Growing Old (Dis)Gracefully

You can’t avoid growing old. But you can avoid becoming elderly…..

There are two scenarios here.

Either you are under the age of 50, and life is pretty much all about work and play – or trying to work and trying to play. Old age is something that happens to other people.

Or you are over 50, and on the steep downhill slope towards ‘retirement’, and you are discovering, with horror, that you are turning into your parents.

This article is aimed at you. Both of you.

Neither of you want to become the crotchety, ailment-plagued, malodorous, irritable, senses-deprived old curmudgeon that we all complain about. Or the flighty, fluttery, vague, untidy, eccentric, rambling old fool that we all tolerate.

Seeing that you start ageing from the around the age of 25, it is never too early to start preparing for the day when you catch a glimpse of yourself in a shop window and wonder who that strange old person is. It does not take much to ensure a happy old age: the time to start is now – and the way to do it is very simple: just one instruction.

Exercise your muscles.

Your being is all about muscles. It is very likely you only think about your muscles when they phone in to complain: you bend to pick up a sock and your back goes Ouch; you go on a family walk and your legs go into a sulk; you throw a small child up as a game and your arms declare a strike. And your internal workings also sometimes have a lot to say about overtime pay and work-to-rule.

So…..

Firstly, exercise your body. Your ease of movement, blood circulation, breathing ability, bone health and suppleness depend on exercise. And there are two types of exercise that are both crucial: the type that exerts your muscles as well as the type that works out your heart and lungs.

Taking the dog for a leisurely walk and stopping at every lamppost is NOT exercise. Flattening the mall in search of a bargain is NOT exercise. No matter your age, you have to do some activity regularly that stretches as many muscles as possible, and also gets your heartrate and breathing rate up for at least ten minutes at a time. It’s a good idea to do something that wakes up your joints occasionally as well. So a variety of activities are important.

You have a number of options. For the adventurous and active, there is gym, tennis, team sport, jogging, hiking, etc. Just don’t be the couch potato who runs the Comrades to show off and then collapses with a heart attack. If you are a legendary slob, ease yourself into exercise gently. Start small and work your way up. A BRISK walk, preferably uphill, a couple of turns up and down a flight of stairs, a few minutes of activity increasing daily.

With regard to muscle stretching, there is gym, yoga, tai chi and similar activities. Or you can devise your own exercise strategy using online how-to videos. There are so many options available that it is a major puzzle why people do not exercise more. And for the constant chorus “I don’t have the time”, stop lying. Of course you have the time.

Take the stairs instead of the lift. Take a walk instead of a lunch hour. Take the bicycle instead of the car. Leave the TV off for half an hour. Transform the housework into a workout. Do some gardening (not namby-pamby fiddling with a trowel, but back-breaking sweeping, planting and mowing). ‘No time’ can roughly be translated into ‘no idea’.

Secondly, exercise your brain. Yes, your brain is a muscle. It might not actually move, but use it or lose it.

Brain studies show that information is processed in your brain through electrical currents that run along tiny pathways, each leading to a different destination. If you only use a few of these little pathways, they soon become six-lane highways with no offramps. And you will be stuck in a mental rut. The unused pathways get choked with weeds and end up like Sleeping Beauty’s castle. You need to hack these pathways clear and send search parties along them on a regular basis.

So… always try regularly to learn something new. Don’t ever declare: “I’m too old for this” – that is laziness talking. No-one is ever too old to learn something new.

Hobbies are great for creating new pathways. Take up courses for skills that are completely different to your regular activities. Music, mathematics, language, literacy, art, handwork, crafts, analysis, logic: each of these use different parts of your brain and therefore use different pathways. There are so many instructions online for absolutely anything that there is no excuse not to exercise your brain. Make a decision to learn a new skill every year. Apart from anything else, it will turn you into a more interesting person!

Thirdly, exercise your machinery. The ‘machinery’ in this case is your digestive system. It is the factory that keeps you going.

If you have a lifetime of bad eating habits, you have to change this NOW. Scientific consensus describes a healthy diet as a regime of eating a variety of coloured foods – green and orange veggies, red and yellow fruit, brown meat or beans, white for starch, and everything in between. Your plate should look like a rainbow.

If your daily diet consists of sugar, processed food, snacks and take-aways, you will be on chronic meds by the age of 40. Steers and Nandos are NOT two of the five food groups. And don’t fool yourself that your weekly apple or slice of tomato and lettuce garnish is going to make up for all the fried chicken, cheese puffs, pizza, Coke, pies and ice-cream that you eat every day. It genuinely is ‘your habits or your life’ in this respect – a bad diet is almost invariably the cause of those chronic ailments that spell either an early death or a very uncomfortable senility.

The other end of the process is just as important – it’s not only about what goes in, it’s also about what comes out. Squeamish people, stop reading now…. – but your toilet habits also require exercising your muscles. A lack of dietary fibre will result in many hours of unhealthy straining on the loo, and incontinence is a result of slack pelvic muscles.

Deal with the incontinence problem by stopping the flow at least five times during your pee – it does not take long to get your pelvic muscles doing pushups.

And you can ‘eliminate’ constipation by increasing your fibre through eating better, or adding fibre-rich supplements to your diet – laxatives are only for use in extremis. Waste matter that is stuck too long in your body is busy poisoning you, it should be eliminated as quickly as possible.

It was Henry Ford who was asked if he would change anything if he got the chance to redesign the human body. And he famously replied that he would leave it pretty much the way it was, except he might consider not putting the ignition so close to the exhaust. While your ignition can most likely look after itself, your exhaust needs all the help it can get.

And finally, the most important muscle exercise is mistakenly called ‘the funny bone’. Laughing is much more than just exercising the ring of muscles around your middle – laughing brings down blood pressure, improves mood, ups your appetite and lengthens your life. Everyone has a sense of humour, even though some people try their best to hide theirs. Having a sense of humour is all about attitude. Some people moan and complain and kvetch and grumble and gripe about life in general, whereas other people can see the funny side of the same things. It takes practice and discipline to keep up your sense of the ridiculous, but it is essential to do so. Those laugh muscles need a regular workout – if not for your own sanity, then definitely for those around you.

No matter your age, you want to be an asset to your community, not a burden. The best part of growing old, you will find, is that you can get away with almost anything. Make the most of it! Keep those muscles ticking over, and your ‘old age’ will be a ‘new adventure’.


DISCLAIMER: This column does not pretend to contain any medical advice, but simply ideas and suggestions about a better lifestyle. If you consider any serious lifestyle changes, make sure you do so in conjunction with a professional.

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