AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
have bred and reared our young, what happens to us
has no effect on the continuation of the species, so our later years
have not been affected by any evolutionary pressure. As a
result, not only have we not evolved to have a comfortable and
sprightly old age, but the quality of it is very dependent on the
deliberate, conscious effort we put into it.
I was prompted to
think about this because I was both concerned and
puzzled. Though I am aging with great indignity, I am in
reasonable nick. By contrast, many people I know have
deteriorated conspicuously and it seems, on reflection, that the
various things I have enjoyed doing through the years, having always
exercised both my mind and my body, have, by lucky chance, benefited me
considerably. Others, less fortunate, have pursued
activities, which amount now to a policy of self-destruction.
I am concerned, as
these individuals are good friends and their
condition saddens me.
I am puzzled because
despite being intelligent and rational and well
aware of their condition they seem to be
reluctant to adopt a
few slight and gradual changes in their lives that
could yield enormous benefits. Their attitude has the feel
not merely of ‘going quietly into that dark night’, but of helping to
draw the bloody curtains!
So, where, I asked,
does this dreadful, potentially lethal, reluctance
come from and what can be done about it?
Let me play the bad
author and jump to the end.
condition can be painlessly cured with a little determination and
That said, without this effort and
determination, your condition will worsen –
is no such thing as the status quo
– your so-called
lifestyle does not exist and cannot be preserved. Bluntly, if
you are not improving, you are deteriorating.
From the sub-atomic
world of quantum mechanics, through the prodigious
biological ferment of the human body, and out into the vastness of
galactic space, nothing anywhere is still – everything is moving -
change is the norm. Yet, we humans have evolved a powerful
streak of conservatism that resists this. Why?
Because we need to be able to control it to some extent in order to
gain enough security and stability to breed and rear our
young. We have sufficient adventurousness to ensure we will
be adaptable enough to find and maintain this security for a while but,
at heart, our resistance to change dominates.
Problem with Conservatism
Just as there has been
no evolutionary pressure to help us with old
age, so there has been none to switch off our conservatism once it has
served its immediate purpose of providing security for our
young. It keeps on chugging away regardless, relentlessly
Many of the things we
do – fastening shoelaces, driving, writing,
eating, on and on - we do by habit. Our bodies have evolved
to learn small repeated actions and do them for us. Not only
that, we keep on improving with continued repetition – we get good at
what we do. Do not confuse small with trivial – ‘little-and-often’ is a
powerful, powerful mechanism.
Problem with Habits
trait is splendid but it makes no judgements.
Whatever we do regularly, bad or good – smoking, drinking,
eating badly, denigrating ourselves etc – our bodies will pick it up –
it will become a habit, and the more we do it, the better we will
become at it.
leaves us where?
In our later years,
our redundant, but continuing conservatism, having
been practised relentlessly every day, has become a deeply entrenched
habit. As a result, any attempt to ‘change our ways’ however
slightly, meets with truly prodigious and increasing resistance.
You think not? Even now, it’s tempting you not to
read any further – (if it let you get this far!).
At the very thought of
doing something ‘different’, serried ranks of
excuses spring up immediately – you’re too old, too stiff, too
dignified, too settled, it’s too late (!!!), blah blah, on and on.
The best you might manage is, ‘well, er, I’ll think about it
- maybe next week’. And should you manfully defy these siren
calls and actually attempt anything you will find that the urge to give
up is almost
This is a perfectly
natural, even inevitable response, but see it for
what it is – an old and now useless habit that will kill you
prematurely. Don’t forget, there is no status quo, no way you
can ‘stay the same’. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways in
which you can improve yourself which require little effort and little
time. There is a nice irony in the fact that a slight change
to your lifestyle can produce a considerable and beneficial change to
needs to be done?
The first thing is to
accept not merely the uselessness of our residual
conservatism, but its potential lethality – it has outlived its
usefulness and now it is killing you. Then you need to think
about what you want. If you are content to continue
deteriorating, fair enough – read no further, but think about this: at
no time in your life has there been a guarantee that you will be alive
in five minutes, nor has there been any to say that you won’t last for
many years. Even at say, 85, you could be alive in 15 years.
time - do you
want to spend it
waiting to die, and constantly whingeing about your
decline, or do you want to take the chance that there might be plenty
of good times ahead, and even the chance to do something useful?
Your choice, your responsibility. You cannot stop yourself
aging but you can avoid becoming an old person.
If you are prompted to
think about this a little more, you might find
the following helpful.
Basically, we need to
get things moving. Only dead things are
When you move a joint, nerve impulses, blood, lubricants and nutrients
move to it and help to keep it in good order - waggling your toes
anytime, for example, is not a trivial exercise, you are sending stuff
to the farthest point from your heart. Joints that are not
moved, deteriorate. The adage, ‘use it or lose it’ is
There is an analogous response within the mind to creative
and problem-solving thinking. Mind and body are intimately
linked – we all know that mood affects posture, but what we are usually
less keen to admit is that posture affects mood – this is very
Just a few words of
advice before we press on.
- You are going to
change a habit of conservatism that you have been practising for a long
time and are very good at, so be very patient with yourself.
