Ageing gracefully: run, stretch, balance and breathe.


Just because you’re grown up and then some doesn’t mean settling into the doldrums of predictability. Surprise people. Surprise yourself.

Victoria Moran

Something very strange is happening to me. I set out for a run one morning this week, aiming to do 8k (5 miles); in the end, I ran more than 11k (7 miles), including the hard slog up the final hell hill which is a climb of 70 metres over a kilometre (or 230 feet in 0.6 miles). When Roger asked me  – as he always does – how my run had been, my answer was, “It was great!”Shock. Horror. Hold the front page. This does not happen. I’ve been running for a while now but I’ve never, ever learned to love it. Runs are hard or terrible but never great. So what has changed? Well, I’m starting to feel fitter and stronger because I’ve committed seriously to regular running and other stuff (of which more later) . . . and that’s all down to a rather special little booklet that Roger has recently been given by the British Masters Athletic Federation.

An easy read over a cup of tea but a big message to influence the rest of our lives.

Before I go any further, please let me say that I am not trying to preach or tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t be doing. I wouldn’t dream of it. The reason I wanted to write this post is partly to share what we are doing to keep fit and active as part of our simple lifestyle but also to reassure anyone (particularly our age or older) who might have doubts about giving exercise of any kind a go. Believe me, if I can do it, anyone can. Don’t worry about what other people might think, this is about you. You don’t have to be good at it, you don’t have to ‘look the part’, you don’t have to compete or win anything. There is a difference between exercise and sport. Be kind to yourself, smile at yourself and have fun. You might surprise other people. You will certainly surprise yourself. Yes, I’m a wild-haired, 52 year-old granny plodding about the Spanish countryside in bright pink trainers come rain or shine. Crazy? Quite possibly. Living life to the full? Definitely . . . and hoping to be doing the same for many years to come.

The penultimate runner in a long, hard race: very hot, very tired, very slow but very happy . . . and my own police escort to boot!

Back to that booklet. It succinctly summarises a Manchester Metropolitan University research project focused on continuing (or even starting!) exercise into old age. It’s a fascinating report and one which, given the demographics of an ageing population, should be a recommended – if not compulsory – read, as it is about everyone, not just master athletes, and contains a message which could change and enhance many lives. According to the researchers, currently around two out of three older adults do not meet the recommended levels of physical activities which has serious consequences for health and mobility in later life. Well, that stands to reason, doesn’t it? Human bodies are made to move at any age, to walk, run, jump, bend, stretch, climb, twist and generally be anything other than mostly sedentary. As long as there is no serious underlying illness then raising our heart rate, breathing hard and having temporarily aching muscles is a good thing. What an incredible inspiration someone like Eileen Noble is; she didn’t start running until she was in her fifties and has just become the oldest lady to run the London Marathon two years in a row. She’s 84. How fantastic.

(For anyone interested, the brochure can be read online here http://bmaf.org.uk/health-well-being-performance-improvement )

That exercise and well-being go hand in hand is pretty irrefutable but trying to maintain an adequate level of activity whilst working or raising a family is incredibly hard, especially in those long months of dark days and grim weather. It takes a special kind of discipline and resolve to keep at it. One of the huge benefits of our life here is having the luxury of time
like we’ve never had before to exercise fully and regularly over and above our usual daily activities. It can be hard though, believe me; we are so programmed to that subconscious charge that we should be ‘doing something’ that spending time away from chores to exercise feels like an indulgence, even though it’s the very best gift we can ourselves. We don’t know whether we will live to a ripe old age but we are both determined to stay as fit and active as we can for as long as we can.

I like the way the booklet emphasises the continuing importance of being busy outside ‘training’ times, too; it’s not about doing a session of exercise then doing nothing for the rest of the day but keeping active with things like gardening, housework, shopping and walking. Put aside sleeping hours and most of the day is taken up with being on the move as opposed to being on the sofa.

Who needs dumbbells? Lifting and hauling several of these full to the brim every day is great weight training.

