Be active without back pain

We all strive for healthy aging, and that includes a healthy back. But so many of us are plagued with back pain as we get older. At the grocery store I see people who I think are about my age hunched over their cart and taking very slow steps, possibly because they’re in so much pain. And I see heartbreaking posts from friends on social media who are forced to cancel fun plans because of their back pain. For me, back pain comes and goes – and fortunately it’s mostly gone these days. So, how can we be active without back pain?

Bend the right way

We all know to not use our backs when we lift heavy objects. Bend your knees, squat and pick it up. Use the strength in your thighs, not your back. Keep your back straight when you lift. And when something is absolutely too heavy to lift, ask for help. I know that’s hard…

Suck it in!

Healthy aging involves a strong core. And that helps you to Be active without back pain.
The side plank – yet another plank variation – helps you get a strong core so you can be active without back pain.

I’ve been saying to tighten your core quite a bit these days. But, it’s the safest way to carry something. And when you’re straightening up from a squat or a crouch, suck it in. It really helps. Having a strong core leads to a strong back! I’ve been making an effort to focus more on my core for the last couple of years and have (knock on wood!) experienced hardly any back pain lately. I used to be the poster child for having a heating pad on my lower back. And that would be real torture this summer with the heat and humidity we’ve had. My hip bursitis would combine with sciatica in years past and it was so painful that I could hardly move. 

Equalize the load

If you carry a heavy shoulder bag, you could be contributing to your back pain. Switch sides every once in a while, or use a backpack. (I’ve tried to carry my bag on my right shoulder but it just feels wrong.)

Healthy mind leads to a healthy back

The experts at Advocate Aurora Health say that a healthy mind also leads to a healthy back. When people with an optimistic outlook get back pain, they tend to feel better sooner. “A positive mental attitude can help in handling back pain so that you bounce back fast and don’t let it turn into a chronic condition. Meditation can reduce stress and muscle tightness.” While it may not seem possible to achieve a positive outlook when you have back pain, there are things you can do to become more optimistic. And even a short guided meditation (like the “Garden Walk Guided Meditation” that you can download) will help reduce stress.

A healthy back for healthy aging

Living life pain-free is certainly the goal for those of us over 50. And while most people under 50 probably don’t think of back pain, they should probably pay attention to ways to maintain a healthy back too. Just keep a few things in mind: suck it in, and be careful how you lift and carry things.

Lift weights at my age?

There are loads of fitness myths and misinformation out there. Things you read about that sound like they might be true. Like if you, as a woman over 50, lift heavy weights, you’ll still get bulky and misshapen like a bodybuilder, so it makes sense to lift lighter weights and do more repetitions.

The fact is that, no matter what age you are, if you’re a woman, lifting heavy weights will not bulk up your muscles. Kristen Turner, a health navigator with Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, says, “Women do not gain muscle mass the same way men do, nor will they “bulk up” through training with challenging heavier weights.” In fact, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone 65 and older include 2 days a week of weight training for their healthy aging. So, yes, I do lift weights at my age (and I’m 67)!

The truth about weightlifting

Yes, I do lift weights at my age! Here's a biceps curl.
Biceps curl with a lunge!

Your strength workout doesn’t have to take forever. In fact, Turner suggests just 8-12 repetitions, 8-10 exercises, that focus on all major muscle groups. The weights you use should be challenging, but not impossible. They shouldn’t be too light, either. Your twice-a-week strength workout will give you improved tone, strength and will help in weight management. The more muscle you have, the more calories and fat you will burn, giving you an overall toned physique. And I’ve found that with strength training comes more stamina. Gravity is evil, but we’re all subject to it. Our strong muscles will help carry us wherever we want to go.

Do I need free weights

You can get a great strength workout using just your own body weight. The plank pose, and all of its variations, will work virtually every muscle in your body. And all you need is the floor. As I mentioned in a previous article, if you can’t do the full plank at first, there’s always a modification. The plank pose works your arms, your shoulders, your core, and your legs.

If you want to go the free weight route at home, like I do, I did a little searching online for prices. These days you can get a pair of 3-, 5- and 8-pound weights and a stand for them for less than $100. These are certainly heavy enough for you to get started, and probably for quite a while after that.

