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A Second Chance at Health

Arthritis, back pain, obesity and digestive disorders: How to handle some of the common health ailments that plague our middle years

Woman holding her old Jeines


Marnita Wiggins-Nichols has gone from a size 26 in pants to an 8 by making small lifestyle changes.

En español | Marnita Wiggins-Nichols

Obesity, Age 53

The Challenge: At 334 pounds, Marnita had unhealthy habits that put her among the 40 percent of boomers who are classified as obese, raising her risk of heart disease and hypertension.

Her action plan: She avoided fad diets, relying on a string of small, self-tested dietary and lifestyle changes.

Shortly before her 49th birthday, Marnita Wiggins-Nichols, who runs a day care center in Lima, Ohio, needed a checkup for work. Even though her weight had long been a problem, she didn't expect anything unusual. But at the checkup, she learned her blood pressure "was dangerously high, which was news to me," Wiggins-Nichols recalls. "My doctor wanted to put me in the hospital."

She resisted and instead left the office with blood pressure medication and orders to lose weight, forcing her to finally own up to her unhealthy situation. "It was so hard to accept that I had let my body get that out of control," Wiggins-Nichols says. "I didn't want to sign up for a diet or join a gym. I decided to do it my way, making small, incremental changes."

First, she put down the soda pop, swearing off the three or four sodas she drank daily and instead downing four or five 16-ounce bottles of water. That led to her losing several pounds a week. Next, she made minor changes in the kitchen. "I stopped using batter when I fried things, and began sautéing in olive oil." She then added more fruit and vegetables and started bringing healthy breakfasts to work.

For the first year, she didn't even exercise. "And even when I did," she says, "I started out just by using an old exercise bike in the basement." She stuck to her own test-and-learn philosophy. "When something works and I find I truly can turn it into habit, I incorporate more of that. If it doesn't, I drop it." Lately, she has added more movement to her regimen — strength training, dancing and walking, for example — and works out at least five times a week. And she's still adjusting her diet, such as eliminating red meat and trying new vegetables. She packs lunch for work, too, and no longer buys bread. "I'll have it when we go out to eat, but that's no more than twice a month."

Now 53, she's down to 160 pounds, has gone from a size 26 in pants to an 8, and gotten her blood pressure under control. She has reached her ideal weight and focuses more on toning.

The best part of being fit? Chasing her six grandsons around the playground. Recently, one invited her to climb up on the jungle gym with him and, amazingly, she found she could. "That's the kind of nana I want to be," she says.

Man cutting wood

Andres Gonzalez

Doctors removed Jim Moore’s colon to give him a new lease on life.

Jim Moore

Crohn's Disease, Age 69

The Challenge: He is one of 1.4 million people suffering from inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's or colitis.

His action plan: After years of crippling pain, Jim took the courageous step of having his colon removed to improve his quality of life.

Jim Moore, 69, wasn't used to being sick. He had made it through 24 years in the Air Force and then had transitioned into his second career as a real estate inspector without ever facing a serious illness or injury.

But in 1998, he began to experience stabbing stomach pains, often followed by violent diarrhea. He used over-the-counter treatments, but nothing helped. Initially, his doctor diagnosed him with colitis, a painful inflammatory bowel disorder, and started him on a merry-go-round of ineffective prescriptions. "He'd say, 'Let's try this for six months,' and I wouldn't improve," Moore explains. "So he'd say, 'Well then, let's try this.' It was really frustrating. At one point, he even hospitalized me for treatment, but that didn't help either."

Moore, who lives in Jacksonville, Ark., coped with his embarrassing problem as best he could, always packing a change of clothes when he went to work, at times even wearing diapers. "It wasn't easy, considering I was up and down ladders all day." His relationship with food became complicated: "I'd go in a restaurant and order but just stare at the food instead of eating, because I knew there was a chance that a minute later, I'd be racing for the bathroom."

Five years into this pain, a different physician found fistulas, or abnormal tears, in Moore's intestines and referred him to the Cleveland Clinic. A doctor there diagnosed Moore with Crohn's disease, a different inflammatory bowel disorder that sometimes runs in families. And he promised a complete cure, with a big catch: "I'd have to spend the rest of my life with an ostomy, wearing a bag outside my body to collect waste," Moore says. The clinic sent him back home to Arkansas to think it over, but what would have been a difficult decision for some was easy for Moore. "I had already made my mind up," he recalls. "This was no way to live. I just didn't want to have that kind of pain anymore."

