AGEING – “surprise” facts that apply to us all

Old age ain’t no place for sissies.

Bette Davis

Like death and taxes, getting older happens to us all and anyone over the age of 35 with a grain of self-awareness will be able to tell you that age changes the human body. However, on an almost daily basis I am confronted by people who seem unable to relate what they know happens to other people as they get older with what will happen to themselves as they age.

And as there is evidence to suggest that we are not as self-aware as we’d like to think,  OldWomanI thought I’d tell you about four of the most common age-related issues that I see in my clinic and give them a reality-bites spin. See if you identify with any of the them and if you think my objective experience is worth taking note of…

1. You will take longer to heal

I must have something serious wrong with me, I hurt it months ago and it’s still not right

If I had a £ for every client I see who is bemused by the fact that x body part hasn’t spontaneously fixed itself yet, I would be taking an extra holiday next year. For the first 30 or so years of life, our bodies are pretty good at self-repairing, often without too much effort from ourselves – watch the child who has a ‘knee-wrecking landing’ on Monday then race his mates down the road on Wednesday. This youthful physiological ability is helped by many of us being able to be more selfish and more active in this earlier portion of our life, before lifestyle and family bring (often) a compromising of activity levels, not forgetting the physical post-childbirth changes to women’s bodies. But critically, the physiological changes that accompany increasing age mean that your body is less effective at fixing itself. A few of the naturally-occurring changes are:

  • Muscles shrink and lose mass – we naturally lose strength, power and endurace ability
  • Number and size of muscle fibres decrease – your muscles take longer to respond to our requirements
  • Water content and elasticity of soft-tissues decreases – our muscles, tendons & ligaments become stiffer and less able to tolerate stress
  • Chemistry of bones and cartilage changes – less resilience to loading and less effective at repair
  • Heart muscle becomes less effective – affects how quickly we tire and recover

ranulphfiennesSo if you remember your sore shoulder/knee/x sorting itself out in just a few months previously, don’t be surprised if you’re now several months down the line and it’s still giving you jip, particularly if you know that on top of added years, you are also less active /carrying more weight/sleeping less/working more hours/eating a poorer diet than you used to and haven’t had the problem checked out by a professional yet – get it addressed, get informed and do something about it.

2. Old injuries may come back to haunt you

I remember hurting it in my teens but it’s not given me any trouble since

Remember that football tackle 20 years ago that left you with a really sore knee for a while? Or that sprained ankle that eventually fixed itself? Often our body clears up the injuries it collects without leaving a trace, but also often it leaves signs and traces of them behind. injuryIn youth these traces may be invisible or easy to ignore, but with the physical and lifestyle changes that take place over the intervening 20, 30, 40 years, the stiffness, scar tissue, damage to nerves and compensating effects that we adopt take their toll and make themselves felt. So even if you didn’t get the injury properly assessed and rehab-ed originally, it might be worth doing it now – it’s often better late than never!

3. Activities that you could previously do without problems you may now find more difficult (especially if you haven’t done them for a while)

But I’ve always just been able to do it – why can’t I now?

Notice that you’re 20 years older now? Did nipping out for a quick 5 miles after 6 months off previously feel easy? Notice that you’re not quite as nimble on the stairs or steady when chasing the kids/grand-kids? Age-related changes mean that you’ll likely need to pay more attention to how you move – speed, agility, endurance, flexibility and strength will all fall off at increasing speed with age and correspondingly you will need to work increasingly hard to hang onto themnuntriathlete. Go all guns blazing into any activity that you haven’t done for a while and you’ll likely pay the price in aches at best and injuries at less than best. Overuse problems are the ones that I come across most frequently in my clinic – people attempting to do too much too soon, whether it be gardening, running, DIY, yoga or indeed ANY activity. So:

  • Let yourself in gently: more gently than you used to and for most more gently than you think you need to
  • Listen to your body: pay attention to what it is telling you but also remember that we are physical beings; our bodies are designed to be stressed and used – sitting on our bottoms for 10 hours a day is not a natural activity, getting up frequently and raising our heart rates whenever possible is!
  • Find your sweet-spot: Age-related changes will naturally accelerate the deterioration if we don’t push ourselves a little and often. The trick is to establish what your limits are and identify your “sweet spot” – doing just enough to keep fit and healthy without overdoing it. Apparently we should all be doing a minimum of 150 minutes moderate-vigorous exercise per week and want a lazy person tip? The best way to do this is to make it part of your life in a way that makes it difficult to get out of – exercise with friends, ditch the car, start a savings plan whereby you walk instead of pay for petrol, buy a bike, get a dog, book an active holiday – think of any more?

4. You will have to work harder to get fitter, stronger, more flexible and have better body control

I’m doing the same things I used to do but I’m picking up injuries and am nowhere near as fit as I used to be

Yep, that age effect of decreasing muscle mass and stiffer tissues, slower reactions due to nerves deteriorating, a less effective central pump (heart) and many more factors mean that we all have to put more effort in to get the same level of fitness out. Four hikers look at view to Mount Snowdon Horseshoe on path from Moel Siabod to Capel Curig in mountains of Snowdonia Wales UK.But this needs balancing against the fact that you can’t be as powerful, fast or bendy as you were when you were younger simply because your body is, to a degree, no longer capable of it. So again, find a happy balance: aim for as healthy as you can be within the changing constraints of your biology. Instead of running four times a week you may find that three times is more appropriate and gives you the necessary time for recovery. Is the aggressive set-up of your road bike now making your neck or back too uncomfortable? Get it adjusted. chrisbonningtonDoes four hours of gardening in a day leave you wanting to lie down for a week? Spread the four hours over two or more days. Get aware and adjust accordingly. With age comes experience, if not wisdom – we can all learn from our experiences, even if we don’t actually get any smarter.


And are there not upsides to ageing? Increased knowledge, more time (once retired) better self-awareness, grand-parenting opportunities and higher levels of happiness…

Age is an issue of mind over matter: if you don’t mind it doesn’t matter

Mark Twain

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