What I do

I work out 4 – 5 days a week. 2 days I run / walk for 20 minutes on the treadmill and do 10 minutes of core work after the run. 1 day a week I do a Pilates routine (30 minutes) with a resistance band, which makes it more challenging. And 2 days a week I do combined aerobics and free weights, 30 – 40 minutes. Yes, I do lift weights at my age!

Get strong for your healthy aging

Don’t be scared of strength training. Lift weights – or at least heavy tomato cans – for your healthy aging.

Yes, you need more sleep

True confession time: I’ll start. I haven’t been sleeping well lately. How about you? If you’re like most Americans you haven’t been getting the prescribed 7 to 9 hours nightly either. (ref: Centers for Disease Control) And, chances are if you are sleeping for 7 hours it may not be good quality. I know when I wake up, the sheets are all twisted and the pillows are often on the floor. (Although that might be from my dog’s wiggling around.) We need good quality sleep for our health and well-being. Back in the early days of the pandemic I wrote that sleep difficulties were common. Things haven’t changed a whole lot in the last couple of years.

What happens when you don’t get enough?

If we don’t get enough zzzz’s, we run the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Sleeping better and for a longer time can help in regulating blood sugar, which is an indicator of diabetes. 

Not getting enough zzz’s has also been linked to obesity. This can have had its roots in childhood – it’s linked to brain development in children and insufficient sleep can adversely affect the hypothalamus which regulates appetite and the expenditure of energy. However, studies have revealed an association between short sleep and excess weight in all ages. So, we’re not exempt from this. If we’re overweight as adults, don’t use the old “I’m too tired to eat right and exercise” excuse!

It’s been suggested that insufficient duration and sleep disorders contribute to depression. The CDC reports that rest disturbance has been a notable symptom of depression, but it could be that other symptoms of depression decrease with better sleep.

No one is exempt

No one is exempt from the need for 7 to 9 hours. Jennifer Lopez related the story of the panic attack she had in the early days of her career brought on by lack of sleep. Now JLo makes sleep a priority. In fact, it’s an important part of her healthy aging routine.

How to sleep better

Exercise during the day can lead to better sleep at night.
Exercise during the day can lead to better sleep at night.

Here are some recommendations from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine on how to get enough, and better quality rest:

  • Be like JLo and prioritize your sleep. Plan on a bedtime that will give you those 7 to 9 hours. Go to bed at the same time every day and wake up at the same time – even on the weekends.
  • Make sure the environment is conducive to sleep. Your room should be comfortable, dark and a good temperature. Most people have better rest when it’s a little cool.
  • If you can’t bear to take electronics out of the bedroom, turn them off a half hour before bed.
  • Don’t eat large meals or drink alcohol just before bed.
  • Exercise: physical activity during the day can help you sleep better.

Even though you may not have known all the implications, this is really nothing very new. Eat right, exercise, and get your 7 to 9 hours a night for healthy aging.

Turn your rough day around

Lately it seems I’ve been having a series of rough days. Days when hardly anything goes right. I’ve learned that you can’t change the outside world, so when important banking software crashes, you really can’t do anything about it. When it’s pouring and you have to make 5 stops after work, put your raincoat on. What you can change, though, is your mindset to turn your rough day around.

Change what you can for the positive

The first thing is to figure out if you can change anything that you previously thought you couldn’t. Can you postpone any of your errands to a day when it’s not raining? If your banking task is crucial, can you do it in person? If you can’t change things, give a mental sigh, take a deep breath and say to yourself, “Oh well. I’d better get changed, then.” If it were me having to run errands on a sopping wet day, I’d reward myself with a refreshing beverage. 

Change your immediate mindset

If, when you get home, things are still so rough that you’re having a hard time concentrating, it may be time to close your eyes for a few minutes and clear your mind. Listen to a short guided meditation or just let your brain clear out. This is what Dr. Donna Williams, a family medicine physician at Advocate South Suburban Hospital, recommends. Or if you’re feeling antsy, take a brief walk.

More long-term change for your mindset

Exercise - and my dog - turn my rough day around. Releasing endorphins and a dose of instant happiness.
Exercise – and my dog – turn my rough day around.

