The year of being sixty two: health, strength, energy and the ageing body



Here is the September extract from the longer pieces I am writing about the experience of getting older.  I am a bit self conscious about this one.  It feels a bit "showy offy" to talk about going to the gym somehow.  It is not about that.  It is about trying to engage more with what the body can do than with what it looks like.  Easier said than done.  I love to hear what you think so please tell me!



Let’s face it, the aging body is not a pretty thing:  wrinkled knees and elbows, the saggy skin which hangs on your arms, turtle necks, veined legs.  But it is not just what the body looks like, it is also what it can do.  For the last few years of his life my father in law lived with us.  He made it to ninety five and was always remarkably, even relentlessly cheerful.  As a young man and right through middle age and beyond he had been strong.  He missed that strength when it disappeared on him as old age took hold.  He would not have said so directly.  That would have been complaining and complaining by his lights was not allowed.  It was almost a joke “If it wasn’t for my elbow” he would say “ you could push my wristwatch right the way up to my shoulder.  All my muscles have gone.”  And he was right.  His forearms remained masculine and hairy but above the elbow his arm was thin and pale, veined with blue, a mottled pipe cleaner.  

My husband too has always been strong, tall and powerful with broad shoulders and strong forearms.  At sixty five he is still strong.  He can still lift things which are immovable rocks to me with apparent ease.  I worry sometimes about how he will manage the loss of that strength, when it comes.  Will he still feel like himself?

I have never been strong.  I am on the small side.  I used to be slight but now I am blurred around the middle.  I am perhaps ten pounds or so overweight and all that weight clings determinedly around my waist with a soft bulge of stomach just below, like a kangaroo pouch.  I have decided that I will join a gym and see if I can build some muscle, not Miss Universe, weight lifting muscle, just seeing if I can gain a little more strength.  The idea makes me feel both intrigued and uncomfortable.

I go and look at a small gym which is part of a local hotel.  What wins me over is that there is nobody there.  “It’s always very quiet in the day” says the woman who shows me round.  She is old too, at least as old as I am and considerably fatter.  I had thought I would be surrounded by beautiful young and fit bodies but at the moment the little gym is entirely empty.  It’s cheap too. 

I sign up for a six week trial before I lose my nerve.  What can I wear?  My yoga clothes will have to do.  I have no shoes so I buy a pair of trainers for £6 from Tescos.  I book an induction.  I wonder if I will feel and look very stupid.

I turn up for my induction in my yoga clothes and cheap trainers, holding my glasses and my phone.  The tiny gym is empty again but it is hard to avoid looking at yourself in the mirrors which line the walls.  I don’t look silly but I do look a bit wrong.  There are illustrations on the walls, line drawings of young strong men showing how to do different exercises with weights.  You never see posters like these which use  a five foot four, sixty one year old woman in a turquoise t shirt and black yoga pants to demonstrate technique.

The trainer is late, nearly half an hour late.  I have just decided with some relief that when the clock shows three thirty I can go when she breezes in, all apology.  She is tall and slim, dressed in lycra and bouncing with energy.  She sits me down and takes me through a questionnaire.  She takes my blood pressure and talks about the importance of starting slowly and doing a little frequently rather than a lot once a week.  Then she takes me through some exercises on the exercise bike and the treadmill and gets me doing press ups and squats against the wall using a large exercise ball.  This is a bit tricky because it feels like not enough.  I try to tell her that I would like something a bit more challenging.  I am not fit.  I know I am not.  But I do live up a hill and I do walk and go to yoga.  She looks at me as if I might explode if I do too much.  

"Just take it slowly for two or three weeks and then we will look at your programme again."

So I do.  For three weeks I come three or four times a week and  gradually sneak in some exercises with light weights, carefully following the posters of the strong young men.  I used to go to a gym for a few years when I was in my thirties so it doesn't feel entirely strange.  I like it when the gym is empty so I experiment to find out when it is quietest.  I don't much like the showers and the changing rooms, not that there is anything wrong with them but I like the privacy of my shower at home.  And slowly I discover that I like working with weights.  I like feeling stronger.  I like doing another set of bicep curls or lunges.  Is it transforming my body?  No, not really.  Maybe it is a tiny bit less soft. Now here I am at the end of my six week trial needing to decide whether to continue.  

Will I carry on?   Yes I think I will.  I haven't done it for long enough for the pattern of going to become embedded in my week so I think I will commit myself to do another two months and see how I feel at the end of that.  There is so much that I want to do which needs health and strength and energy.  It is hard to shed the obsession with what you look like, living in a society which is focussed relentlessly on image.  But if I focus on what my body can do I find the idea that I am a little stronger than I was six weeks ago really pleasing.

And the second time I see the trainer she treats me less like an unexploded bomb and more like someone who would like to be fitter and stronger.  Do I still look a bit out of place?  Yes I suppose I do.  I have decided not to care.

