Exercise After 40

Exercise is the United States, and probably the rest of the world, is geared entirely towards people in their 20s and 30s.  I belong to a gym but in all the years of my gym membership I have yet to come across an instructor over the age of 40.  Hell, most of them have yet to reach 30!  I paid for a dozen or so lessons from a trainer once.  She was nice but she had no idea, that I could see, of how to treat the over 40 body.  And at that time mine was over 5o!  Asking such people what this “core” is, like a location, and you get a series of odd and incredulous looks.  “How can you not know?” They seem to ask.  If I had known better at the time I would have said something like, “It’s my joints and back which need coaxing into motion.  If we can just start there everything else will work itself out.”

At the time I still had it in my head that jogging was a good thing!  Wrong! When your joints are over 40 they get very upset when you pound on them incessantly as happens with jogging.  Then you will find yourself at you doctor asking him why your joints hurt so much and he will say something like, “Well, you damn fool, you are 43, not 23, act your age!”  I was actually about 53 when I heard those words.  At the time I did not realize I had alternatives and said something stupid to the effect that not jogging was not really an alternative.  He told me that if that was so then I needed to strengthen the muscles surrounding my joints.  Enter the gym!  Sound like a vicious cycle?  It is!

This brings up a good point.  Before attempting any exercise, get yourself checked out by your primary care physician and tell him/her what your plan is.  (S)he will be able to tell you your beginning limits.  When you enter into cardio exercise, it is always good to have your “cardio” assessed to see if it is up to it.

One day, while jogging around a pond, my body said to me, “I’m not doing this any more!”  I protested and pushed on but my body pushed back by slowing me down.  Each time out  felt increasingly more tired and distances that had been fairly easy became more difficult than they should have.  Finally I gave in and retired my array of running shorts.

Then, one day, it occurred to me how much I loved riding a bicycle when I was a kid.  I used to go everywhere on it, and I can remember how I said in fairly good shape just doing that.  That is when I invested in a new bicycle.  For about $350 I got a good solid starter bicycle and set out.  To be sure I was more than a little wobbly at first but after a short while I worked things out and got fairly good.  Well, I thought I had gotten fairly good.  What I had failed to do was to read up on what I should be doing to stay healthy while making bicycling a regular exercise regimen.  One day my body protested that I was abusing it and shut me down in about 10 seconds.  What had happened was I had become extremely dehydrated and I am fairly certain my core temperature rose to a very unhealthy high level.  Still, it took me a couple more years to finally get with it where healthy bicycling goes.  While I was properly hydrating myself I had no idea how to pace myself, how to attack hills, and how to increase my endurance.  That said, I will try to pass on all that I have learned and in doing so, hopefully, encourage you to take up bicycling and forego shin splints and balky knees that come from jogging and other high impact exercise.

The Bicycle — It is extremely important to get a bicycle that fits you.  In this respect one of the most common mistakes I see bicycling beginners do is they buy a bike that is too heavy for them, better known as the “mountain bike.”  This bicycle, with its fat tires and heavy frame, looks like it can take anything you can give it and anything the road throws at it.  While that is true, this bike is truly for the experienced off-road bicyclist.  It is also about 10 to 15 pounds heavier than the bike you need.  If you are just starting out get what is called a “road bike.”  A reasonable substitute is what is called the “commuter bike.”  This bike is meant for exactly what it says, commuting to work or school.  An “around town” bike that may not be suited to an exercise regimen.  There are several good brands, Jamis, Scott, and Cannondale, all of which make a good starter bike that will weigh in about 25 pounds.  Expect to pay around $750 for the basic bike.  Non-chain bicycle stores are probably your best bet.  It is in their interest to serve you well.  And, like a car, buy the bike at a place that repairs them!  Your bike will break down eventually.  Parts wear out.  For example, at about 3000 miles your chain will have stretched and your cassette (the multigears on the rear wheel) will wear out and need to be replaced.  You will know it is 3000 miles from the speedometer/odometer you bought.  I recommend “Cateye” brand as a good easy to understand device.

Buy yourself a good bicycle pump.  You want your tire pressure to be no lower than 1/2 your body weight.  The right amount of pressure keeps the wear on your tires down, and makes your ride easier than if it is low.

Your body — Get your bicycle fit to you.  That is, have the store set your seat to the right height.  And speaking of seats, do not get one of those narrow seats that all the racers use.  You are not a racer!  And after a short while it will hurt your butt more than you want to know!  Also, if you plan to commit to this form of exercise, there is a whole series of specialized bicycling clothing you can buy.  A good pair of padded shorts is going to cost you between $50 and $75 and is worth every penny of it!  If you have the money you can buy polyester biking tops and bottoms but they are going to run you about $150 or so a pair.  A cotton tee shirt, though a little warmer, works just fine.

Your body needs water, lots of it!  All bicycle shops sell plastic water bottles, get 2!  Make sure you bike had at least one holder, 2 is better.  While it is true that as the temperature goes up you need to hydrate more, you still need to hydrate on cold days.

