I do yoga... that is, my version of yoga... a personalized combination of moves that are easy on my old-lady knees. Up until a month ago I also did cardio, until I read this article by my current “guru” Mike O’Donnell, suggesting that cardio workouts might not as good for us as they were previously thought to be... they might actually increase levels of stress hormones, increase inflammation, increase free-radical damage, and be making us fatter!
Cardio. That bastion of the fit, I’ve been doing cardio since the 1980’s. Back then I was a modern dancer. Dancing is a lot like sprinting... unless you’re in a dance marathon, most stage performances are 3-4 minutes max... and in class we’re talking brief bursts of activity punctuated by lots of standing around waiting for your turn. In those days, I was slim, strong, flexible, and coordinated. I never questioned whether or not I was in shape until, while rehearsing a dance to a piece of Switched on Bach with my friend Judith Brooky, a dance consisting of 2 minutes of breakneck running, jumping, and leaping around the stage, I realized that I had absolutely zero endurance.
We joked that maybe we should have an ambulance waiting by the stage door, just in case we succumbed.
In the 80’s, aerobic dancing was all the rage... the kind where you learned a canned routine to canned pop tunes and followed an energetic instructor through her paces, pausing only to measure your heart-rate every 10 minutes.
But Judith and I were real dancers... We had always mocked the whole idea of aerobics. It was so uncreative... unaesthetic... mass produced... beneath us.
That is, until our humbling experience with Switched on Bach. If we were going to survive, we had to have what they had. Stamina. Endurance. We swallowed our pride and signed up.
We joined an aerobics class that wasn’t too obnoxious at a local health club. It was full-on, high-impact aerobics alá Flashdance (yes, there was even a routine to Maniac) leg warmers and all!
Embarrassed to say, we were instant converts. It was so much fun... also an ego boost. It was pretty obvious that we had dance training... I guess you might say we were stand-outs. After a few weeks our stamina was right up there with the instructor’s and it wasn’t long before we decided that we wanted to teach the stuff ourselves. We took certification workshops and soon Judy and I were teaching, I at a local dance studio, she at the Y.
Within a few months my knees started bothering me. I’m not blaming aerobics entirely. I had 15 years of ballet and modern dance teaching and performing behind me... none of it in the kind of footwear that the aerobics set wore, footwear with well-cushioned soles and arch supports.
While my knees were falling apart, high-impact aerobics was falling out of favor. Everybody was switching to low-impact. That helped for a while, but eventually even low-impact became too painful. I would get these awful shooting pains in the backs of my knees. I made an appointment with an orthopedist. He did MRI’s and concluded that I had patello femoral syndrome and the beginnings of degenerative arthritis. He said I had the knees of a 70-year-old and I was only 29. He scoped my worst knee, the left one, smoothing the back of the patella and flushing out debris.
That bought me 10 more years of relative comfort... in addition to teaching aerobics I was also directing a dance group and teaching and performing modern dance. In time the pain became unbearable again and there was nothing more that could be done surgically except a lateral release, a procedure designed to realign my knee caps with a 70% success rate. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with that option so at age 39, I retired from dance.
I’ve been in knee preservation mode ever since.
But I haven’t escaped surgery entirely. 10 years ago, suspecting torn cartilage in my left knee that turned out to me nothing but debris, I had my left knee scoped and flushed again and 3 years ago I had surgery to trim an actual torn cartilage in my right knee.
I still have pain and swelling in both knees if I do stupid stuff like running, jumping, or walking too fast on uneven terrain. Dancing is limited to an occasional spin around the dance floor at a wedding. And I have to grab the ice right away if I bump my knees into stuff like furniture or the car dash board.
If I have a flare-up, I manage to recover in a few days with ice, compression, and rest. So far, I have not had joint injections, but they may be on the horizon. Knee replacement is at least 10 years away... in 10 years I’ll be 70. But honestly, I really don’t want to have that done if I can avoid it... I have a HUGE aversion to having my knees yanked and bionic ones installed.
20 years ago, when I quit dancing, I started power-walking and biking for cardio. But even that has become problematic. Last fall, in addition to knee pain, mostly the right, I began having hip pain too... could I be getting arthritis in my hip? X-rays revealed minimal hip arthritis if any. My orthopedist told me to stop power-walking and stick to biking. He referred me to a physical therapist for core exercises. He told me that because of the missing chunk of meniscus in my right knee, it will always be uncooperative.
The physical therapist gave me a set of simple core exercises and showed me how to tape my knees to encourage the quadriceps to work more evenly, creating better knee-cap tracking. For 3 weeks I stopped power-walking, did the exercises and the taping. My knee and hip pain cleared up.
Now, anytime I know that I’ll be walking a long distance, like in an airport, or at the mall, or on our annual Vegas vacation (you can’t go anywhere in Vegas without walking miles) I tape my knees.
But lately I’ve really been missing my beloved power-walking. My knees have been feeling really good. I haven’t needed to tape them much at all. I thought... maybe it would be okay to try power-walking again.
I taped my knees and spent 20 minutes walking on the treadmill. I got that exhilarating feeling... that adrenaline rush that I love and miss so much. It felt SO good. I was back!
To be extra cautious, I iced my knees immediately after walking. But the next day my right knee was swollen and sore. So was my hip. That was that. I gave up aerobics again.
For the time being, “yoga” is going to have to be enough. Since my trick knees prevent me from doing many of the traditional poses, I'm hybridizing my yoga practice with some light weight training... and of course, those core exercises that I got from my physical therapist.
In answer to my query: “Is yoga enough?” this article from Yoga Journal suggests that it is.
This post is not intended in any way, shape, or form to be medical advice. Please consult a reliable health care practitioner before starting any fitness program.