How to stop acting older than you are

Have you ever broken or twisted your ankle, and afterwards found yourself favouring it for some time after you really needed to? If you went back to work, school, an active hobby or dog walking you probably soon got back to normal. But if you are working from home or retired, it may not be so easy, You may not even notice you haven’t returned fully to normal.

Old people crossing sign
Old people crossing sign

Similarly, you may not have realised you haven’t fully recovered after a long illness or bad bout of flu (I’m not talking long COVID, here). This article is for those of you who are over your illness or injury, but may not have got back to your previous level of fitness, and what you can do about it without going to the gym (though you can go to the gym if you want). For medical advice consult your doctor. But if you are fit and healthy, read on, too — take notes of how fit you are now for a benchmark in case you do get sick or injured in the future.

In 2018 I had a major illness. For months I could barely eat or sleep, and I became as weak as the proverbial kitten. It took a major operation to save my life, and it took me months to get back to something approaching normal. In the mean time I picked up some habits that had me in some ways acting and moving like somebody a lot older than I am. And if I had not caught on to this, I probably would be settling into old age before my time.

Daily activities

I started off walking on the flat, gradually increasing the distance. Then I did the same for hills. I could have stopped there, but I observed that when I was walking on an uneven surface, I had a tendency to teeter to one side or the other. The muscles that keep me on the straight and narrow were as flabby as everything else. So I went for walks on the moors — nothing difficult or strenuous, just not flat paths. I also noticed I was teetering the day after a previous operation, and worked out that my slippers, which I had always assumed were flat, actually had a slight camber because of the padding. So check your slippers, and your shoes for heels worn down on one side — that could affect your steadiness as you recover.

Another bad habit I got into was holding on to things. Necessary when I was ill, but a bad habit afterwards. When I was still in the hospital somebody parked a zimmer frame (walker) next to my bed instead of the next bed over. In the middle of the night apparently a nurse saw me sleepily either use it or move it out of the way, and reported that I had reverted to using one (not that I had before) and was perhaps not fit to discharge after all. Fortunately I was able to scotch that by taking a doctor for a walk. At home I stopped leaning on things when walking, but still did at other times. For example, when putting on trousers (pants). When I eventually figured this out, I was very wobbly the first few times I tried putting them on without support, but soon it became second nature again.

I also spotted that when I got up from my desk, I was leaning over and pushing myself up with my hands, and only straightened up after a few steps. I had to consciously stand up straight without support for a while, until it became habit again. At first I was unable to stand up from squatting down to pick something up without pulling or pushing with my hands. It took a fair bit of practice to be able to do that again. Getting up from the floor is a lot easier if you can do that. Elderly people often struggle to get off the floor so it is worth practicing, if only for appearance’s sake, as the alternatives are not elegant.

It was only when trying to prune some bushes that I realised that I had done nothing to get the strength back in my arms. I solved this by putting some things that I use often up on high shelves so I’d have to reach up quite often. I also resolved to dust those shelves a lot more often for the exercise, but that did not last long. (Did I tell you I hate “exercise”? It’s boring!) You can also do exercises swinging your arms with a can of soup or similar in each hand. I tend to soon forget to do that, too.

I found that cooking for myself and eating healthily came back on its own as I got fitter and faster. Invalid and highly processed food gets boring fast.

Time can be wibbly wobbly

I was also walking and doing other things more slowly than before. I had to consciously increase my speed, bit by bit.

Another thing I had to do when I was ill was break up every task into small chunks and take rests in between, so they took a lot longer than they had before. And although that steadily improved as I got better, I was still taking more breathers than I used to. I had to consciously reintegrate the tasks and take fewer breaks.

It’s interesting how factors such as this can distort your sense of time. Things that you would have done without thinking before your illness or injury get moved into the “there isn’t time for that’ column, even though there is. Time how long it takes you to do things — take a shower, go to the shop, etc., once you are back up to speed. And use those timings to decide whether to go ahead rather than your gut feeling, until your gut is back in sync with reality.

Another bad habit I got into was watching where I was putting my feet a lot of the time. I found that once I started consciously keeping my head up and walking at normal speed, I felt a lot fitter and younger.

I originally got a fitness/activity tracker to monitor my sleep, as my illness had left me with insomnia. After that I started using its hourly reminder to take 250 steps to take a drink (hydration is more important now) and to check if my bags need emptying — I tend not to notice if they are resting quietly on my lap as I sit for long periods at my desk. I don’t aim for the 10,000 steps a day that a manufacturer came up with. I read a study that said 4,400 is enough to make a significant difference, so that’s what I aim for, and I usually achieve that without trying. I found that just by regularly getting up and moving when it nags me, I now very rarely get stiff like I did before.

Be aware

So, the important thing is to be aware of how your behaviour has changed, and to incorporate activities into your daily life to change it back. There are lots of activities that you can take up to improve your fitness further — gym, sport, dancing and so on — but I found the above plus gardening plenty to help me take the extra years back off and get some bounce back into my step.

Is there anything I’ve missed?

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Sue Nethercott

Sue Nethercott

Open University BA, UMIST MSc, OU BSc Environmental Studies. Interests: environment, COVID19. Double #ostomate. Thom Hartmann’s newsletter editor. Views my own.