Your route — Every good bicyclist has at least one set route.  He knows the mileage of the route, the hills, the rest points.  Most have several routes.  I have 4, a 22-mile route, a 30-mile route, a 42-mile route, and a 50-mile route, all of which I do regularly.  Having a familiar route is essential to good training.  I recommend that a starter route be 20-miles long.  But within that route give yourself “turn around” points at certain mile markers.  Do that route, or parts of it, very regularly until you have it down and it seems easy.  Once a route is truly “easy” you need to increase your distance.  The only way to improve is through challenge and when something is easy, the challenge is gone.  Most states have “rail-trails.”  These are bicycling paths that have been carved out of abandoned railroad beds.  They are particularly good for the beginner because they take away your having to deal with motor vehicle traffic which can be  intimidating for the beginner.  If you enter “Rails to Trails Conservancy” in your search engine you will find the site that has locations and details for railtrails in every state.

The Ride — Only sprinters are out of breath.  Unless you aspire to be a world class bicycle sprinter, you she never ride so hard that you become breathless, or even winded.  For at least the first month of riding, go at a pace that you can maintain throughout your ride.  This is where the speedometer comes in handy.  The casual rider will ride at between 6 and 8 miles per hour.  Make an initial goal of being able to ride continuously for an hour at 10 MPH.  Then, as time goes on, increase that rate to 11 and then 12 MPH at a given distance.  That speed will be your average over your course and will be dictated by hills.

Maintaining a good rate is accomplished by your bicycle’s gears, 3 in the front and 9 in the rear.  The front gears, the smaller the gear the faster you will pedal.  The opposite is true of the rear gears.  Familiarize yourself with your gears.  When you are challenged by a hill you want to keep shifting to a lower gear so that you are “spinning” and not pressing.  You may find yourself having to slow down to 3 or 4 miles per hour to traverse a hill but that is not only all right, it is advisable.  As you become more familiar with your route, your bicycle and your abilities, you will be able to vary your speed, and your spin, according to the hill.  Hills are not just a necessary evil portion of a bike route, but a welcome challenge to good training.  Hills force you to use a slightly different set of muscles and a different mind-set, both of which work to your advantage in the long run.  But if a hill does defeat you, you find yourself dismounting and walking to the peak, do not avoid it in the future.  Try using a lower gear the next time and keep doing the hill until you own it.

Good exercise is measured in length of time, not speed or distance.  My bike rides vary from 2 hours to as much as 5 hours, and occasionally even a little longer.  Those rides all have built-in rest stops.  If, while riding, you ever feel the least bit dizzy, stop immediately and give your body a good long rest, along with a healthy drink of water.  If you find yourself becoming breathless, slow down first, and if that is not enough, stop and take a break.  Remember, you are not competing against anyone.  Ignore that 23-year-old who just passed you up.  They are irrelevant!  If you use an “out and back” route or a “circular” route, note your half-way point and take a break there.  If you can, create a route that takes you to a place where you can go into a coffee shop or the like for your break.  In the summer it will help cool you down and in the winter, warm you up.

Records and schedules — Keep a written record of your bicycling noting your distance and time, as-well-as the date.  Put yourself on a schedule of at least 3 rides a week.  At least for the first year, never ride more than 3 days in a row.  Give your body a rest.  It will reward you.  Give yourself a time and/or distance goal for each week, and increase that goal on a monthly basis.  During that year you should regularly feel tired, never exhausted, at the end of any ride.

Rules of the road — Bicyclists are subject to the exact same rules of the road that automobiles are.  Stop at stop signs, red lights and for pedestrians in cross walks.  Stay to the right as far as you can, and do your best not to weave in your path.  Use hand signals when turning.  Always wear a helmet!  A man I used to work with was knocked by a car into a curb stone.  His head struck the edge of the curb stone and he was knocked into a coma even with the helmet.  He did fully recover but were the helmet not there, he would have been dead at the scene.  Even at 10 MPH, your head banging into the pavement is more than enough speed to cause death.  Use lights at night and wear light colored clothing.  Do your best to always be aware of your surroundings.  Be particularly mindful of children who are riding bicycles or even walking in front of you.  Their tendency is to move into danger, your path, without warning.

When I started biking finishing a 21 mile course I set up was about all I could do, and on some days, I maxed out at 14, with rest stops!  Now, on any given day, I can ride 35 miles non-stop, have ridden more than 6o miles on several occasions, and feel doing 100 miles as reasonable.  This has come, however, after several years of regular riding, and educating myself on how to conduct myself during any given ride.  On those days when I find myself exceeding my limits, I take it easy until I finish.  Also, I always have a cell phone with me to call for help if necessary.  That has happened only once but that one time came without warning.  I also have the numbers of the police departments of the towns I most frequently ride through.  Using 911 on a cell phone only gets you to the state police.  Local police can get to you much more quickly in an emergency, either yours or someone else’s.

Hopefully this has been helpful and the idea of taking on bicycling will not seem nearly so daunting as it did before.  My last birthday listed me as 64, my resting pulse sits just below 60, my blood pressure 120/72.  And I have heart disease.  I plan to live to be 100, and to still be riding!


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