- You’ll be mentally and physically exercising for the rest
of your life - set no ‘goals’ or ‘targets’ other than ‘raise your
game’. You’ll make progress inevitably, but ‘measuring’ it is
- ‘Little-and-often’ is an extraordinarily powerful way of
achieving almost anything. It’s the way books are written,
houses built, mountains thrown up, how you became what you
are. Do not confuse small with trivial. Most sudden
and large changes tend to be destructive.
- The value of any form of mental or physical exercise lies
in the effort involved in acquiring knowledge and skills. Not
only is such effort never wasted, you do not always learn what you
think you are learning.
- And some rather splendid news: once you start practising
change and improvement, your body and your mind respond to
gradually becomes a habit – you do it all the time without
even thinking about it. The only cautionary note here is,
don’t go on about it – you’ll lose friends at an amazing
rate! The only way you’ll be able to help them is by example,
not lecturing. Just be there for them if they ask for help.
- If you have a
particular unfulfilled ambition, do it, and do it now -
or at least start planning it if it is something big. If you
haven’t, then do
It really does not matter what. Give it a good try and if you
do not like it, do something else, and so on. Read, write -
your novel, play, epic poem, autobiography, whatever - do puzzles, play
games, paint, draw, sculpt, learn to juggle, compose your opera,
symphony, musical, learn an instrument, write out the rules for
hopscotch in Sanskrit, run for Parliament, anything. There
are no limits here save your own imagination, just be patient and
persistent – little and often
– All the following
can be practised at any age.
chi and qiqong (chi
Subtle and quite
amazing. If you do nothing else, do these! Gentle
co-ordinated movements surreptitiously improve balance, posture,
breathing, flexibility, co-ordination, and overall physiological (mind
and body) efficiency. You can do many of the exercises
sitting down if you are particularly frail or unsteady.
Ideally join a class, but there are plenty good books and a lot on the
internet. Don’t do more than 5 minutes a day at first and, if
possible, do it outside.
to improve the
efficiency of your heart, lungs and circulation - your
stamina. You may well not have done any exercise for decades,
so take this very steadily. Here is one way: every day -
dress appropriately for the weather – walk for half a minute, turn
round and come back. Next week, maybe walk for a minute, then
maybe a minute and a half and so on. Once the
established and you are doing all you want – say 4 minutes out and 4
back – stride out for a few paces. Build this gradually until
you are striding all the way then maybe trot for four paces etc
etc. Remember – set no targets. As important as the
exercise itself is the changing of the old habits.
to help prevent loss
of muscle mass and bone density. This is
the hardest of the three forms of exercise as you will need to join a
gym to get proper instruction and equipment. It is also
perhaps the least important, but it
very worthwhile and
you may well be surprised at the age of some of the
people you find yourself training alongside.
Most of us find
learning physical moves quite difficult. Do
not try to learn more than one move with each class. When you
get back home, do that move immediately – don’t take your coat off, put
the kettle on etc – just do the move. That way you are far
more likely to remember it.
Tear this suffocating,
dreadful, word from your vocabulary.
Your mind and your body are so intimately linked that just thinking you
cannot do something provokes a physical response that makes it so – a
classic self-fulfilling prophesy. By all means admit that
something is difficult because nothing worth doing is easy - but
When, after endless
repetition of something you eventually do it
‘right’, lock that into your mind, even if the skill slips away from
you almost immediately. You
it, therefore you
do it – this is hard
data now, not open to debate - the rest is
practice and patience.
Parkinson’s Law – work
expands to fill the time available for its
completion – applies to us at any age, so when you end up with not much
to do and plenty of time to do it in, things can get pretty
I found a small timer useful for dealing with this - one which you can
set to bleep after a specified interval. So if you have, say,
5 minutes to spare, set your timer and get on with whatever it is you
want to do. You can absorb yourself completely now - the
timer will tell you when time is up, at which point you can either stop
and turn to your next subject or, if engrossed, set it again and do
Not remotely. It is
liberating. It enables you to use chunks of time which would
otherwise dribble pointlessly away. Further, it is time spent
This is particularly
valuable, for example, when practising a musical instrument where
initial concentration tends to be quite intense and falls off quickly
without your noticing - two sessions of 5 minutes are far better than
one of 15 minutes.
All of the above will
improve your quality of life radically but it
will not, of course, prevent you from being struck down – either by a
lorry or some dismal illness. It will however, improve the odds in your
favour, and make you better able to deal with the consequences.
as a matter of interest
The human body
consists of some 10^13 cells – ten million million – ten
billion. That is a
- 10^13 millimetres is 12 round trips to the moon!
The majority of these
cells are in a permanent frenzy of highly
complex, barely understood, chemical changes - repairing things, making
things, destroying things, issuing instructions to one another- and the
whole is organized into countless hierarchies of highly interdependent
and dynamically balanced systems.
The brain oversees
much of all this with its 10^11 neurons and 10^15
Oh, and don’t forget
the 10^14 tiny life-forms of one kind or another,
that we have in and on us, each pottering about pursuing its own
particular destiny for our benefit.
The monkey suits we
walk around in have been evolved over millions of
years, with millions of prototypes having been tested to destruction to
make each of us, quite unhindered by any ethical concerns or health and
safety claptrap. They are impressive and they are designed to
survive. So give yours a chance. Let that
evolutionary ‘Johnny come lately’ – your conscious mind – take charge
and set you on a better way forward.