselves. Running a long distance on concrete puts knees and other bits under strain.

So part of the problem with mobility is injury. There are also many issues associated with age, like osteoporosis (bones get brittle and can snap). Arthritis hits a huge percentage of the population. One knee surgeon smiled and said “We get nearly everyone, in the end”. As we get older we can easily fall into the armchair. The less we do, the less we feel like doing. And you can see people maybe in their 50s who spend their lives tottering from the armchair to the dining room, out for a bit of a stroll, and off to bed.

Too many institutions, and maybe families, have an approach which I sum up as “Sit down, Grandpa, and stay out of the way”. Old people are pushed away instead of being used for the things they do best: listening to kids, telling stories, giving kids the audience they crave, being part of the community. Many boys, for instance, benefit from having an older mentor who offers a sympathetic ear and an occasional word of warning. Many societies manage to use older people to guide younger ones. (Perhaps Aboriginal, Maori and Thai family groups are the best examples.)

Older people must keep active to enjoy the years they have left to them. Mental challenge is very important. So is physical challenge.

The key issues are flexibility and mobility. Solutions vary widely. Some people swear by physiotherapy. Acupuncture can offer relief from tense, frozen muscles. Osteopaths, masseurs - many of these health workers do great work. Unfortunately, if you talk to your GP about such problems, he (she) will often say “Go home, rest, take some pain relief” (or perhaps an anti-inflammatory medication). We need men’s and women’s health practitioners to be much more aware of how to treat problems of mobility.

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When I saw a knee surgeon recently, he said the cliché is true: “use it or lose it”. Like almost everyone else, he approves of almost everything in the water. Aquatherapy is used by some people. Many athletes soak their knees in cold salt-water. Swimming is great (flippers can be useful to strengthen quadriceps). Water can’t do much harm to most of us, and it can do a lot of good.

Mobility around the home can be a problem for many. Sometimes this is after injury. These days, we are tipped out of our hospital bed although we can barely get around our house to cook and clean. As we age we tend to get slower, and houses can become a place in which many injuries occur. My 90-year-old mum hurt herself like this: she was on the toilet and got a phone call. She walked to the phone too fast and broke her hip in a fall.

Changing and modifying our houses to help us move around can be very useful. It’s something governments need to think about more. Australia has a large population of baby-boomers and we are all moving through our 50s and 60s.

Here are some things that can be done to make life easier for those of us who are challenged by injury, disability, or ageing of the body:

  • get an agency to help you check out potential danger spots in the home. These could include bathroom, kitchen, steps and laundry;
  • ask friends and loved ones for ideas to help you stay safe and mobile in your house;
  • get a good gym to help you keep moving. There are many kinds of yoga: find one that suits;
  • older people need to stay active. Try some new sports. Remember that water is safe and walking is usually great. Keep mixing it up and keep your interest alive;
  • get off the red meat for every meal habit. Get some fish into you. Fish oil is great, I’m told, but it’s better for you when it’s in the fish you eat;
  • let others know what they can do to help. Get onto your local MP, as I did with great results (see below);
  • above all, avoid feeling sorry for yourself. Do your best to get out there and keep mentally and physically active. And you may be surprised at how much fun you have.
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www.oldermenswellbeing.com.au lists many organisations to assist older men and women enjoy their senior years. www.livingincomfort.com.au has ideas and tools for making life easier for many of us challenged by age or disability. The author would like to acknowledge help he received from his local MP, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, now Leader of the Opposition.



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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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