The world news today is certainly scary and depressing, and we’ve just completed two years of living under the shadow of COVID-19. However, I want to share a little encouragement, especially for older people, from my own life.
It’s a story of how I progressed from a deeply depressed and inactive old man to a happy and healthy old codger through exercise. I certainly am not trying to equate an exercise program with huge world issues, but perhaps, even with the sad state of the world, we can make personal changes that improve our lives and will encourage others to do the same.
In 2005, the same year I retired as a professor at Clemson University, I learned I had diabetes. Sadly, this was just the beginning of my health’s downward spiral. In 2012, I began having pains in my lower abdomen. I’d had kidney stones before, but this time the sharp pains felt different, and an ultrasound indicated something worse.
My doctor referred me to a surgeon, who confirmed her suspicions and operated the next week to remove my cancerous left kidney. I’ve had no recurrence of that cancer, but my health seemed to be on a steady decline. I began to have back pain, and as it got worse, I started to have occasional falls and near-falls that made me afraid to walk without a cane. This eventually led me to buy a motorized scooter to get around the retirement community where I live.
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The stumbling and falling got so bad that I was referred to another surgeon, who diagnosed normal pressure hydrocephalus — excess water or spinal fluid on the brain. A shunt in my brain relieved pressure and drained excess fluid.
The procedure helped for a while, but soon the back pain returned, Less than two years after brain surgery, I was back in the operating room to have a spur removed from my spine. Then inflamed arthritis and a slipped disc led doctors to recommend another surgery. I needed to relieve the pain, but three major surgeries in about six years seemed to be too much. The thought of giving up crossed my mind.
But I didn’t. I consulted my brain surgeon, who sent me to a pain-management clinic. There I received Injections in my back that relieved the pain and allowed me to stand upright within days.
But I had been through so much that I had become a “couch potato.” I needed to turn things around, or I would never be able to do the things I loved.
I began, as they say, with baby steps. I started walking short distances, concentrating intently on my balance and where I was going. I practiced this seemingly simple activity in the hallway of my apartment building where there were handrails until I felt confident in walking farther and farther, without a cane.
In a few weeks I could walk over to where my wife received care. That made me so happy that I wanted to continue my progress.
I started going to the daily exercise program here in my retirement community. We do seated aerobics, weight training and flexibility exercises to increase endurance, strength and mobility. I also joined a small group that walks five times a week for 30-45 minutes around the campus, with occasional trips to the Clemson University Experimental Forest and the South Carolina Botanical Garden.
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Thanks to exercise and walking, along with the benefits of modern medicine, I have made remarkable progress. Some people tell me I am a walking miracle, but I would rather call it a change of attitude, from “I can’t” to “I think I can,” and a determination to get up and get going. As Jim Valvano famously said, “Don’t ever give up; don’t ever give up.”
I now walk several miles a day with little fear of falling. My mind is also much clearer — I even published an eBook on Amazon called “Turning Points in the Life of a Fisherman.” My muscle tone is better, and as a side benefit, I have lost 20 pounds and about 2 inches off my waist! And I can even go trout fishing again!
Exercise and walking have changed my life. I’ve gone from being a depressed semi-invalid to a healthy and happy 81-year-old man.
Some people feel that after a certain age, there is nothing to be done to improve their outlook. But I hope my simple story will encourage, even inspire, others in our 50-and-older population to get involved in exercise and walking.
If you do, these activities can change your life for the better, which can also improve your outlook on life!
David Van Lear is a retired Clemson University professor.