During Moore's nine-hour surgery, the doctor removed his entire colon — and gave him back his life. Current pain level? Zero. Learning to live with an ostomy? An adjustment, he says, "but a relatively easy one, especially given the discomfort I lived with before." Moore, retired now, is a former member of the national board of the United Ostomy Associations of America, which supports about 750,000 people in the U.S. with ostomies. He's also active in local support groups. "I'm so glad I didn't just stay with the status quo," he says. "Choosing to have surgery has made a whole new life possible."

Man meditating

Joshua Kolden

Stephen Parsons uses meditation to help manage his chronic pain.

Stephen Parsons

Chronic Pain, Age 66

The Challenge: Chronic nerve pain, a complication from a bout with shingles. Persistent pain like his affects 100 million Americans — more than heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined.

His action plan: Stephen learned basic meditation techniques to manage his pain. Researchers say meditation can be a more effective treatment than even morphine.

Stephen Parsons, 66, has finally made peace with pain. Twice a day he settles down on a cushion at his home in Bainbridge Island, Wash., and breathes slowly, focusing on each inhalation and exhalation. He doesn't fight the shooting pains in his lower back. His goal? To stay in the moment and observe his feelings.

He wasn't always able to manage his pain this way. The retired psychotherapist's problems started more than nine years ago. While caring for his terminally ill partner, Parsons came down with shingles, a common viral infection that causes an intensely painful rash. In most people the misery subsides in a few weeks. But Parsons developed postherpetic neuralgia, a complication that causes ongoing nerve pain. "So as I worked through my grief about losing Bill," he says, "I also had to learn to live with severe chronic pain, which can range from a 3 or 4 on the pain scale, on a good day, to a 7 or 9 on a bad one."

His physician prescribed medication, "but taking so many narcotics scared me," Parsons recalls. He decided to experiment with meditation and found a group called the Insight Community of the Desert, a Buddhist organization in Palm Springs, Calif., where he was living at the time. "While Buddhism is a religion, it's also a philosophy," he explains, "and many people who practice mindfulness meditation aren't Buddhists." The mindfulness meditation Parsons learned is so effective in helping manage pain and stress, that it's now taught widely in hospitals, to executives and even in the military.

Meditation didn't magically erase Parsons' pain, and he still takes a low dose of medication. "But I'm learning to be mindful of what is happening in the moment, not how much pain I felt yesterday or worrying about how much it might hurt later. Mindfulness has given me the ability to set the pain aside for short periods, to detach myself from it."

Parsons has come to terms with a condition that may be permanent, "although it does go away in some cases, so I'm hopeful," he adds. "But between the medication and the meditation, I know how to make myself comfortable. It has given me so much insight. Everyone suffers, at some point, on some level. It's such a gift to know I can quiet my mind down, and know that pain no longer defines who I am."

Woman exercising

Robyn Twomey

Jinglan Liu feels stronger and healthier since using elastic bands and yoga to improve her range of motion.

Jinglan Liu

Osteoarthritis, Age 76

The Challenge: Diagnosed with osteoarthritis, she let the disease limit her activities. One of 2 Americans will develop osteoarthritis in their lifetime.

Her action plan: When the going got tough, Jinglan got moving. Consistent physical activity reduced her pain and increased her ability to function normally.

Jinglan Liu, 76, let the pain from osteoarthritis keep her trapped in her Flushing, N.Y., apartment. Movement in her shoulder was so limited she couldn't carry groceries anymore. Her knees were so stiff she needed a walker. Even the short trip to the local library meant waiting for the bus.

But Liu's life changed when she joined a chair exercise program at a local community center that used TheraBand elastic bands to strengthen her muscles and improve the range of motion in her joints. She began to feel better, so when New York's Hospital for Special Surgery announced an experimental program using yoga to improve bone health, she signed up for that, too.

With instructors helping students in and out of poses and adjusting for joint pain, Liu soon found herself moving smoothly from pose to pose. Her favorites are the warrior series. "I can even do the bridge pose," she says of an advanced position that boosts spine mobility.

For Liu, who exercises daily with her husband, relief goes beyond greater ease with the chores of daily life. She has rediscovered the joy of living without pain. "I feel so much younger and healthier," she says. "Why wouldn't I do this every day?"

Alternative Nondrug Methods to Ending Pain

How to relieve pain naturally:

FOR: Back pain
DO: Staying active is important. Acupuncture, massage and physical therapy can help, too.

FOR: Osteoarthritis
DO: Low-impact activities like walking, biking and mat exercises ease pain and improve function. Avoid high-impact exercise like running.

FOR: Headaches
DO: Cut back on alcohol and recognize "trigger" foods that set off headaches. Control stress with meditation and gentle exercise.

FOR: Fibromyalgia
DO: Regular exercise reduces pain and fatigue. Consider tai chi, a form of exercise involving gentle movements combined with deep breathing.

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