Comments

  1. Good on you. Strength is the key now I think but although I used to go to a gym like you in my thirties I couldn't stand the music. Is yours quiet? I used to go to aerobic classes but got bit bored with the unvarying routine. I used to run too but my knees don't like it. Swimming ? More boring. The only thing I've stuck at is Pilates. I love it and know my back has benefited. The class is in a really nice room with nice people not dressed in intimidatingly cool outfits. But I think I might try yoga to see it if it helps with mental tranquility. Use it or lose it. That's the motto.

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    1. I agree entirely about noise. when I'm in the gym on my own I can have quiet or TV. otherwise it's music videos which I hate. I find swimming boring too but I would really recommend yoga, good for the mind as well as the body.

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  2. Well done on getting stronger!

    I have never been near a gym or a personal trainer. As for showy offy - our holiday flat at St Katharine Dock overlooked a convenient space for a personal trainer and her client. I was sitting on the balcony reading ... while the two of them worked him thru ... endless ... sets of exercises ...

    Thinking guiltily of the set of weights I used against osteoporosis - and haven't touched since we moved to Porterville. About 10 years?

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    1. weights are interesting because you can see yourself improve and because feeling stronger is something you notice quite often in everyday life: the shopping bag, the log basket. I would recommend it.

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  3. Elizabeth, I found this post interesting, partly because I am about a decade older than you, and still do not feel any design to join a gym. When I was in my pre-retirement job, I did get quite a workout at the shop. On my feet for about eight hours, lifting heavy items, bending, reaching, climbing little ladders, always in motion. Since retirement, I do have to concentrate out getting out and about daily for an hour or so of walking and my grocery/farmers market shopping, and library visits give me some weight bearing experiences.

    All the same, I know that I am not as active as I was a year ago. However, there is much more joy in each day.

    Some of my NYC friends have recommended Pilates, and I was interested to see Lucille's comment above.

    I do continue to try to give my brain lots of daily exercise, and think that activity has increased, post retirement.

    It will be fun for us to see what changes each of us discovers in ourselves as summer turns into autumn, and then into those other chilly months. I am so glad to be able to share these thoughts with you. xo

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    1. I thought how slim and fit you seemed when we met Frances! all that time on your feet must surely have helped. I'm a big fan of walking and for a long time that and yoga have been my exercise so this is a bit of a departure!

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  4. Congratulations on sticking with it! Especially liked your comment after six weeks your feeling stronger.
    I'm coming up to my 70th birthday and decided a long time ago that I wanted to be fit as I can be going into old age. I enjoy Yoga and Pilates as it deals with core strength and stability. As well as going on lots of dog walks 😊 I enjoy reading about your aging journey and how you deal with the process.



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    1. I'm a big fan of core strength stuff. and I agree with you that being as fit as you can be is crucial to enjoying life. that's doubtless the case any time but it looks to me that those who hang on to fitness in the last quarter of life really make a commitment to it. it's not an accident or a piece of luck any more!

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  5. I'll kick off by saying that when I met you I saw a woman who was beautiful on the outside as well as inside, but I do think you make a fair point about wanting to stay strong for as long as possible, especially given the precarious state of the NHS. I think it's important to keep moving, sadly my MiL decided enough was enough when she broke her hip and, for whatever reason, decided that walking was too difficult. I'm afraid that was the beginning of the end so when I see very elderly or infirm people making very slow progress with the aid of a walking stick I think to myself now that they're ahead of the game. I was lucky to discover that I love running and I feel as if it's the biggest favour I did myself and I work out with weights for my upper body. I'm not trying to turn back the clock, I'm simply trying to do the sensible thing and stay as healthy and strong as possible for as long as possible - because something will surely come to bite me one day!

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    1. Thank you Chris. What a lovely thing to say! I do very much agree with you about the importance of movement. A doctor friend told us once that continuing to walk was the single most important thing you could do for your health. I too am not trying to turn back the clock. I'm trying to be fit enough and strong enough to do the things I want to do.

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  6. Kudos to you for picking up those weights! You will regain some of your strength and lose that feeling of wimpiness (not a word?).

    I think you will feel more in control of that aging body even if it is an illusion, it is one that is easy to subscribe to. If you find the gym just so-so and the sessions with your trainer are finished, you can buy some weights and videos and do the training at home. It saves time and the shower is ready and waiting. It takes me some fortitude to do my routine 3 times a week, and I don't always make it, but I feel better when I stick with the program. Look at it this way: it is only 1 hour (?) x times a week, and feeling better (and being healthier) is worth this investment. Don't give up!

    For some inspiration take a look at Younger Next Year for Women (book by Chris Crowley and Harry Lodge MD).

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    1. Thanks for the book recommendation anneke. I have wondered about buying some weights and doing it at home. At the moment I am thinking that one advantage of going to the gym is that once I am there I have to do it!

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  7. Oh to be sixty-two again!!!!!Closer to ninety-two, but I still garden. Rather than going to the gym I have taken up the ukulele.....

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    1. If I am gardening and taking up the ukulele at close to ninety two I shall be well satisfied.

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  8. We ll done for carrying on! I'm not a gym person - I know this because I've tried it and used to regularly a few years ago. It isn't being there and doing the weights etc, it's the hassle of actually going there and back which takes so much time out of my days so I shall just stick to walking and gardening for now I think.