When I go to bed in a bad mood, I have trouble sleeping, so I try to change my mood before bedtime. Most days I exercise in the late afternoon which makes me feel more positive about my world. Dr. Kiran Bojedla, a family medicine physician at Advocate Christ Medical Center, agrees. “On days I feel tired or overworked, I often find the endorphin release from a run or short workout made my day better. It doesn’t have to be much – even a short 20-minute walk around your neighborhood can give you a feeling of accomplishment and boost your mood.”

On days when I don’t feel like exercising (most days), but do it anyway, I feel completely virtuous after a workout and the world certainly looks better. And that endorphin release that Dr. Bojedla mentions lasts for hours.

You’ll increase your resilience too

Consciously improving your mindset will make you happier. Happiness increases optimism, which increases your resilience. Improve your mindset, get happy and more resilient. You know that there will be tough days in the future. It happens that way for everyone. With increased resilience you’ll be able to face those tough days with more equanimity.

A strong core leads to life without limits

Get a strong core for healthy aging.
Get a strong core for healthy aging.

I include some core exercises every time I work out. It’s not that I particularly enjoy them (I don’t). Or that they feel good (they don’t). But a strong core means that my back doesn’t hurt as much – or at all. And a strong core means that I’m less apt to fall. A strong core means a happier me. Consequently, this means that improving core strength is crucial for healthy aging.

A few years ago I fell on an uneven sidewalk, triggering incredibly painful hip bursitis and sciatica. I couldn’t move normally for weeks, and needed physical therapy to get back to some activities I enjoy. As a result, while I was sidelined, I researched ways to prevent falls. I discovered that falling is a common problem with the elderly – fully 25% of people over 65 in the US fall and require medical assistance. With a little more research, I discovered that having a strong core is the solution to many ailments that prevent seniors from living a full and active life.

What is the core?

Your core is much more than your abdominal muscles – your “6-pack.” Sure, your core includes that, as well as everything else in your torso and further down, including your hips, lower back and backside. Stabilizing your pelvis and spine, helping your body maintain posture as well as keeping us mobile are just a part of what your core is used for. 35 different muscles in your core “keep you upright and strong.”

Your core helps balance

You know that I emphasize balance. (Get your Week of Balance for tips on improving your balance.) Your core helps to keep you upright and stable, which maintains your balance. And your core will help you navigate uneven surfaces. If your core is too weak, you won’t have a chance of adjusting your pace or posture.

Your core helps your posture

I see many older people with rounded spines who walk with canes. I want to walk upright. My core helps with that – it includes all the muscles that wrap around my spine. If those muscles are strong, they can hold me upright, even when I’m sitting. If I’m upright, my head is held high and my self-confidence grows. Likewise, if I’m upright, I’m breathing better. Try this: sit in a chair, pull in your stomach and sit up straight. And breathe normally for 10 seconds. Now slump – the way you usually do – and breathe. Harder, isn’t it?

Strong core for a strong back

Ever have sciatica? It hurts. A lot. Shooting pain from your lower back down your leg. And how’s your lower back? When you get up from a chair do you hang onto your back because it’s so painful? Strengthening your core will help you back. Just sucking in your stomach (practice this – it may take you a little while to get the hang of it) when you’re standing up really helps too. Try it: when you’re sitting in a chair and are getting ready to stand up – even if you’re using the chair arms or a table to hang onto for support – suck in your stomach, plant your feet and push off. Better, right?

Everyday activities

So, your core holds you up and it helps you get up. It stands to reason that a strong core will help you in all your daily activities. Getting into and out of a car, walking around a grocery store, bending to put groceries in your car and take them out. 

Strong core for healthy aging

Are you convinced that your core is the key to living a normal life without having to worry about falling? Without worrying about how to stand up from a chair? And without planning how to get in and out of your car? If I’m three rooms away and discover that I left my water glass in the kitchen – after I sat down, I just stand up and get it. Not thinking about how to do everyday things should not be a luxury. A strong core really does lead to life without limits. 

