Category Archives: Health and wellness

Why 'older' can be a strength during the Coronavirus crisis

The first inkling that society sees me as vulnerable during the Coronavirus pandemic — as older or weaker, as potentially infirm — came with a reminder from Union Park District Council that any board or committee member over age 60 could skip in-person meetings without penalty. (For the record, all meetings now are digital, and yes, my younger colleagues taught me Zoom.)

The next hint was the notice from grocery stores such as Lunds & Byerlys and Whole Foods that I am eligible to shop with others past 60 during the first hour of business, after the stores have been freshly cleaned and before hard-to-stock items have run out.

Because I recently — and sanctimoniously — urged one of my sisters to start writing a daily gratitude list as an antidote to anxiety about the falling stock market and the drip-drip erosion of freedoms in our daily lives, I have reflected on how being 62 helps me weather the uncertainty of a COVID-19 world, where every day the headlines scream a new disaster.COVID-19_blog

We Baby Boomers were trained to use the telephone.

Talking on the telephone is a learned skill, one that my generation was taught to value (unlike the Millennial who told me he would consider it an “intrusion” if someone called him to check in). It’s convenient, of course, that my iPhone allows me to check two email accounts, post to social media, pay my bills, watch silly videos and listen to podcasts. But it is my phone’s use as just that — a phone — that is tethering me to friends and family as I shelter in place.

This past Saturday, I had an impromptu call with my sister in Denver, who lives alone since her husband died a year ago. My friend Sara and I turned a coffee-shop date into an hour-long telephone call. My childhood friend Janey and I each will fix breakfast this week and then “eat together” while we talk on the phone. Not ideal or what we originally planned, but good enough.

I’m OK with time at home; in fact, I crave it.

Even before Minnesota Governor Tim Walz declared a “peacetime emergency” and limited public gatherings to 10 or fewer people, I was spending the majority of my nonworking evenings at home during the frigid months of January and February: reading, trying new recipes, watching Netflix, following the Democratic debates. My see-and-be-seen partying days (and nights) are long behind me, so staying home more — though a drag during my current staycation, when I wanted to see films and art exhibits, take day trips and explore the city — is not that big a sacrifice or change.

I am practiced at daily exercise.

My yoga studio has shuttered. The athletics and recreation facility at the university where I work is locked up tight. That leaves yoga on my living room floor, with my younger dog, Gabby, licking my face during Savasana, or lifting weights in my basement while half-listening to the bleak news on CNN. Morning dog walks and 2-mile jogs keep me moving around outdoors.

Contrary to stereotypes about people my age, I never have to convince myself to move. Decades of experience have shown me that exercise always strengthens and sustains me. Lately, it also helps keep fear at bay.

Home officing may moderate my Boomer workaholism.

However productive I may be at home, I am simply not going to work as many hours now that nighttime meetings are via Zoom, hallway conversations with colleagues have been eliminated and the events I was to be co-leading for our students this spring — including Day at the Capitol and “Get Counted” Census 2020 workshops — have been cancelled.

A generational differences chart from 2008, though dated, shows how working less may enlarge my life. Described as “competitive” and “ambitious,” Boomers have “traditionally found their worth in their work ethic.” That is me, the mother who willingly ceded at-home parenting to her husband, the “tireless” employee whom one manager called her “gold standard,” the breadwinner who took her responsibilities so seriously that work always came first.

These days I am connecting more with friends, urging my sons to stop by for homecooked food, reviving my sagging spiritual life and learning that a less calendared existence yields a calmer, less chaotic perspective. Motion does not equal meaning. Community and collaboration more than personal achievement will get me — get us, together — through this crisis.

Fitbit: best friend or flinty foe?

My husband considered it the perfect gift for an aging exercise enthusiast, a computerized wristwatch that counts my movements, nags and encourages me in equal measure, and even tracks my sleep. A close friend cautioned that the device only feeds my obsessive nature.

