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I Discovered the “Middle-Aged Groan” Is a Real Thing. Ugh.

What's with all the "oofs" and "grunts" as we get older? Jeannie Ralston, a self-described "champion groaner," finds some answers.

I love puns, so I was tickled when I joined a new church a few years ago and saw that there was a social group called the “Groan Ups,” which the bulletin reported was for “anyone who groans when they get up.”

That church was talking my language because I am a champion groaner, the Maria Sharapova of bodily noises. It seems I can’t help releasing a little “oof” when getting up from a low chair, bending down to pick my shoes off the floor, stretching up to reach something on the top shelf in a kitchen cabinet—and a hundred other movements, whether slightly or majorly strenuous.

Maybe if I’d been the silent type, we’d still be married.

In the last few years I was married, my husband started commenting about my groans frequently. “You OK over there?” “You gonna make it?” I suspect that my noise-making was a bit of grit that got under his skin more and more as our relationship deteriorated.

Who knows? Maybe if I’d been the silent type, we’d still be married.

I was pretty sure my grunting was a weird anomaly, something usually reserved for weight lifters. Because to me, the church group title seemed merely clever—not indicative of any mass sound off.

Read More: The Incredible Shrinking Woman. Where Do Those Lost Inches Go?

The Grunt Club

Imagine my surprise when the New York Times ran a story about the “Middle-Aged Grunt.” It’s a real thing!

“Like many other people, I have a playlist of activity-specific grunts and gasps: When I’m heaving myself out of a chair, I sound like Rafael Nadal returning a volley; when I’m reaching for something, I release a wheezy ‘ooof,'” Jancee Dunn wrote in the Times.

As people get older, just bending over to pick things off the floor might require a bit more exertion, and we tend to brace ourselves.

The mechanics, according to researchers, is something like this: When we lift something relatively heavy, make fast movements (like hitting a tennis ball), or even stand up from sitting, we stiffen our torso. This stabilizes our entire body. If we were too relaxed, we would be floppy, lose balance, and risk falling over. So we fill the lungs by breathing in and tensing up the muscles of the torso to stabilize our spine. We throw our arms forward to provide momentum, and with this effort, we hold our breath to maintain that stability as we stand.

We then release the breath slowly or quickly, depending on the nature of the task. With fast (or ballistic) movements like pitching a ball or punching in boxing, we’d release the breath quickly. With slow movements, like lifting a barbell or getting off the couch, we’d release it slowly.

I don’t remember being so noisy in the past, so it does seem to be tied to age. Experts agree. As people get older, “just bending over to pick things off the floor might require a bit more exertion, and we tend to brace ourselves,” Meryl Alappattu, a research assistant professor of physical therapy at the University of Florida and faculty member in the Pain Research and Intervention Center of Excellence, told the Times. And exhaling, she said, “could be contributing to that grunt or whatever sound you make.”

The pain and stiffness that often come with age, for example, can prompt huffing noises, according to Tracy E. K. Davis, an associate professor specializing in health promotion and aging at Rutgers University. And prolonged sitting—like binge-watching Succession, say—may contribute to the sounds. When you sit for long periods, the muscles in your hips tighten, which makes standing a little more difficult.

Why So Noisy?

The evidence of whether grunting helps us move, strike, or lift is mixed. According to a 20-year-old study, grunting doesn’t help weightlifters lift heavier weights. They lifted as much in a “dead lift” whether they grunted or not. However, in a 2011 study, shouting helped martial artists deliver greater force. And in a 2014 study, tennis players had stronger serves and forehand strokes when they were allowed to grunt compared with when they were told to be silent.

Perhaps we are more likely to make such noises if we are tired or fatigued.

The symphony of sounds we make might have a variety of causes. “I think there is a physical component, a mental component, a voluntary component, and an involuntary component,” said  Davis.

Perhaps we are more likely to make such noises if we are tired or fatigued, experts suggest. And if we think a task is going to be hard, we might be more likely to grunt or vocalize. That’s when we’re most likely holding our breath—to try to provide momentum and stability for the task ahead, then releasing it. “While there has been no research on this phenomenon, as far as I can tell, grunting with physical exertion does seem to be habitual,” says Andrew Lavender, an Australian researcher who has written about the issue. 

David Matsumoto, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, told the New York Times his theory that these tiny cries for help could be a way “of telling others we are having a tough time for such movements.”

Or maybe, just maybe, in my case, I was grunting so frequently with my soon-to-be ex-husband in a passive aggressive way to irritate him. I hate to think I was capable of that, but all is fair is love and war, and what is divorce but love and war in one package?

Read More: Yes, I Can Hear You Now: A Long-Overdue Awakening

By Jeannie Ralston


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