How to get one

So – how do you strengthen your core? You’re convinced that you need a strong core, but don’t know how to start? Good news – crunches are not mandatory, and neither are planks. These are two very effective exercises for strengthening your core muscles, but they’re certainly not the only ones. 

And if your doctor has told you that you should lose some weight – don’t wait to start strengthening your core. You do have muscles under there, so start working them.

Suck it in

Start with sitting in a chair and pulling in your stomach muscles. Hold it … for 15 seconds, release and do it again. And one more time.

Leg lift

Still sitting, with your stomach pulled in and not holding on if you don’t have to, raise one leg with the knee bent. Moderate speed, then put it down carefully. And the other leg. 12 times. 

If you can do this exercise with your leg straight, go for it.

Leg circle

Sitting or standing with your stomach sucked in, draw a half-circle on the floor with your toe, leg extended. If you’re standing, you can hang onto the back of a chair or the wall for balance. 8 each side.

Knee pull

Standing – you can hang onto the back of a chair or the wall for this – while your stomach is still sucked in, pull your knee up to your chest and put it down.

Balance exercises

All of the balance exercises in the Week of Balance utilize your core without your realizing it – take advantage of the benefits of these exercises.

That’s just a start – there are so many more core strengthening exercises. All to help your balance, posture, breathing, health. Get a strong core for your healthy aging.

Achieving goals is one route to happiness

What’s your pie-in-the-sky goal?

Achieving goals is one route to happiness. A kiss from Booker is another.
Achieving goals is one route to happiness. A kiss from Booker is another.

What’s your pie-in-the-sky goal? Mine is to get an Agility Championship with my dog. I can’t do it in one, two or five trials. And there’s a lot of training to get done before that goal is even approachable. And that’s the key. Achieving smaller, intermediate goals is the route to happiness.

Of course, life is multi-faceted. There’s work, family, home, hobbies. I advocate setting goals for every facet of life. Last year one of my goals was to make chocolate macarons. I’m not the best baker in the family (that’s my sister) but I did my research and made a batch of really good chocolate macarons. That’s another key to achieving your goals. After you think of something you want to do, figure out if you have the skill sets you need to accomplish it. If you don’t have the skills – right now – then figure out the skills you need and how to go about learning them.

Goals that are just the right size

You know that setting goals is the first step to getting stuff done. (As I wrote in “Set goals – big and little.”) And achieving a goal will certainly give you a sense of satisfaction. Without goals your life can seem directionless. Goals can indeed give your life purpose and direction, but goals that are too strict can be rigid and confining. Similarly, goals that don’t challenge you will leave you feeling incomplete. And setting goals that are too huge can be overwhelming. So, the secret is to set a series of smaller goals that set you on the path to the big goal you really want to attain. Achieving the goals that really matter to you and clarify your path will surely set you on the road to happiness.

Set your intermediate goals

Finding direction for every aspect of your life is the way to a life with purpose. I don’t specifically look for a purpose to my life, but at the same time I don’t want to just drift along aimlessly either. A recent study from the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that more internally motivated workers felt more satisfaction in their roles. We can extrapolate that to everyday life. People who are motivated to do things are probably happier than those who drift along aimlessly. 

Once you have your big goals, set those intermediate goals that will put you on the path to that pie in the sky. Happiness is on that road.

How to motivate yourself to exercise

You know you should exercise (for your healthy aging if no other reason) but can’t find your motivation. You’ve changed into your workout clothes and everything, but you’re still not feeling inspired. Sound familiar? You’re getting frustrated because you feel like you should know what to do, but just can’t get to it. Or you’re at the gym and are bored just looking at the row of treadmills. You’re at that motivation crossroads. You can exercise and feel great – improve your mindset and increase your endorphins, or not exercise and feel guilty that you didn’t. Here’s how to motivate yourself to exercise.

Are you bored with the prospect?

Motivate yourself to exercise with different moves.
Motivate yourself to exercise with different moves.

Business motivation expert Art Markman, PhD, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, has identified three reasons you may be procrastinating. The first may be that you fear boredom. Like dreading that time on the treadmill because you’re afraid you’ll be bored out of your mind. I dislike running too, but get on that treadmill twice a week like clockwork.

