As I struggled up a steep hill this morning, my confidence felt as wobbly as my legs. I’ve been in this situation (being totally out of racing shape) a few times before and always rebounded. Usually every few years, I get an itch to do a wild ultra-race or some bludgeoning physical challenge that pulls the innards out of me. In the end, I always seem to pull it off, but beginning a new training cycle is always daunting. This morning, though, was different.
I had more concern than usual about my ability to pull off a successful race at the Lake Placid Ironman this summer (just 4 months away). After riding on my indoor bike trainer for an hour-and-a-half, I felt like this five-mile run was way more difficult than it should be. I’m closing in on my 65th birthday, and started wondering if my wavering self-confidence had to do with aging.
I’ve trained all my life for various sports competitions so I have a pretty good idea of what I need to do to get ready for big races. But maybe I don’t really know how to train as a “senior.” (Ouch – I don’t like the sound of that. Nor did I appreciate the AARP membership letter that came in the mail last week.) Or maybe my days of getting in shape in three weeks are over. Not that I could get in absolute condition in that space of time, but I always felt like I could go from zero to “training shape” fairly quickly. Now? I’m not so sure.
Training for a road race or even a marathon is one thing, but getting ready for an Ironman is something else. It’s a beast of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run. After that shaky run this morning, I began to wonder. Do I do multiple training sessions in one day right at the start? Or do I just do one sport each day? Do I keep trudging up hills, slowing down the pace or speeding it up and red-lining (going deep into anaerobic debt) once in a while like I used to do? I’m beginning to realize this is new territory for me. But then I’m also realizing my confusion from this morning’s run isn’t really based on HOW to train this aging body of mine…it actually isn’t about that at all. My confusion is really a haunting feeling of doubt. Doubt in my capabilities. Eerily, this feeling is reminiscent of how I felt 20 years ago when I was first diagnosed with severe osteoporosis. It’s not as traumatic or debilitating as it was back then, but it is all too familiar of a feeling.
Back when I was 45 and breaking bones right and left from just minimal forces placed upon my skeleton, I lost ALL confidence in who I was. Today, in my chiropractic office, I see that same terrible loss being felt by so many of my patients. They come to me desperately searching for answers. Desperately trying to cling to their identity. A “before osteoporosis” identity. One where the risk for breaking a bone doesn’t permeate every movement they make. To me, when I was given the diagnosis, it was as if “I” had become trapped in a crumbling foreign body that I couldn’t escape. “It” was all around me, in me, through me…everywhere…and it wasn’t “me”.
As I revisit that feeling of loss today, I tried to figure out how to deal with it. How to move forward, how to somehow make it into something positive. And then I remembered a Ted talk about “power posing” that I had watched several months ago. In the talk, social psychologist Dr. Amy Cuddy described how she found that simply by changing posture in individuals that hormone levels would change. The reason this talk resonated so deeply with me was that the hormones Dr. Cuddy was measuring were testosterone and cortisol, two of the most important hormones for maintaining bone health. Testosterone (particularly in men but also important for women) stimulates osteoblasts to form bone while cortisol stimulates osteoclasts to destroy bone. In fact, cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, is considered one of the most powerfully destructive forces to bone.
Dr. Cuddy’s discovery makes a great deal of sense, both physiologically and in terms of evolution. Of course, bones will get stronger if you act in powerful ways that use your strength. Consider, too, that early tribal leaders had to be strong not only to hold their position in the society and to fight off enemies but also to procure food and water.
In my book, The Whole-Body Approach to Osteoporosis, I discuss how the leaves of a tree influence the strength of its branches and trunk. The healthier a tree is, the more leaves it will have. Because leaves catch gusts of wind, a tree with a lot of leaves must have extra strong wood (branches and trunk) to withstand the added forces of a windy day. To meet this demand, as a tree grows the leaves actually send signals through messenger molecules to the woody parts stimulating growth mechanisms to enhance strength. Similarly, as an individual’s muscles (their leaves) grow stronger, they send messages via myokines to the bone (a person’s branches and trunk) to gain strength in order to handle the increased stress placed by the physical demands of strong muscles.
Cuddy concluded that non-verbal body language such as posture influences our emotions and hormones. For instance, not only does our posture affect how others judge us, but it also can change our own thoughts and feelings and help us to feel better about ourselves.
In her double-blind study, subjects sat or stood in a “power pose” with straight backs and their arms raised or open. After just two minutes in this posture, testosterone levels increased by 20% and cortisol levels decreased 10%, Cuddy said. When subjects sat or stood in a “low power” posture, slumping forward with their arms and shoulders held inward, their testosterone levels decreased 10% and cortisol rose 15%.
Dr. Cuddy explained that traumatic life events can “steal” a person’s identity and cause them to feel totally powerless. When this happens, testosterone wanes and cortisol increases, which is a hormonal recipe ripe for disastrous consequences both in risk for failure but also for disease.
Cuddy experienced this first-hand after a car accident left her with brain damage and a sharp decline in IQ. She had always identified as being academically gifted, this was her M.O., her self-identity. Without her academic brilliance, she no longer could identify who she was and she felt totally lost and powerless.
Her story resonates with me because I, too, felt like my identity had been stripped from me at age 45, when I began to experience fractures and was given a diagnosis of severe osteoporosis. I had always considered myself strong and somewhat invincible. But with the diagnosis I became (at least in my mind) fragile, vulnerable, and physiologically weak. I had been a professional athlete, an Olympian and an Ironman, and I never felt shut down by anything. With the diagnosis of osteoporosis I went from being confident to totally demoralized in an instant. It STOPPED me dead in my tracks. No, not permanently–but it did stop me until I returned to the fighting mode that has sustained me through my life.
Now that I look back on those dark days, I think maybe I was able to (unknowingly) boost my testosterone and reduce my cortisol levels simply by continuing to charge ahead. I have always believed that attitude can make a significant impact on recovery, and I believe that even more strongly now. No, we can’t recover from every illness just because we face it with a positive, “power-posed” fighting attitude, but is sure doesn’t hurt.
As a chiropractic physician, I have been telling my patients for years that standing up straight and feeling proud of themselves helps not just with back pain but also with improving their overall health. However, it took this Ted talk for me to realize that it was possible for them to actually change their hormone levels simply with posture.
Now I can tell them, when you are feeling powerless with a diagnosis of osteoporosis, that’s the time to strike a power pose and fight back. Is it time to increase your testosterone levels and reduce your cortisol? Be a new you, strike a power pose!
You can bet that the next time I feel shaky on a run, whether I’m 65 or 85, I’ll strike that power pose with my arms raised high, chest out, and eyes focused forward. I’ll feel testosterone blast through my veins and cortisol fade away. Watch out Lake Placid Ironman! I’m on my way.