Sometimes your body gives you a reminder that you are getting older, a quick kick in the shins which you didn't see coming. I picked up my knitting the other day, as I do most days, for half an hour of quiet time. I don't see enough written about the meditative properties of knitting but for me the peaceful repetition and gradual creation of something beautiful under my hands is a quiet revelation. Not that day though. A deep pain developed in the base of my thumb every time I picked up the needles. I didn't believe it. I kept putting my knitting down and picking it up again as if a slightly different grip might make all the difference. It didn't. I suppose it is arthritis of some sort. Arthritis? What a nonsense. Arthritis is for old people. I can't possibly have arthritis. So for two weeks or so I have done no knitting, hoping that a rest will sort it out. I miss it, but along with the fact of missing knitting, I also really mind being someone who has arthritis!
It set me thinking again about the whole business of how we respond to ageing. Read the magazines and the products of the whole "anti-ageing" industry and you might think we could turn back time. This moisturiser, that serum, this conditioner to give your hair back shine, these injections of Botox or fillers, this magical diet, that plastic surgery: it is almost as if growing older, or certainly looking it, is a choice. Spend enough, work hard enough and you can hold the whole process at bay. Bollocks. Sad, delusional bollocks.
But it is sad in a different way to see those who accept the restrictions of getting older almost as an excuse. I know women of my age who would never get down on the floor to play with a grandchild, or run for a bus or work up a sweat. Setting aside the limitations that accompany ill health, becoming static is not inevitable. I also know women in their sixties who can do headstands, climb mountains, swim miles. And I suppose I am somewhere in between.
What I am trying to do, with varying degress of success, is to look after my physical health and strength and to look after my sense of who I am. The business of looking after oneself physically is both easy and difficult. It is easy because one knows what to do: move more. And difficult because you actually have to do it, not just intend to do it. Exercising is time consuming and, unless you can find something to do which you actively enjoy, it can be boring. I have tried all sorts of things in my time and I have come to know what works and doesn't work for me. I like to walk and the real benefit of walking is that it can be fitted into your life instead of being layered on top. Having lived and worked in cities for much of my adult life and now living in deep country, it is a slight surprise to me to find that day to day, functional walking is actually easier in a city. In the country the distances are greater so it is often the case that to shop or visit a friend you need to get into a car. So here I walk not by getting off the bus a stop early or by walking to work but by deciding to go out for an hour or so. I would like to say I walk every day but I don't unless I am looking after one of our children's dogs. Then the daily dog walk jumps up the priority list and happens every morning, rain or shine. Without a dog to get me out of the door I walk about three or four times a week. That is good but it is not quite enough. Walking helps with so many things: with heart health and balance, with bone density, with mental health and weight control. And I know that for me being outside and putting one foot in front of another cheers me up, calms me down and makes me feel alive.
I have tried other aerobic activity but nothing beats walking for me. I have never liked cycling and now that I live halfway up a big hill it is even less attractive as an activity. I used to quite enjoy running but it is so long since I did any that the process of getting fit enough to run again really puts me off. It is very daunting. Swimming bores me in a pool although I love messing around in a warm sea. I was never any good at ball skills so tennis and badminton passed me by and that also rules out most team games. It still saddens me that all of my physical education at school was built about netball and hockey so I grew up thinking that I hated exercise. It was only the fact that we were quite active at home that kept me doing things and I was surpised to discover as an adult that in fact it was not exercise in itself that I disliked, just the lowering sensation of standing on the sidelines of a netball court knowing that I would be one of the last to be picked for the team. There were usually three of us left waiting. Normally I was chosen before the fat girl and the girl with the thick glasses. Once I was picked quite early in the process by a girl new to the school who played netball for the area. I looked quite sporty I suppose but I wasn't. I still remember her look of disappointment and disgust as I missed yet another catch. She never made that mistake again.
Yoga works for me too now. I am not very flexible and have never been able to touch my toes but there are enough things that I can do to keep me happy. I tried yoga two or three times when I was working but I simply could not slow down for long enough to engage properly. My whizzing mind would have me constantly looking at the clock and making mental lists of things I had to do. When I decided to stop work when I was fifty five, driven partly by a brush with my own mortality that left me wondering what I wanted to do if time were short, I found a great yoga teacher and slowly I have settled into a level of attention to yoga which really works for me. I don't think I could have done it when I was super busy and whizzing about the world. I found yoga this last time a few years ago when I was at a stage in life when I could hear the message to be in the moment. Now I can't imagine life without it. If I miss a couple of weeks I can feel my shoulders stiffening up and my body becoming sluggish and heavy. I have still got short hamstrings but my balance is good. Yoga irons me out, mentally as well as physically.
A new discovery is Pilates. This is so new that I have only been to three classes! It resembles yoga in some ways but is more focussed on core strength and less holistic. I like the necessity to think about my posture and to be aware of abdominal muscles, which clearly are in there somewhere. Again I have a great teacher and a supportive class of people. I am quite surprised at the pleasure I get from being part of a class because exercise for me in the past has always been a solitary activity, either running or at the gym, but there is a togetherness in a class which you attend frequently which is unexpected when you think that most of these people are not close friends. Somehow just sharing the endeavour can be good. I have never been a joiner so this surprises me!
And the gym is the last thing which I am trying to add to the mix. I enjoy doing weights, rather to my surprise, and I am very aware that I am becoming less strong as I age. I have never been particularly strong. I am small with narrow wrists and ankles and not a lot of upper body strength. Finding myself struggling with bags which I could have lifted a couple of years ago was a wake up call and now I am trying to build a bit of muscle strength. If I am honest, I am not doing very well with this. The weekly visit to the gym has dwindled to one visit every two to three weeks. I might try to reinstate it by committing to one visit a week in my diary instead of waiting for the urge to strike. Mostly it doesn't.
Having written all this down it looks as though I do a lot of exercise. It might be more accurate to say I wish to do a lot of exercise. I don't think any of this is driven by vanity and what my body looks like although that was certainly a motivator in the past. Now I feel strongly that this body is where I live. How it feels and what it can do shapes my days. It will age, of course it will. There will surely be things I can do now that I will not be able to do in ten or twenty years time. But if I look after it there is a much greater chance that I can carry on doing the things I love: walking, travelling, playing with grandchildren, swimming in a warm sea.
What do you do to look after yourself? and do you like it or is it a chore?