If you are a still-youngish baby boomer like me (or if you think of yourself that way), it comes as a shock when body parts start to wear out. In my case, it’s my knees. (My left hip clicks occasionally, but I don’t want to think about that just yet). How dare my right knee betray me in my 50s?
Throughout my childhood I was a tall, sedentary bookworm. At 5’9” (very tall if you grew up in the 60’s and 70’s), I was recruited for my high school basketball team but refused to play. Ditto for volleyball and soccer. In fact, I almost didn’t get my high school diploma because I cut so many gym classes. Unlike most of my friends, I also never skied in my life, let alone had an accident or surgery. You might say I pampered my joints by being lazy for 20 years.
Halfway through college I realized that diet alone would not help me take off the “freshman fifteen.” So I added swimming and burned calories without straining any muscles or joints.But then I graduated, and was too busy working to look for a new pool or to spend time blow-drying my long hair. So I joined the jogging/running craze at the end of the ‘70s, until a man on the street saw me running and shook his head. “You look like the horse I bet on at Belmont that lost.”
I moved on to running on a treadmill in the privacy of a gym. Gradually, I added high-impact dance and step classes, weight lifting and machines. Okay, okay so I also added biking and disco roller skating and continued this demanding exercise regimen into my 40s, until I broke my foot, then a toe, and eventually suffered strains in both calf muscles. It was time to hang up my skates and stop biking alongside hostile taxi drivers through New York City traffic.
I’m still a gym addict who takes dance classes like Zumba and “Move and Groove.” If you’re middle-aged and post-menopausal, the only way to keep your bones healthy and remain reasonably lean and toned is to exercise. Too much exercise causes wear and tear injuries, while too little leaves a woman prone to osteoporosis, a belly roll, and a weaker cardiovascular system. Sooner or later we all have to choose.
Some people think I should slow down. Five years ago my left knee swelled up, and the orthopedist told me I had no more cartilage in my knee. I had developed arthritis, he informed me. So I dutifully stopped doing lunges and running on a treadmill so as not to stress my joints. I gave up high-impact aerobics, modified my dance moves and did special exercises to strengthen my legs. I even wore a knee brace for a year, and I used enough ice to build a thousand igloos. Slowly but surely, the pain and swelling went away completely. My left knee was miraculously rehabilitated. Hooray for me, I thought, I’m still young enough to bounce back.
However, in the past few weeks, I started feeling twinges in my right knee; there was swelling and weakness after exercising. Surely, ice and Tylenol would make it all disappear. Perhaps, I was just imagining a problem where there really wasn’t one. I turned my attention to the usual suspects: a broken printer one month out of warranty, a mysterious, but stubborn cable TV problem, and my son’s continued unemployment.
I’m the one always telling my daughter Sarah not to stick her head in the sand when she has a problem. “It probably won’t go away on its own, and it might get worse,” I wisely remind her. This has proven true in Sarah’s academics as well as her social life. The last time we discussed the flaws in the ostrich approach, I was telling Sarah why she couldn’t simply ignore her boyfriend’s bedbug problem. As my knee continued aching, I realized it was time to pay attention. I was determined not to let my right knee become as weak and painful as my left knee had once been, so I skipped my favorite dance class in favor of an appointment with the orthopedist.
The verdict? As I suspected: more arthritis. Ugh! If I have arthritis in my 50s, what will happen in my 60s and 70s? Will I turn into the Tin Woman with knee and hip replacements? I’ve been lucky enough to escape surgery up to now, but maybe my luck is running out. Perhaps a wiser, more mature perspective—uh oh, now I’m starting to sound ancient—is to be grateful that knee pain is not life-threatening. There are lots of diseases and conditions worse than arthritis. If I can follow in my mom’s footsteps and survive into my 80’s complete with healthy breasts, all my marbles and arthritic joints intact, I’ll be way ahead of the game.
Maybe replacing a hip or a knee isn’t so terrible after all. I have active, energetic friends who have already replaced a body part or two. Even our 11 year-old dog, Sparky, had surgery to repair his torn ACL and meniscus is doing really well. Although Sparky is 77 in human years, he’s definitely regained the “spark” in his step and is far more playful and energetic than he was a few months ago.
In the meantime, I’m following doctor’s orders: wearing a knee brace that feels like a boa constrictor around my leg, swallowing anti-inflammatories, doing prescribed leg lifts, and icing my knee as often as possible. Yes, it’s tedious and time-consuming. But at least—for now, anyway—I can continue to take my favorite dance classes, “moving and grooving” while listening to Lady Gaga, flying on an endorphin high and forgetting my troubles (at least for an hour).
Some people say that going to a gym 5 or 6 days a week at my age is overkill—and perhaps evidence of insanity or addiction. But how many of my post-50 year old critics perform like a 30 year old on a stress test, the way I do? I would also point out that all my time spent on exercise machines and lifting weights (a lot less fun than dancing) has helped my bones remain strong and prevented (or delayed) the onset of osteoporosis.
Winter is coming soon, so the good news (for my knees) is that I’ll be walking less. The bad news is that cold weather exacerbates pain and stiffness in arthritic joints. That’s why so many older people become “snow birds,” leaving behind the dreary, raw New York winters for the warmth of Florida.
I ’m still in my 50s, and in no rush to join the elderly migration south. I just have to keep my fingers crossed and hope that my right knee recovers as successfully as my left knee did.
Then again maybe crossing my fingers too vigorously isn’t such a good idea. Lately I’ve been waking up with twinges in my hands.