Both men are right. The Fitbit, which I received for my birthday July 4, is pushing me to reboot my already disciplined daily exercise habit. But when is enough, enough? The day I log 15,495 steps, I am exhausted by 8:30 p.m.

My Fitbit, meanwhile, urges me on (“Today is the day!”) and fuels my competitive spirit. The first time I pushed past my 10,000-steps goal for seven days straight, it exhorted me: “You crushed it!” I even earned a Helicopter Badge for climbing 500 floors.A259FEE7-4D22-4E10-AE24-46A2A7469A13

Four weeks into owning a Fitbit, I already consider it an essential part  of my routine. It guilts me when I leave it on the kitchen counter so I can fix supper after work. “Hello, Amy,” it flashes when I strap it back on, in a tone that sounds eerily like my mother when I stayed out too late as a teenage girl.

On July 19, a sad day when my boss died suddenly of a heart attack, the watch greeted me with a simple, “Hi, friend.” It has come to know me and anticipate my needs.

Advice from the pros

Fitbit Flex, the first version of the tracker to be worn on a wrist rather than clipped on a waistband, was released in May 2013, four years after the San Francisco-based company (founded as Healthy Metrics Research) launched its Fitbit Classic Clip. Clearly I am late to the party.  But my device is new to me, and I’m extolling its virtues with all the zeal of the recently converted.

Peers over 60 use the Fitbit to track various health metrics such as weight, water consumption and sleep — which I perpetually shortchange — at an age when we no longer can take good health for granted.

  • “I’m conscious of my resting BPM and actually get concerned when it’s elevated,” says my childhood friend Janey, 61, a doctor’s daughter who has always been knowledgeable about her health.
  • “I wore out my first one so am on a newer version now,” says Diane, who is fit and trim at 61. “It has literally changed my exercise habits.”
  • Helene, 66, began wearing a Fitbit two years ago because her employer incentivized it. She now walks longer distances in the morning and over lunch, and she expects those habits to continue once she retires this fall.

Like Helene, I used to track steps with a pedometer app on my iPhone. Despite walking to work and moving around throughout the day, I sometimes had trouble making 10,000 steps (an arbitrary measure of daily fitness that originated with a Japanese pedometer company in the 1960s). No longer.

Now I consciously stride the hallways at work, and up and down the stairs at home, because I know I’m getting credit for the effort. “Fitbit accounts for all the steps in a day, not just when I’m exercise-walking,” Helene notes.

Metrics and measurement

Even productive habits can start to own us.

My friend Diane engages in Fitbit exercise challenges with her family, but she refuses to wear the device to bed. Janey likes the various Fitbit community groups — my own app suggests Vegetarian, Yoga and Cycling (how does it know?) — but she removes her Fitbit sometimes “just to see if I can have it off for a day.”

I have run and walked 15,130 steps today, for a total of 7.16 miles. I’ve burned 1,983 calories. What do I miss when I measure every movement, every moment?

As a calendar-driven person whose work already ties me to my iPhone, I want to lose track of time, to let myself just be — at an age when I have earned that freedom. Should I reframe the phrase “off the clock” to “off the Fitbit”?

“LOL,” says Janey. “It usually doesn’t work.”

Driving yourself crazy? Sell your car

I have structured my life so I can live without a car. That choice may seem impossible, and, at times, it is impractical. Like any counter-cultural behavior, it initially requires effort to adjust.

I can attest, however, that car-free living is a healthful, fiscally responsible and even joyful pursuit in later middle age.

When I travel for work to Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and other big cities, I never rent a car. I stay in the heart of downtown and use mass transit, and my feet. That discipline is doable in the Twin Cities, too, even if you practice it only on certain days.

Discipline? Practice? Some people shrink from those words. Certainly, I make use of my husband’s vehicle — a 9-year-old, manual-transmission pickup — when I want to get to my weekend yoga class or my favorite suburban dog park. It also helps that the two reasons for my old Soccer Mom van have grown and gone.

