Editor's note: This article is the fifth and final in a series on wellness and gay men from Devin Wicks, ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach, who is coordinating UC Berkeley's pioneering new wellness program. See his Welcome to Wellness for an introduction to wellness.
We're finally at the last installment in my series on wellness for gay men at every age. So far, I've spoken to guys in their twenties, thirties, forties and fifties about some strategies for staying well for the long haul, and some potential pitfalls to avoid. Now I'd like to talk, not just to guys who are in their sixties right now, but to all of you who want to plan ahead. I'd like to see you make your sixties the best decade so far—one where you experience all the joys achieved through many years of work and relationships.
For all of us, our fifties are a fork in the road, a point to choose whether to be healthy or not. If you chose wisely in your fifties, you now get to reap the benefits of your groundwork. But you'll also want to be vigilant: There are things that could, if unchecked, compromise your health. For anyone that blew off their health in their fifties, don't despair! You can enhance the good in your wellness profile, and work to keep potential problems at bay. Stay on top of things and your sixties will be the best time of your life.
The great news about being in your sixties is that you've arrived at a point in your life where you can look around and enjoy the view. People in this age group often feel that their creativity is especially high. They feel free to express themselves, and that they've arrived at a particularly fruitful part of their lives where they don't have to worry so much about what other people think of you. By this point, you are who you are, and hopefully you've learned to enjoy being that person.
Your Changing Health
Of course, as you age there will be developments in your health and physical well-being that you need to stay on top of and manage. Let's run through some of the changes your body goes through in your sixties, and a few of the steps you should take to address them:
- In your sixties, the maximal intake for your cardiovascular system is down by as much as one-third, on average, from where you were in your twenties. So stay moving. Keep your cardiac efficiency high by remaining as active as you can, even if this is no longer a matter of running fast. Even daily brisk walks will go a long way toward keeping your heart strong.
- Your vitamin B12 is lower in your sixties, because as you age your stomach acid declines. This allows the growth of bacteria that feed on B12. Something as simple as eating yogurt, which has beneficial bacteria, can help replenish your digestive system and improve gut function.
- Because of the declining gut function described above, half of people over 60 get diverticulosis, a condition that causes constipation. Eating more leafy greef vegetables will help keep all systems moving.
- Thirty percent of people over 60 have a measurable degree of hearing loss, most of which is treatable. Not hearing what people are saying will make you feel cut off from the world around you, and decrease your quality of life. Get a hearing test at least once every three years—don't be afraid to find out that you may need a hearing aid.
- The hip and other key joints are more likely to develop arthritis as you age. Continue to do weight-bearing exercises at the gym (or at home) to keep bones strong (and see below for more tips on confronting aging bones).
Beyond specific health fixes, how can you keep your life humming on all cylinders? Here are three strategies for staying healthy in body and mind into your sixties, seventies, and beyond:
- Maintain strength and flexibility: To stay strong in your sixties, you need to maintain your range of motion—and if you fall, you won't heal as quickly. If your bone density is an issue, you really need to be especially careful. So—you can either be strong once you fall, or you can be flexible so you don't fall in the first place. Flexibility will let you twist like a cat and land soft. To maintain flexibility with strength, think about the kind of exercises you do. Replace some of your weight-lifting in the gym with body-weight exercises (like push-ups) that teach you to use your strength to balance yourself; yoga, which teaches flexibility and body-awareness; and functional training exercises (like lunges and squats) which ask you to build strength by using your body in the planes and motions you use in real life. All of these will help save you when you slip in the shower.
- Take time to give back: You spent much of your life gaining knowledge, becoming an expert, and discovering the world. Now is the time to share that knowledge with others. And there are health benefits for you in that as well. Sharing your time and knowledge keeps you socially engaged, and helps you to feel valued. In one study, people who were 55 and over who did volunteer work had a 44 percent lower risk of dying in the next five years than people who did not. So try to find a cause that particularly interests you, and think about giving even just a few hours a month to volunteering, tutoring, or mentoring programs. You'll have the opportunity to reflect on just how much you've learned in your lifetime, and to see how much others value that knowledge.
- Practice your spirituality: Spirituality doesn't need to be religion per se. It can really be anything—broadly speaking, it's a sense of why we're here. Practicing your spirituality leads to tolerance for ambiguity, ability to improve relationships, and ability to see the big picture. It can make your sixties much more fulfilling. A focus on spirituality can rebound through your life, benefiting other areas: the social, the physical, the intellectual. According to one study, participation in spiritual practices was directly related to a slower progression of Alzheimer's—if for no other reason than because those people were socially engaged. You may want to practice meditation, for instance, or join a Tai-chi group. Certainly you can explore religion, but you don't have to. There are many avenues to spirituality, and the key is to find one that feels right to you.