What are the facts and what is the fiction when it comes to recovering from illness when you are over 50? And how should it affect the goals and motivation of the aging athlete? It all comes down to which generalizations are based on reality, which can be overcome by changes in lifestyle, and what is just an excuse.
Some generalizations are demonstrably evident. At some point in aging, the skin wrinkles and bones take longer to heal. But even things like this vary across time with different individuals in ways that no one has been able to definitively explain. One person’s hair turns gray by 45, while another has barely a strand of silver into their 60’s.
Then there are things like memory. While it is true that memory loss is associated with the extremes of aging, it is also true that people of all ages blame memory loss on their current phase of life. Lack of mental training in the young, too much going on in college, the stressful demands of caring for young children. Everyone has their excuse or their life variables. It is similar with how our bodies respond to illness.
It can be easy to feel more discouraged about illness when we are older. It can seem like it hits us harder or we don’t recover as well. In reality, it is probably much less a factor of that and more a factor of our individual immune systems and our environment. Yes, there is a point at which our bodies are so old that illness is going to be harder on us, but that is probably much later in life than we think it is, especially if we are doing basic things like moving about even a small amount and breathing fresh air regularly.
The truth of the matter is that whatever illness we might have a a given time is the one most vivid in our mind. It can be very hard to remember just how uncomfortable even a common cold was just last year. It is what we have now that reigns uppermost in our minds. And it typically feels bad.
Much like physical strength in our later years depends a lot on how much we stimulate our muscles, recovery from illness depends a lot on how well we take care of ourselves both before and during. Actually, the older we are the more likely we will have the option to get adequate rest when we are sick. Also, we should know about techniques for making ourselves comfortable and supporting our immune system. Any disadvantage we have from being “older” can be outweighed by other factors.
For anyone who has been working on physical fitness, there is concern about loss of fitness while ill. The first thing to remember is that trying to push through with training while sick is counterproductive. Much like the body benefits from rest between hard workouts, it needs its rest when under the stress of being sick.
The next thing to consider is when to start back into training. I have always used the rule of thumb that I should be able to go through a moderately active day of chores without feeling exhausted before adding more rigorous activities, like running or swimming. This usually takes me 1- 2 days after the symptoms of an illness are gone. It typically takes less time for my husband, who is rarely sick for as long as I am and recovers more quickly. He just seems to have a stronger immune system. I try not to take it personally, or wrongly judge my situation based on his. My body needs what it needs and wishing it to be different doesn’t change it.
When it comes to getting back into the swing of a workout routine, I treat the first few days like a testing warm-up. Since I have been sitting around a fair amount, I want to gently reactivate musculoskeletal systems. This will avoid straining body parts that aren’t ready to go full out yet.
It is also good to use this time to patiently test how much fitness may have been lost. Of course, that will depend on a lot of individual factors, including what my level of fitness was before getting sick. For instance, having recently spent months solidifying my running endurance base to handle 10-15 mile run once a week, it is unlikely that it will be too hard to work back up to that after a week long flu episode, whether I am 55 years old or not.
It is a fact of life that people get sick. Even those who don’t get sick often get sick sometimes. Everyone has to deal with comebacks sooner or later. There is no reason to view illness as a time to give up on physical activity just because we are over 50 or beyond. Each of us should remind ourselves of all the other times we have made a comeback and how good it feels to be physically active. Physical energy does not need to be something only the young have; we can actually manufacture our own energy by remaining active.