Let me talk about running a bit, not because I’m a keen runner or a good one; in fact, precisely because I am neither of those things. I am not naturally sporty and have never particularly enjoyed the sensation of moving at anything faster than a brisk walk. I started running several years ago on medical advice and I hated it. I’m still not a fan, and it doesn’t seem to get any easier, but I keep doing it because the benefits to physical and mental health are well-documented and undeniable (my resting pulse rate and blood pressure have both fallen significantly in recent months) . . . and – hand on heart – I always feel better afterwards. Of course, there are other aerobic activities to choose from but the beauty of running is that it is so low-maintenance. You don’t need to be taught how to do it. You don’t need a partner or team. It’s virtually carbon-neutral (completely so if you run naked and barefoot, although I appreciate that’s probably not an option for most of us! 🙂 ) It’s cheap. You don’t need a bike or a swimming pool or a dance studio or gym membership or piles of hi-tech gear; just a pair of comfy trainers will do the job and, as long as it’s safe, you can run pretty much anywhere starting from your front door. I am very lucky in having to look no further for help and encouragement than Roger who, in athletic terms, is at the completely opposite end of the spectrum to me. He runs every day, sometimes twice, without fail; he runs very fast and wins lots of trophies; he’s ridiculously disciplined and incredibly fit. He’s also living, running, speedy proof that grandads can still gallop!

Number 74 heading for another trophy!

He only ever has two pieces of advice, though, and these have helped me hugely. The first is to run to how you feel: if you are feeling relaxed and going well, try for distance; if you are full of beans, add some strides and a faster section; if you’re tired, achy or just generally in a ‘I don’t want to do this’ mood, just go for a short, gentle leg stretch at a leisurely pace, breathing in the fresh air, listening to the birds, enjoying the wildflowers . . . but GO! The second is that if you want to run miles, then you need to run miles. Don’t worry about training schedules or plans, forget tempo runs, fartlek and the rest, don’t angst over cross-training: just lace up your running shoes and run. I do. It’s not just the physical activity, either: time spent outside in the fresh air is hugely beneficial to body and soul. In his brilliant book The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk describes how modern humans have become ‘homo encapsularis’, spending 80-90% of their time indoors and missing out on the many advantageous factors for physical and mental well-being that time in the great outdoors has to offer. Hippocrates claimed that nature is the best physician; well, he knew a thing or two, I suppose!

I’d expected the report to talk about aerobic exercise, weight training and flexibility but what came as a bit of a surprise was the section on balance and, more specifically, the importance of being able to balance on one leg for a sustained period with your eyes closed. Go on, try it! We amused ourselves (and probably several other people as well) testing this on our last ferry sailing; well, it’s a very long six hours of inactivity and you can only read so much. The slight bounce of a relatively calm sea added a frisson of excitement and much hilarity to our attempts but on a serious note, this is something we need to address. My balance isn’t actually too bad so I’d fondly imagined that it would be enough to add a few extra challenging postures to my standard yoga practice but delving deeper, it seems that tai chi is the most recommended activity (along with standing on one leg to clean your teeth or tie your shoelaces). I have to admit that tai chi isn’t something that’s ever appealed to me but to be fair, I didn’t really know much about it it. So, with the bit firmly between my teeth, I tracked down a small but useful secondhand book on the subject and watched a couple of short YouTube clips . . . then I had a go.

Well, it looks pretty simple . . .

Oh my goodness, but it is so much harder than it looks! I’m not sure about improving balance but trying to sort out my left and right, above and below, over and under and all sorts of other positional things whilst mirroring the video instructors, it certainly felt like some pretty strenuous brain gym. Graceful, I am not. For White Crane Spreads Wings try Ostrich Does Face Plant: this is going to need oodles of practice and patience. Roger has suggested we learn together and that’s an idea I love. We walk a lot as a couple but rarely run together and where he will do a session of strength work, weights and stretches, I will opt for yoga every time so what a treat to share this new experience. He has also suggested that if we lift the outdoor table to one side we can practise on the new terrace in the fresh air of early morning before the sun climbs over the mountain. How perfect . . . and if the tolerant folk in the village should look up and scratch their heads in puzzled amusement, then so be it. I’m more than happy to be labelled an eccentric Golden Rooster Stands On One Leg now if it means I can still Embrace Tiger, Return To Mountain when I’m eighty.

Not a bad backdrop for a little early morning stretching.

