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.