Dr. Markman advocates a little distraction when you’re tackling boring tasks. I plug in my earphones and listen to an audiobook. Not a business book, but one with lots of action to take my mind off the running. Not even a steamy romance would help you motivate yourself to exercise. Nope – it’s got to have lots of action! That keeps my legs pumping.

Or do you think exercise is too difficult?

The second reason Dr. Markman says we might be procrastinating is because we could dread dealing with complex tasks. Exercise does not have to be complex. In fact, exercise should be the  easiest thing in the world so that we will do it. If an exercise is too difficult – like a complex step pattern, for instance, practice it again so that you can do it without stumbling. Or find a different workout that’s not as complex. At a gym, for an in-person class, ask your instructor if she teaches a more basic class.

When you’re working out at home, try a modification for the complex exercise. If you’re not strong enough, you’ll get there. When choreography is hard, rewind and practice the sequence again. You’ll get there. If the music is good, and you like the instructor, you’ll motivate yourself to exercise. As I always say, “There’s always a modification.”

Or perhaps you don’t know where to start?

The third reason your motivation to exercise may be lacking is because you don’t know where to start, or you feel that it’s beyond you. Know this: there’s an exercise for everyone. If you can move any part of your body, you can exercise it. As a beginner, suffering from chronic conditions, or recovering from an injury, if you can’t be on your feet for an extended period, there are chair exercises. If you can’t run, then walk, as I said earlier. Do arm circles if you can raise your arms. 

So, you can move and walk and even run – but if you don’t know what to do, do what you feel like doing. Like to dance? Put some music on. If you want something more structured, take a half hour and search YouTube for “beginner strength exercises for seniors,” as an example. I do a combination of aerobics and strength, which mixes moves up nicely. Search for that if it sounds appealing. As you’re doing your search, note down the instructors and programs that look interesting. 

Then, make a date with yourself a few times a week and go exercise. Look forward to that date as a way to figure out how you want to work out for the next few weeks. Keep that date. And reassess. Did you enjoy the workout? Did you wish it was longer? Shorter? Harder? Did you like the instructor’s style? If you look forward to spending time with your favorite exercise instructor, or if you like the music used, it will be easier to motivate yourself to exercise.

You – be nice to you!

Eliminate negative self-talk

No more negative self-talk!
No more negative self-talk

Do you avoid looking in the mirror? Are you critical of your appearance? Your abilities (or, as you see them, lack of abilities)? Do you tell yourself that you’re not good for anything? Are you uncomfortable receiving compliments? Stop it! You – be nice to yourself! Eliminate that negative self-talk!

Effects of prolonged negative self-talk

Negative self-talk is not just a bad idea, it can have a severe effect on your health. “Having a negative outlook on life can lead to decreased motivation, increased stress, and greater feelings of helplessness,” says Dr. Rhiannon Jauer, psychologist from Aurora Behavioral Health Center. “Prolonged negative self-talk can increase one’s risk of mental health problems, physical health issues, as well as sleeplessness.”

Dr. Jauer encourages us to reconfigure our brains, to avoid rousing stress that can result in a damaging impact on our bodies. First of all, recognize the negative thoughts you’re having about yourself. By recognizing it, you’re on your way to changing it. But recognizing and identifying that negative self-talk is uncomfortable, because you may start out believing it. It seems real to you, and true, and therefore difficult to change. 

A couple of easy ways to eliminate negative self-talk

But, pretend that you’re talking to a friend when you hear yourself saying those awful things. You’d encourage your friend, tell her that those negative things are not true. So, the same thing holds for yourself. That top looks great on you. Well, perhaps your hair does need a style, but it’s a good length for you. You work wonders with a spreadsheet. Will you come and organize my kitchen cabinets? 

See – wasn’t that easy? “For some reason, we humans seem to save our worst words for ourselves, and that isn’t going to help” with eliminating negative self-talk and boosting our optimism, Dr. Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, executive director of Innovation360, said. 

Acknowledge your negative self-talk. Recognize that you’re putting yourself down. And then consciously decide that it’s not true. Dismiss that thought. Send it away.

Replace that thought with a positive one. “Well, I may not like my hair style, but at least I’ve got a lot of it.” Or, “my files are totally disorganized but no one creates a better spreadsheet than I do.”

