Challenging the Old Man Test
Last updated 3/22/2022 at Noon
They say getting older is not for sissies. If we are lucky, things go along pretty smoothly for a long time. But suddenly, we notice we are on a bit of a downhill slide. Then, one thing after another seems to go wrong.
When I told my husband, Rod, about an Internet video proclaiming to test agility and strength as we age, he was ready to try it. Yes, it’s called “The Old Man Test,” but it’s open to old ladies too. You start by standing in bare feet, with a pair of untied shoes and a pair of socks in front of you. Lifting one foot off the ground and holding it up, reach for a sock, put it on, and then grab a shoe, put it on, and tie it, all while standing on one foot without touching down. Then repeat this on the other side. It may sound simple (or impossible), and it is a serious challenge for balance, hip mobility, and core strength.
My husband is pretty strong and active and still on the sunny side of 70. As a former bike racer and frontline firefighter, he still loves his bike rides and works summer wildfires on the Central Oregon Team as an operations chief. He stays in shape to pass the required cardio fitness tests wearing a 45-pound pack, and works on his balance to keep fly fishing those slippery wild rivers he dreams about. He is my most faithful yoga student, taking my Zoom yoga class from his library as I teach online from our sunroom every week. He is an ace at tai chi “flamingo pose,” standing on one leg while adding slow up-and-down arm movements.
So, we watched an Internet video of tough guys in the gym demonstrating the moves. He was confident he could nail it. But many years at a desk job, sitting for hours, has taken its toll. The first time he tried it, while reaching for the first sock, he tipped over.
It’s unstoppable and inevitable that as we age our body goes through changes, including loss of muscle mass, loss of the fast-twitch fibers that help us move quickly, and changes to our nervous system that affect our sense of where our body is in space. As a teacher of yoga for seniors, I focus on four key elements: flexibility, agility, balance, and strength (a useful acronym is FABS). Change in these abilities as we age affects our quality of life, our independence, and can lead to the big health risk of falling. Falls happen to all of us on occasion, but they become a more serious affair as our bones become more brittle, our muscle mass shrinks, and we don’t bounce as well.
The chance of falling increases with age. One in four people over 65 may fall in a year, or 25 percent. When we are over 85 the risk increases to one in two or 50 percent. Falls can lead to a broken hip, one of the factors that can start a rapid decline in mental and physical health. More studies are linking hip fracture with declining mental function, dementia, and depression. Many people never really recover their previous quality of life.
So what can we do? A key is to keep moving so you can use it and not lose it. Teacher and physician Baxter Bell says, “We don’t stop moving because we age; we age because we stop moving.” Walking, strength training, gardening, dance, whatever you enjoy is good. And many find yoga helpful.
Unfortunately, people often try a frisky yoga class full of flexible, bendy people, feel embarrassed, and say “never again.” Others say they are afraid they aren’t strong or flexible enough to practice. But take heart and try again. The practice of yoga is a big tent with many styles and variations, so it may take a few tries to find a class that feels right. You might start with a gentle yoga class, often with names like Golden or Senior Yoga or Yoga for Healthy Aging. A favorite class in Sisters is called “Tight Cowboys.” Many classes can be found free online. If getting up and down on the floor is an issue then Chair Yoga is an option.
The variety of poses and movements in yoga can tune up our spatial awareness so we are better at obstacle avoidance, and help stimulate nerve receptors to know where our body is in space. Movement of any kind will improve blood flow to nerves and muscles. Some recent balance classes I have taken talk about the benefits of training for “cognitive distraction,” or trying to do two things at once. You work on your balance, for example, standing on one foot while doing multiplication tables, counting backwards from 100, or singing your favorite Bob Dylan/Adele song.
This may seem silly, but just as they say an airplane crash usually has more than one reason for happening, so does a fall. People often report they were momentarily distracted: it was icy, it was dark, a dog barked, the phone rang, there was a bulge in the sidewalk, and then they went down.
Safety first if you try the test. Stand on a stable, clear surface away from things you might hit if you wobble or tip. Start cautiously and slowly and maybe have a wall nearby. My husband is a goal-oriented person, and is determined to extend the years he can fly fish, hike, bike, and fight fire. He proudly reported that with daily practice he is now good with the first sock and is working on the shoe. Yoga is not a magic bullet against aging, but it can keep us out there doing the things we love a little longer.