Finite health


These days I seem to tire more quickly. Up till recent years, a day’s manual work would knock me out for a few hours, and give me sore muscles the next day. Typical of someone with a desk job during the week. Now it is only a couple of hours before I’m knackered, with the same recovery period required. At 71 it feels premature to blame this on ageing, especially since it doesn’t happen consistently. A few weeks ago I helped out on a several-day project including lots of heavy lifting, and I did fine—but since then my stamina has left town. This morning I looked at the paving I laid in front of our house and wondered how on earth I finished it.


And my muscle strength is fading fast. My days of easy lifting, digging, chopping and sawing seem to be just about over. Taking my time, and with careful attention to safe technique (both run counter to the habits of a lifetime) I can still get reasonable results, albeit with a steadily increasing toll of cuts and bruises and strained muscles. Avoiding ladders above the third or fourth step is a new resolution that makes good sense, but I still managed to get stuck up a tree a few weeks ago. Going up was not so difficult, but reversing this creaky, poorly coordinated body was right up there with reversing a trailer down the boat ramp. At least I didn’t have several people yelling conflicting instructions.

There are delightful exceptions to these deteriorations. The most important to me is bike-riding, which I can do for several hours. Fifty or sixty kilometres of undulating country is usually completely enjoyable, and with a bit of training effort I can build that up to a hundred. The surge of strength I often feel on a hill is a youth-like thrill to look forward to. I’m sure I’m not unusual in this regard. The roads are full of older people cycling these days, revelling in the ability to get out and about without jarring joints or straining muscles. There’s always the possibility of an accident, in which the bike rider inevitably comes off worse, but with defensive riding (again far too recently learnt in my case) the odds are good. So many people say ‘You’re amazing, that is so admirable’ or words to that effect, but I don’t feel that way at all. I know I’m supremely lucky that something I get so much pleasure from is still possible, and if it is good for my cardiovascular health that doesn’t make me virtuous.

Still, there are times when I get very annoyed at my body for letting me down—a ridiculous concept I know. We’re not machines with moving parts that go for ever with the right care, fuel and maintenance. We’re infinitely more complicated; both more remarkable and more fallible. As a young person I more or less believed that in fifty or sixty years’ time (it seemed like infinity then) all complaints of disease and ageing would have been more or less remedied, ensuring I would enjoy robust health for a hundred years or so, then die peacefully. Well here I am, here we all are, and as long as we’re wealthy and genetically blessed we are living longer and healthier. Of course the data is all about averages, and it’s still true that many people become disabled or face death long before my current age.

Actually that helps in a schadenfreude sort of way—I am one of the lucky ones, even if opening the jam jar hurts my wrist, and I need a good lie down after a bit of gardening. Luck not to be squandered complaining. Better to concentrate on the mental and physical strategies that delay emergence of this embryonic grumpy old man, and give my body the best possible chance of performing well for a decade or two more. Time to get back on my bike.

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