My purpose is not to suggest that you never drive again at all. Nor do I intend to sermonize or gloat. My hope is to convince you that driving less — and using alternative forms of transportation more often — is a calming, community-minded, Earth-conscious habit that, like mindful eating, becomes easier and more self-sustaining over time.

Five benefits of a car-free lifestyle

LLL d 33_5542.NEF

Benefit 1: I exercise more. I seldom post in the 10,000 Steps Facebook group I joined because, unlike the other participants, I rarely struggle to achieve that goal. Between walking to and from work, having a job that requires me to move throughout the neighborhood, and riding the bus or train to my appointments — which generally involves some walking — I have my feet on the street an average of 4 miles a day.

A Metro Transit ad in the still transit-lacking Twin Cities claims that people who commute by bus or train walk 20 percent more than do those who drive to work. More than 76 percent of Americans commute to work in their own cars, a 12-point jump from 1980.

Having access to your own vehicle is more convenient and saves you time. I hear that often from over-stressed workers and working parents. Even if they changed their commuting habits only one day a week, they would recognize how physical exercise can actually help them unwind and relax.

Benefit 2: I save money. My older son, who now owns my red Toyota Prius, pays $1,150 a year for car insurance. I routinely spent $200 a month on gas during the years I commuted from Northfield to St. Paul. My transit card, by contrast, costs about $30 a month, and my employer reimburses me for any work-related rides.

Granted, I am planning to invest in a high-end bicycle for my big birthday in July — a purchase I haven’t made since my college senior was a baby — but I can justify the expense now that I’m no longer servicing a car for my commute.

Benefit 3: I am part of my community. Living in the urban core makes a multimodal lifestyle both easy to navigate and an adventure. I am a 12-minute walk from the Green Line train to the north, a Whole Foods store to the east and the charming Grandview Theater to the south.

If I drove to these locations, I would lose the opportunity to observe architecture, peruse Little Free Libraries, and smile at barking dogs and blooming trees. I also would miss the chance to greet my neighbors. “In yesteryear’s compact, pedestrian-friendly communities, people walked to church and corner stores, and talked with friends on front porches while kids played in streets and alleys,” writes Katie Alvord in Divorce Your Car! (New Society Publishers, 2000). “Making communities walker-friendly can bring back that lifestyle.”

Each of us has the ability — and the authority — to take back our streets from the growing dominance of cars in our fast-paced culture. The City of Minneapolis has a pedestrian advisory committee. St. Paul Smart Trips, in my town, sponsors “St. Paul Walks.” Go online to sign a pledge that, as a driver, you will always stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, whether marked or unmarked. See it as an opportunity to catch your breath.

Benefit 4: I have time to think and read. As a hyper-scheduled person, I need enforced alone time. I use my bus and train rides to read the news on my iPhone, to catch up on e-mail and, sometimes, just to rest my eyes. Leave the driving to us? Happy to do so.

Benefit 5: I mingle with folks outside my middle-class bubble. Charles Zelle, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, spoke at a recent Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce luncheon about concrete and bridges, the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft, making the state’s transportation system “work for the next generation” and the inherent class bias that underlies the resistance to mass transit.

We have to deal with “the identity politics of transit,” Zelle said, “the notion that ‘those people’” ride the bus or train, that “we don’t take transit.”

We, of course, is the professional middle class, people who see their own car as their birthright. As a Caucasian, I am often a minority on mass transit — except for the Blue Line when it is heading from the suburbs to a Twins game or the express commuter bus between Uptown in Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.

I have seen homeless people on the Green Line lugging everything they own. I have sat amid boisterous Somali-American boys who disrupted my reading. I have quietly changed seats when a mentally ill person began to spout obscenities. I have never felt threatened or afraid.

This is the world. This helps me recognize my privilege and inspires me to work toward a greater understanding of why mass transit is essential, for all of us.