Sometime last April, I had nerve pain in my right leg.
In previous bouts with such pain in my leg or bum, I simply waited a few days and the pain went away. This time a week went by but the pain stayed. I checked medical websites for a clue. I found that in the past I had “sciatica-like conditions” but this time I had “true sciatica.”
My honest-to-goodness sciatica apparently comes from a condition called “lumbar spinal stenosis.” With age, parts of cars break down; it’s the same with people. If a cushion between vertebrae in the lower back gets displaced or degrades, pressure is put on the spinal cord and the sciatic nerve branching off it. That’s why aray!
Using a checklist suggested by a physical therapist on YouTube, I figured that I had the “degraded” kind, or “spinal stenosis.” One item in the checklist is key to my self-diagnosis: I prefer to sit rather than stand. Do I need surgery? My sister in the United States has had three spinal surgeries and four spinal injections. She didn’t mind the cost because medical insurance covered it. But what about me?
Fortunately, medical vlogs are quick to advise that surgery is a last resort. The afflicted should try certain exercise remedies first. I found exercises on YouTube that help me walk with reduced or no pain: Basically, you do forward bends. I can walk moderate distances (or immoderate ones, if I don’t mind the discomfort) though often with a hobble because pain affects my right leg off and on.
Walking, tai chi
Of course, I felt bad that my walking is now curtailed. I love walking, far and fast. But it is no longer advisable for me to take my regular walks, like hiking to and from the market.
Worse, I can’t do the tai chi forms I’ve been performing for years.
I had hoped that I could count on low-impact tai chi as my “old age” exercise, but I didn’t count on having a leg injury. In the tai chi “tiger walk” you lead with one foot and gradually transfer your full weight to that foot, “emptying” your weight on the other. Then you lead with the “empty” foot, etc. But now my right leg can’t support weight for too long. And when you execute a kick, you of course have to stand on one leg.
Spinal stenosis makes me want to sit rather than stand or move around. Would I now have to take up that other Chinese art, qigong, which has forms that can be done just sitting or standing? However, long ago I chose tai chi over qigong precisely because I didn’t want to stay put!
Getting to ‘the corner’
Beyond my dilemma about what exercise to do, I realized I now had the problem of how to go to “the corner.” What’s so important about my getting there? To someone responsible for buying stuff the family needs, it’s a crucial matter.
You see, at the “corner,” the entrance to our subdivision in Quezon City, is a 300-meter stretch of Commonwealth Avenue where we can get all of our daily needs. There are: supermarkets (2), restaurants (2), fast food eateries (5), rotisseries (3), bakeries (3), turo-turo kitchens (4), banks (3), hardware stores (4), veggie-and-fruit shops (2), medical clinics (2), massage parlors (2), plus Mercury Drug, Japan Home and Ace Diagnostics.
At another “corner,” on the north boundary of the subdivision on Pearl Street, is a cluster of market stalls/sari-sari stores and a minimall with the “usual” shops.
Would I now have to patiently limp, or ride the car, to get to the corner that, only recently, had taken me a mere 10- or 15-minute walk to reach?
The riddle that faced me then could have confounded the Sphinx: How could an old fogey sit, do exercise and be mobile all at the same time? “Wheelchair,” you say. That conveyance for old, debilitated folks. Or that now-popular small e-vehicle with two, three, or four wheels. But apart from the embarrassment a more-or-less healthy fellow like I would face, I didn’t see much exercise being done on such a vehicle.
Aha, wheels! Why not a bicycle? Sit, exercise and travel to the corner.
Of course the problem was: Could I still ride a bicycle at my age, and do it often? Isn’t learning to ride a bike one activity—along with long-distance running, high-intensity interval training, Muay Thai, rock climbing, power yoga—that older people shouldn’t engage in?
Fifty years ago, I had a bike and used it for a few months to ride to Ateneo de Manila on Katipunan Avenue from Anonas Street until we moved house. But today, could I still trust my sense of balance and reflexes, and not be intimidated by the thought of falling and breaking fragile bones?
Happily, I didn’t dwell on the risks. I was too pleased with my answer to the riddle. I already knew what bicycle I’d get—a folding one. For this, I thank my friend Rey who passed on his enthusiasm for the folding bicycle that he used in Singapore.
Folding bikes have only 20- (or 16-) inch wheels instead of the 27-plus inches of standard bikes. So you, the beginner, feel assured that you’re not too far from the safety of Mother Earth.
I got started on my cycling by getting one of those ubiquitous cheap Japanese surplus bikes. The one I found in FB Marketplace was delivered promptly to my doorstep by Lalamove. (I also ordered a stationary bike from Shopee for indoor exercise on rainy days.)
Of course, I had to learn how to bike again. An old fogey might be more nervous than a boy trying on a bike. To develop the proper reflexes, I kept to a regimen of 30 minutes of cycling every day. In those first days I struggled to find my balance. I’ve had three falls—the first for no apparent reason but getting befuddled with controlling the bike; the second when I made a sudden twist to avoid a piece of sh*t; the third when I ran over a mahogany fruit.
Each fall gave me a skinned elbow or knee, reminding me of my bruise-infested short-pants days. Three times a passerby or a passing driver shouted at me that I was dragging my bike stand. (Absent-minded old man!) What I found hardest was to keep riding after becoming aware that a motor vehicle was sharing the road with me.
I discovered that cycling makes use of muscles different from those you count on to walk or run. (I remember that day when Ateneo college students did a mass run from the Blue Eagle Gym to the high school, around La Vista Subdivision and back. I didn’t find it particularly challenging, but our No. 1 varsity swimmer collapsed at the finish line.)
Surprisingly my senior knees don’t complain when I ride the bike. I’m also delighted to find that my forearms, which had appeared to be withering from disuse, are fleshing out.
I confine my cycling to the streets within the subdivision. There are enough road challenges here for an old beginner. Outside the main subdivision entrance is a long, steep (unbikeable) hill and bedlam. At our subdivision entrance is the narrowest part of Commonwealth Avenue, where you find either bumper-to-bumper traffic or a race track for all kinds of vehicles. Only a few hardened bike veterans dare to join this melee. So if I need to travel farther than the “corner,” I take the car.
Three months after first handling this newfound toy, I can say the “experiment” is working. Regular exercise and errands aside, I’m also doing what health experts say older people must do to stay fit—learn something new. I thought that advice just meant learning a new language or taking up painting. But cycling does force you to do what you didn’t dream of doing at your age—perform a multi-sense activity on a regular basis.
Yes, you’re going to be a boy again learning new tricks!
1. The steel ukay bike was my learning instrument. I bought a lighter (aluminum) folding bike from a Quiapo shop. It’s easier to drive and easier to carry over obstacles. The ukay bike l keep for rougher use, like doing errands when it rains.
2. I just read that a neuroscientist in the United States, Jay Alberts, had made a major medical discovery—cycling is a treatment to provide relief for, and even slow down the progress of, Parkinson’s Disease. Together with Dr Alberts, the Cleveland Clinic has come up with a simple prescription for Parkinson’s patients—”forced” exercise consisting of biking at 80 to 90 rpm for 45 minutes at least thrice a week.