Good balance in part relies on core strength, those all important back, abdominal and pelvic area muscles that help to support and stabilise the spine. There are lots of activities that strengthen core muscles so as part of my new exercise commitment, I’ve opted to take the Ultimate Pilates 21-Day Challenge by Boho Beautiful    Now I hope at this point that Adrienne is sitting down because this will probably come as something of a shock to her; she has tried valiantly to interest me in Pilates several times and I have to confess I’ve never exactly bowled her over with my enthusiasm! However, I’m giving it another go and I especially like this exercise plan because it’s mixed through with lots of yoga. It will take me more than 21 days as I’m adapting it to fit around my running, which I do every other day. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, I’ve discovered muscles I never even knew I had but already I can see a huge improvement. I’m using fewer modifications each time and feeling so much stronger when I run or spend the day on heavy gardening tasks. Even better, I’ve had to pull in my belts and adjust my bra straps  . . . and I seem to be back to the single chin I was born with. This is good!

Healthy eating is part and parcel of our approach: here, homemade pizza, mixed roasted vegetables and a pile of salad straight from the garden.

It’s amazing just how much inspiration can come from a small, free handout. It’s amazing just what human bodies can achieve, even as they age. I’m never going to have the speed or strength or poise of an athlete but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is to keep running and stretching, strengthening and balancing and breathing in that sweet, fresh air so that as I get older, I can still climb a mountain with my husband to watch the sun set or chase my grandchildren through the woods or just go out to run in the rain for the sheer joy of being alive. Hell, I might even master White Crane Spreads Wings. Now that can’t be a bad ambition for an old lady, can it? 🙂

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4 thoughts on “Ageing gracefully: run, stretch, balance and breathe.”

  1. Great read Lis. Very impressed with your running skills. I am going to download the Manchester Uni booklet . I love our outdoor life, can’t imagine being stuck inside all day . With our crazy Belgian shepherd pup, the huerto and sierras, we have no choice but to stay active. It is a bit annoying however when ‘miles on the clock’ take their inevitable toll. My 61 year old body has arthritis in its neck and a dodgy lower back( bending over pupils’desks and computers for many years?) I have done Pilates for 17 years , my teacher in Scotland is amazing and a great friend. Now I take my mat up on to our sun roof – usually joined by the dogs. I mix Pilates with yoga. Competing with the muts for the best downward dog! If I didn’t do this I would seize up. In Lisbon now. Very rainy but walking shoes going on for a long hike !

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    1. Thanks for your lovely comment, Yvonne. I’m very inspired by your 17 years of Pilates, that’s quite a target to aim for! Trust me, there is no skill in my running but I’ve decided that’s not a reason to stop, I really don’t mind what people think. Teaching is certainly not the greatest job for a body, I used to feel I’d spent all day on my feet but without getting any proper exercise, if you see what I mean. As for primary school furniture . . . 😦 It is definitely a privilege to be able to spend so much of our lives outdoors and on the go all the time, especially in such a kind climate. The (really) old folk here walk miles every day in all weathers- often in their slippers! – which I think is partly why longevity is such a commonplace thing, so many people in their nineties. Another target to aim for, perhaps? Enjoy Lisbon! 🙂

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  2. Good for you. You are an inspiration. It is good to read how you don’t feel athletic, but still run. You look athletic!! I love my yoga practice, and have found it very useful for yoga! Squatting for weeding and balancing or jumping in the flowerbeds and not trampling plants are some of the benefits. Love your pics, as always. Gorgeous plant combinations with cerinthe and Californian poppies.

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    1. Thank you, Ali! Don’t be fooled, I’m painfully slow especially compared to Spanish runners, they’re like whippets. Still, there’s a great camaraderie at the back of every race, fantastic spectator support and a cold beer at the end – it’s got to be done, even by Mrs Slow! Yes, yoga and gardening are the perfect combination. I read once that you shouldn’t do yoga outside because the sun saps your strength; what rubbish, a garden full of colour and life is the perfect spot to roll out your mat in my opinion. I wasn’t too impressed with Californian poppy ‘Mission Bells’ last year but she’s really making up for it now, especially with the cerinthe in a perfect colour wheel combo- all self-set, another victory for lazy gardening! 🙂

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