Practice daily

In order to eliminate that negative self-talk and have a lasting effect, practice being kind to yourself every day. Just like any other habit that you want to cultivate, being kind to yourself requires practice. Use a journal to remind yourself, perhaps, and reward your successes! I’ve written about maintaining positivity before, and in your daily self-kindness practice you should utilize these techniques. 

Make contributions to your “Amazing Box”

And every time you turn that negative self-talk around, make an entry to your Amazing Box. I talked about this concept a few weeks ago. It might be one of the most important tools in your toolkit of positivity techniques. It’s an instant motivator when you feel down. Whenever you recognize a negative thought about yourself and can’t immediately think of something positive, read an entry in your Amazing Box. Instant pick-me-up. You’ll be on your way to positivity, optimism, and happiness.

So next time you have a negative thought about yourself, I’m talking to you: “You! Be nice to you!”

Go ahead – release some endorphins

Tired of feeling glum?

People I talk to every day are tired. Tired of the same old, same old. It’s the same routine every day and people are bored. We need to feel happier, feel less anxiety and less stress. We need that mood-lifter, that happiness booster. What we all need is to release some endorphins! 

Still a stressful time

It’s true that more people are going to more places now – they feel that COVID is everywhere, so they might as well see some different sights – but people are still feeling the stress. The authorities are recommending masks indoors in public places again, and people are tired of that. No matter how necessary it is, I’m tired of the mask routine too – juggling glasses, keys and mask as I run all the endless errands. 

Give your brain a boost

I’ve written about how exercise can release endorphins – how that runner’s high is no myth. Did you know, though, that those endorphins attach to our opioid receptors? No wonder we feel that boost! When we exercise, our brain releases certain proteins which help improve our brain’s plasticity, helping it to change in a positive way. We’re concerned about healthy aging, and improving our mental state certainly helps us.

Cardio needed to release some endorphins

I'm releasing some endorphins, running on the treadmill.
I’m releasing some endorphins

It’s been shown that these proteins are released mostly when we do steady-state cardiovascular work for a longer period of time. So, running for 2 minutes on a treadmill won’t elicit this positive change. 20 minutes, on the other hand, probably will. I know I feel it. Longer duration aerobics is not easy, so it helps to make it as fun as possible. I listen to audiobooks to take my mind off of the work. On days that I don’t run, I do one of my videos that combine aerobics and weight training.

Other long-duration cardio exercises

You may not choose to run – going for a long walk (not a stroll) is another great way to release some endorphins. Or take your dog for a walk. Find a friend to take an exercise class with – either at a gym or online. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.

Set your happiness to music

From cognitive to physical benefits in healthy aging, set your happiness to music.
Set your happiness to music – I will!

I’ve written frequently about ways to get happier (most recently in “Five Ways to Maintain Positivity”) and I’ve mentioned music as a way to motivate yourself to exercise. But music also has a close link to other brain benefits! Your happiness and music are linked!

Tunes for healthy aging

One thing that all of us are concerned with is our healthy aging. And if something can keep our brain healthy, and that something is as wonderful as music – it should be a no-brainer to put some tunes on. Studies in both healthy older adults and stroke patients have shown that making music has a positive effect on cognitive status in healthy aging.

Improved mental health

In fact, a study by the Global Council of Brain Health showed improvements in cognitive function and mental health of those who actively listen to music. Similarly, those who listened to music regularly also reported lower levels of anxiety and depression. Another study showed that upbeat background music can improve our processing speed and memory improves with either upbeat or downbeat background music.

So, music will help you feel happier and also can help you remember things. Calm me down and increase my optimism? All good reasons to set your happiness to music. Use music for your body and your brain: your exercise and your emotions. 

Music instead of white noise

I had been putting on my white noise machine instead of music. Where I work gets impossibly still and quiet, which makes me crazy – listening to the noises in my head (tinnitus). But I think I’ll be putting my favorite Pandora station into my earphones, and only put the white noise on when I need to write. But if having background music on will help me process things faster and improve my memory, I’m all for it. 

What’s your favorite kind of music to have in the background?