Adjusting to Age, One Step at a Time

I’ve just come in from a walk around the block. A short walk—less than ten minutes and a bit more than 900 steps according to my fitness watch.

Nine-hundred steps. Not even one tenth of that 10,000-step goal we’re urged to achieve for physical and mental wellbeing. Nine-hundred steps and most of them painful. The number punctures my pride and my self-image.

Walking has been such a strong pillar in my survival code that I’ve sometimes wondered what would happen if there came a point in my life when I couldn’t walk. Where would I find the harmony of mind and muscles that sends my spirit soaring on the Ridgeline Trail or the slopes of Mt Pisgah?

Well…as they say, don’t ask questions you don’t want answered! These days, a walk of 900 steps is about my limit as I confront the challenge of advanced arthritis in my right hip. I feel confined by my own body.

Not fair, I protest! What about the research I’ve trusted for years? The studies that preach the miraculous powers of a daily walk for bodies young or old? Just a couple months ago, I eagerly devoured a special “Longevity” issue of TIME magazine that scrutinized scores of studies and ultimately reduced the secret of aging well to a three-pronged formula: exercise, mindfulness and diet.

Once that assertion would have elicited whoops of joy from me. A book I wrote a few years ago, The Spirited Walker, is pretty much a manifesto for mindful walking—a how-to that targets two of TIME’s big three for healthy aging.

In 1998, that book propelled me into the fitness pulpit myself, advocating walks that move the body and quiet the mind. It was an about-face from the self-image I’d held earlier in life. Girls weren’t encouraged to sweat when I was growing up.

Not until age 46 did I stumble into my inner jock. It happened as I sat in the stands at Springfield High for a track meet with senior competitors. One event pricked my rigid insistence on calling myself a klutz. Racewalking! No balls I’d have to follow. No rackets to swing. Just walking, but walking fast! Maybe I could do that.

Stepping into a New Self-Image

The excitement of learning something bold and new about myself launched a surprising transformation. It propelled me through five years of racewalk competition in track meets for senior athletes. It taught me to make friends with my body--to use mind and muscles together to achieve a goal. When I stopped competing, I realized I’d learned to meditate, not on a cushion but on a track.

Simply repeating “In, Out, In, Out” with my breath as I walked fueled my cells while quieting my mind. Mentally saying “One-two, three four” with my steps could block the swirl of doubts and criticisms that trip up performance in a race.

I couldn’t wait to share these insights in walking classes at Amazon Park. Then I poured my convert’s zeal onto the pages of a book. For more than a decade, walking led me across the country to share my passion with walkers at resorts and conferences.

Walking was my work, my recreation, my exercise, my meditation. Walking was my travel guide and my therapist. Now, when I need that therapy most, I‘m hobbling along without it.

I’m preparing to discard a body part that carried me to joy and self-discovery on the track at Hayward Field. The joint that supported me on walking explorations from the Oregon Cascades to the Himalayas of Nepal.

No big deal, you might say. It’s just a hip! I might say the same, if this were you. Hip replacement surgeries have become almost commonplace in my demographic group. Nationally, hip replacement figures have ballooned in the past decade with the surge expected to continue as the Boomer bones succumb to the wear and tear of age.

In the Eugene-Springfield area, 771 people had a new hip installed last year at Sacred Heart Medical Center RiverBend. McKenzie Willamette declined to release statistics on replacements done there. Since last fall, 19 people have walked in and out of Slocum Medical Center for one-day hip replacements orthopedic surgeons now offer in an on-site ambulatory clinic.

Gratitude walks hand-in-hand with Grief

Since I started exploring the process for myself, hip replacement success stories have been falling at my feet. Recovery is easy, acquaintances assure me. Less painful than a replacement knee. I’ll be glad I did it, friends insist.

I don’t doubt them at all. I’m grateful this problem has a solution and that I have access to good medical care. I’m grateful this isn’t a return of breast cancer, or the onset of dementia.

But grief walks hand-in-hand with gratitude at these times. One does not negate the other. So, let me mourn just a bit the loss of physical ease I had come to expect in my body. Let me grumble about how old I feel when just standing up from a chair reminds me that this is not the same body I used to know.

I’m feeling “stove up,” in the language of my grandparents. Older than I’m ready to be. Perhaps the pinch of my own ageism deepens my discomfort. My fear of not aging gracefully. Of stumbling awkwardly through transitions that befall a body worn long and well.

Or maybe it’s dismay at how quickly circumstances change. Two years ago I walked 275 miles on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail where the biggest complaint came from blisters on my feet.

This year, I’ve embarked on a different Camino. As always, these challenges are emotional as well as physical. They begin with a vision. Then comes planning and preparation. The route is leading me back to a path I traveled through cancer treatment 16 years ago. Cancer expanded my appreciation for walking and for metaphors that set healing in motion.

In workshops at Oncology Centers across the country I urged fellow survivors to keep their feet on the ground when life delivers a blow. Stay in motion. Not stuck. Moving forward one step at a time. Step by step, the workshops became another book—a guide to Healing Walks for Hard Times. These days I’m learning the lessons anew.

As I round the block in my neighborhood, my steps lead me back to summers once spent backpacking into the Cascade Range. Late in the day, when the pack grew heavy and the trail steeper, I propelled myself forward with a reassuring phrase: “One step for-ward at a time,” I recited mentally. One syllable per step, one step at a time, up a demanding climb.

When cancer hurled me into uncharted territories, the same mantra guided my progress. “One step for-ward at a time,” I repeated to quiet my fears as I walked the bark path at Amazon Park. I used the phrase again this morning, still learning to trust its wisdom.

Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer.

Contact her at spiritedwalker@gmail.com.


Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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