Give your breathing a good workout
(No. 105) You don't need to buy anything I recommend here, by Stephen P. Williams
The dream of exercising, by Stephen P. Williams
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This fall I’ve been thinking about two fitness metrics that seem to be particularly important for people as they get older: VO2 max and heart rate variability, or HRV. My numbers for both are low. I find both concepts hard to understand, in terms of what the numbers mean and how to improve my metrics.
V02 max is a measurement of how much oxygen is getting to your muscles (the acronym means Volume Oxygen Maximum). HRV (Heart Rate Variability) measures the gap between your heartbeats over time. I use an Apple Watch and an Oura ring to track both measurements (along with a score of other health metrics I’m interested in, such as heart rate, time spent in various stages of sleep, blood glucose and the stability of my footsteps while walking). And I use podcasts, articles and books to try to understand what they mean. In general, I’ve learned that a higher V02 max correlates with less disease and longer life. The same is true for HRV. I’m at the beginning stage of my exploration of these concepts, and I’m sharing my limited knowledge with you with the hope that you might join me in figuring this out.
My V02 max was 34.3 as the pandemic began in the spring of 2020, around the time I first had covid. It dropped slowly but steadily for a year following that, getting as low as 24.2. I suspect this might have been a result of the mild (I think) long covid I experienced, where I felt shortness of breath and a continued loss of smell and taste for over a year. Not sure. I took a 25,000 mile road trip during the early months of the virus, to research a book, and ate poorly and didn’t exercise as much as before, even though I tried. I gained weight. I slept poorly on the road. I probably had elevated cortisol and other stress hormone levels. But in the last year my V02 max has made a slow rise upwards. I’d attribute that to my recovery from covid (a mild second case I had two weeks ago doesn’t seem to have affected the numbers), the 30 pounds I’ve lost, and my regular sessions of weightlifting (with a Tonal machine) and walking 3-5 miles at least 4 days a week. At the moment I’ve just squeaked out of my “below average” V02 levels, and am at about 30. I’m walking faster now (17 minute miles rather than 20 minutes) and more often. I hope to eventually boost my V02 levels up to 45. My HRV has followed the same trajectory, and I imagine it will continue.
I hope to steadily improve these numbers, while also being realistic -- I will soon turn 65, after all. I encourage you to check your numbers, which are stored in your Apple Health app, if you use an iPhone. Other types of phones probably also track it -- I don’t know. The data is better if you have an Apple Watch, which is a valuable health tool. But in general, I would encourage you (as I do myself) to stay away from your phone as much as possible. For all the reasons we all already know.
Ideas and things I recommend
Here are some articles and videos I’ve read and watched, along with some others that I’m going to explore this week.
A workout for the muscles that let you breath
I don’t like to recommend products in this newsletter. We have too many products in our world as it is, and not enough natural resources to support them. But this tool, and others like it, seem valuable, useful and worthwhile. I have never used one, though I might soon. (I notice that I’ve also recommended the iPhone and the Apple Watch, so far. And another product, below. Maybe I actually do like to recommend products. I guess I have my contradictions.)
Breathe to lower blood pressure
High blood pressure is a dangerous pain in the keister. Everyone I know who suffers from it can’t quite seem to get it under control with diet and exercise. But improving your breathing has been shown to have dramatic effects on high blood pressure. Apparently, breathing through one of the many breath exercise devices available on Amazon (include the POWER Breathe in the video above) 30 times a day for six weeks lowers systolic blood pressure by 9 mm of mercury, which is about the same as regular aerobic exercise.
Save money as an older person traveling
Given the state of our environment, I think about travel in a different way than I did even three years ago. I will have second thoughts before taking an energy intensive trip to another country. But I’m not against travel altogether. I recently made plans to visit the Grand Canyon next year, and I’ll use the lifelong old person National Parks pass I bought a year ago for less than 100 dollars to get into the park. These “passports” never expire, and pay for themselves with just four park visits. For other money saving travel tips available to older travelers, read this.
You are not too old to swim 110 miles while dodging sharks and jellyfish. She is my hero.
I have long admired Diana Nyad, and watching her exit the water a few years ago after swimming 110 miles from Cuba to Key West, dodging sharks and jellyfish, was an emotional experience. She was 64 years old at the time. I highly recommend her compelling book, Find a Way.
Until next week! Please leave your thoughts in the comments.