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    1. It does take a while! Mine is quite close but I do still find myself wondering if I have enough time!

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  9. Deciding not to care has pretty much become my modus vivendi these days. Exploring Scandinavia in fierce sunlight and with a skin that has already clearly announced that it doesn't do strong sun, I now do the English woman abroad thing, wearing a floppy wide-brimmed hat with my shorts and long sleeved shirts. That would have horrified me a few years ago! But I digress.

    I find that, with every year that passes, I need to spend more and more time on body maintenance - good nutrition and regular exercise - mostly at home with my gym ball although I am planning to start a beginner's pilates class and that has reminded me to sign up now!

    It really is use it or lose it and a matter of what works for you, what you enjoy and can easily fit into your routine. Glad to hear you are planning to keep going with the gym and the weights.

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    1. An yes, as another with fair English skin I identify with the English woman abroad! I am coming to think, perhaps a bit reluctantly, that there is not much choice with the good nutrition and exercise if you want yo live a full and adventurous life. When I was younger I could just turn up! Not so these days.

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  10. Brava! Making that decision not to care is so liberating. For whatever reason, I decided long ago that I have a "free pass" not to care how I look when I'm running. I mean, I have decent gear, but very basic and I don't need to invest in many colours and designs to motivate me. I wet down my bedheaded crazy morning curls before I head out, but I don't bother styling my hair any more than that (and if I don't even feel like that, a visored cap covers the kafuffle quite decently). I passed other female runners just this past weekend, some my age even, and was amused yet again to notice that some women wear lipstick to go running. (and if some of them are reading here, please note that my amusement is at the contrast between us, not in thinking that you're wrong to care about your running appearance).
    Caring for your health is so much more important than caring about appearance, but of course the two end up going hand in hand. For me, most convincing is the energy and confidence I have from staying fit, but I do also enjoy the muscle tone and the more subtle benefits like a more vibrant complexion that I think I'd otherwise have. I suspect you'll get hooked before your membership expires. . . There's a small gym in the complex we've just moved into, and I have to admit I've always been intimidated by all the machines, the fear of looking foolish, all the other potential exercisers, much stronger than I. . . but I'm going to try to take advantage of it being so close, inspired a bit by your post. Lovely writing -- this topic is suiting you and vice versa. . .

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    1. love the image of your running self! it is a real liberation to decide not to care. I do think that I might just not have been able to manage it when I was younger. another of the pleasures of getting older. would love to hear how you get on at the gym. I've been away a couple of weeks so need to get back before I lose the urge!

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  11. Oh well done! I need to do something, my joints are particularly bad at the moment and I've just had hand surgery again for Osteoarthritis. I think I need some advice on what excersises would be best. I love your posts, you articulate so well what I'm feeling too! Jane x

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    1. good luck with your recovery Jane. I'm sure exercise helps if you can find the right sort.

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  12. Wow, good for you! I hate the gym but would like to get stronger and more toned. I do yoga but just started hiking, it's fabulous! I want it to become a part of my life as much as eating xx

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    1. I love hiking too. I suspect it is one of the best things you can do and the beauty of it is that you simply have to open the door!

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  13. Exercise has SO many benefits! It is hard to find a gym that fits us, however. Great that you have. Enjoy!

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    1. I think exercising is totally transforming, both mentally and physically. so far I have yoga and walking on my list but if I can add the gym particularly over the winter I think that will be really good.

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  14. Another thoughtful, and thought-provoking, post. I know when I come here, I will leave with much to consider. I think it's great you are keeping a sort of diary about your life. And I thank you for sharing it with your readers. I've been doing yoga for almost 50 years. I tend to do more chair yoga now but the benefits seem the same. Always at home. I'm not a group person. And I walk some, and use hand weights occasionally.

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    1. My yoga teacher runs a chair yoga class. I had never really heard of it before. She tells me that they laugh more in her chair yoga class than in any of the others! I think your mix of activity sounds perfect!

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  15. I thought I'd written a comment here but see that I'd been more 'thought than action'.
    You've written something that touches a nerve here, Elizabeth. Like you, I notice a loss of strength, though certainly no loss of stamina. I'd like to have better upper body strength and the only way there is through exercise - I wonder if swimming would do. Right now there is such a long way from wanting and doing. So many other things come first, and at the end of the day there is just no energy left for a gym or a pool. I admire your nerve in choosing and walking into that gym and will follow your progress with interest.

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    1. I don't like the loss of strength Pondside so I hope I can redress it. So far I am not sure if I am doing enough to make a real difference. With things like walking a little makes a big difference. With increasing one's strength I think you have to push yourself a bit harder.

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  16. Hey last month it was my birthday and now I have crossed 50. But I always like doing yoga in morning so my face is still wrinkle free. I love wearing simple pattern leggings during my yoga time, so that I can do every pose with great comfort.

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    1. I love the idea of yoga every morning and I am having a real go at doing it. Somehow it is very easy to be derailed. Must try harder!

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