Full Disclosure: As I write this post, I am sitting at my desk full of remorse at my complete lack of control around a wine bottle this weekend. Hence, I am probably the last person you should listen to about making the necessary improvements to your life to improve your longevity...
I read somewhere recently that scientists have discovered that genes and family history are a much smaller risk to our mortality than previously thought - which is the good news. The bad news is that middle-age is apparently the optimal time (or last chance saloon) to make the necessary improvements to our lifestyle that will improve our chances of living longer.
Hence, my hours of self-flagellation today.
What are "lifestyle improvements"? I hear you ask - not really
They're all those boring things we have to do when we get old, like cutting back on drinking, stopping smoking, eating yucky green stuff - basically, anything fun.
Now, some of you may know that a couple of years back (in what I now recognise was an out-of-control episode of health anxiety), I decided to take up jogging - or walking more quickly, as the old man likes to refer to it.
Why? I hear you ask. Well... as a result of a pretty scary family history of heart problems and certain other not-so-great life choices, I woke up one morning and knew that I should be exercising.
However, I am a realistic and quite naturally lazy, so I also recognised that for me to stick with it, my chosen exercise had to:
Be over as quickly as possible (relatively speaking), primarily because (as I mention a few times in this post) I hate it with a passion,
Couldn't take too much time out of my day, due to other hobbies such as drinking and eating lots, and
Had to involve getting my heart-rate up to counter-balance aforementioned cray-cray family history.
To start with, I set myself the completely unrealistic goal of the 4kms Mothers Day Classic - which is basically a public pelvic floor challenge disguised as a fun run - which, God knows how, this one-time exercise-intolerant, slightly chubby, middle-aged woman managed to knock out of the park.
I'm lying, of course. I didn't finish it quickly or with any great finesse - because even after months of training, I still HATED exercise with a passion - but I did finish
However, you can dismiss that inspiring little image of me crossing the finish line jubilantly that has mistakenly formed in your head, because any exhilaration I expected to feel at the end of the run failed to materialise. The reality was that I was knackered, swore I'd never run again, and then undid any good by vacuuming down a full English breakfast.
However, that false image of me does segue quite nicely into the "choices" we make with what time we have left that I talked about in my last post. Because no matter how much I continue to despise exercise, having lost my mother as a teenager, perhaps my biggest personal goal is to defy my genes and remain on this planet (to nag my children about how they're not living up to expectation) for as long as possible.
As long as I continue to be in reasonable health.
Tbh, exercise that involves pain is not what I'd thought I'd be doing in my fifties and obviously not something I would normally choose to do in the little spare time I have, because...
It hurts... like everywhere. And that's not the only downside when you're middle-aged. So far, I've been lucky with my knees, but I've had a few wake-up calls when it comes to bladder control, I've found that I can't knock back a couple of vinos the night before a jog, and some mornings my body aches so much I'm pretty certain it has finally succumbed to one of those terminal illnesses I've been waiting for my whole life - you can read about health anxiety here.
But while I would much prefer to go on a brisk walk with my girlfriends - with the added incentive of a wine... I mean milky coffee ... at the end of it - I know that's not enough
Look, I'm not here to tell you how to live your life or lie about how jogging gets easier. I'm not even trying to sell the jogging idea per se to you - there's a huge selection of exercise options that may be more realistic or suit you better - what I'm trying to do is remind you about the importance of maintaining a level of fitness at our age.
Did you know that you can tell the state of someone's health by the speed they walk? Sounds obvious, I know, but the next time you're out with your friends, take a furtive look at how they cope with hills or distance. Because, once you hit fifty, it becomes glaringly obvious who is fit and who isn't.
And trust me, it's a slippery slope once you lose your fitness - one day you can't get out of a chair, the next you struggle to walk up hills, and before you know it you can't wipe your own arse
But there is a silver lining - and I'm not trying to sweeten the pain because Fitness First or any other torture chamber is paying me to. There are some actual benefits to exercise beyond the physical ones, such as:
The impact on your mental health: Everyone has those days when they get so engrossed with work that they put off going outside and end the day in a slump at their desk. That used to happen to me all of the time until I realised how much that change of scene centred me. Whether it's the beauty of nature, the increase in my heart-rate, or the free therapy from friends, I can guarantee that I feel more inspired and creative when I return. It's like when you reset your computer. I am far more productive after exercise.
The boost to your mood and confidence: I'm not going to promise that you'll lose weight from exercise as I believe that what you put in your mouth is the biggest determiner of that, but I do think that a healthy diet with consistent exercise can help. Added to which, for middle-aged women, improving muscle tone and being a healthy weight will most likely increase your confidence. A dramatic boost of dopamine works wonders for mood - that's why the crazy exercise junkies get addicted.
The broadening of your community: Whether it's a yoga class or a walk with friends, group exercise encourages connection - another vital component of longevity. It is believed that one of the reasons men die younger is because they lose their social connections as soon as they retire.
The increase in your sense of empowerment: That whole idea about how you enjoy things so much more when you've worked hard for them (that our parents used to try and drill into us to make us do chores) is actually true. I feel so much more empowered about everything once I start to achieve personal goals. And I'm not afraid to reward myself generously for them.
I can guarantee you'll enjoy that evening wine so much more when you feel like you've earned it
Anyone who was at school with me will tell you that I couldn't run the length of the netball court without falling over, so if I can commit to exercise, anyone can. I know I preach about doing what you love - which if you are anything like me does not involve wheezing your way around the block, scaring old people and children - but life is about choices, and this is a necessary evil of middle-age.