Give Yourself a Midlife Warrant of Fitness
A self-proclaimed party girl, it took Fiona Gibson until her fifties to understand the benefits of healthy living
‘You’ve booked us on a health retreat?”
I couldn’t believe my then-partner had done this without consulting me. Oh, hang on, he had - during a boozy night out - and I’d conveniently erased it from my mind. A few days later we were leaving the city for the country where we were to spend three days of juicing and calming meditation.
How I sulked about the lack of a bar and having to sleep on the floor in a communal hall with snoring strangers. Like a petulant teenager, I stomped through the countryside on the “silent walk” and snuck off for a cigarette behind a tree, for which I was sternly ticked off. No fags, no booze, hardly any talking... what kind of maniacs signed up for this sort of weekend, just for fun?
Thirty years on, I’d leap at the chance to spirit myself back there. At 52 years old, it has dawned on me that there is actually a point to all this healthy living malarkey. Fortunately - especially for former party animals like myself - it turns out that it’s never too late to get active. Getting fit in our 40s and 50s can halve the risk of having a stroke in later life, according to new research conducted in Norway. The benefits are the same as if you’d been a gym bunny since your youth.
It was announced that we are in the grip of an “inactivity epidemic”. Currently, almost half of over 45s do not even take one brisk walk per month - and our exercise levels have plummeted by 20 per cent since the 1960s. However, lifestyle changes needn’t be dramatic or extreme. As the latest research found, there’s no need to run until you’re in danger of vomiting on the pavement, or sign up for a pentathlon.
We all know that overambitious goals make us feel like weak-willed failures. Richard Francis, head of research awards at the Stroke Association (UK), said: “Everyone can take steps to lower their stroke risk with simple lifestyle changes, like eating a balanced diet, taking regular exercise and stopping smoking.”
Over the course of six months, a friend of mine, aged 55, has shifted a stone just by walking to work (duration: one hour) every day. And yes, she takes the train home. A former colleague swims for 25 minutes, twice a week, during his lunch hour and can now shimmy back into the 31-inch waist Levi’s which had lain unworn for years. Another friend can’t wait for the weekend when she sets out on jaunts with her cycling club.
I’ve chosen yoga. Yes, I have become one of “those people” who connects with the breath and all that. I have also drastically cut back on my evening wine sipping, and try to reserve alcohol for nights out only. Throughout my 20s and 30s - and, OK, well into my 40s - I was pretty much fuelled by coffee, cigarettes, white wine and a ridiculously meagre amount of sleep. It became obvious that something had to give.
As a fortysomething friend remarked recently, “When you’re young, you can shrug off a hangover with a can of Coke and some sausages. Nowadays they mean a full-on mental collapse.” Although I love white wine - or “lady petrol” as it’s known in our house - I realised that tippling a bottle over the course of the evening was simply wearing me out. In the past few years, the mornings after had become harder to navigate.
I also signed up for a run, and am now scamperingr around a 5k course on Saturday mornings. The endorphin rush is intoxicating. Sick of gasping while running was all the incentive I need to finally wean myself off cigarettes.Sleep has become much more important too. Due to drastically reduced drinking, I am now less inclined to sit up until 2am, kidding myself I am “working”, but really just fiddling about on Facebook and stuffing my face with Kettle Chips.
I go to bed early - by 9.30pm some nights, like a child - which has virtually cured the supposedly perimenopausal symptoms I’d been suffering from. Hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, banging heart, mood swings, clumsiness, a tendency to cry at everything and forget where I’ve parked the car - for the moment at least, they are barely noticeable. Perhaps they were more sauvignon-related than hormonal.
I had also been prone to anxiety, about anything from my workload and my kids’ futures, to why the dog had regurgitated his breakfast. My moderate two 30-minute runs a week, plus two yoga classes, have helped enormously in levelling out my stress levels and mood swings.
I write romantic comedy novels for a living and always assumed that the achey hand joints and shooting pains up my arm were an occupational hazard. Although I’m not quite sure how or why, they have disappeared.
My recurring back pain has also faded, and I am less explosive in my reactions to minor upsets. I still enjoy the occasional big party night with friends - even more so, in fact, as it seems like a special event and not just another night of mindless sipping. However, there are no more panicky dashes at 9.55pm for Londis wine. Work - in fact life - feels more manageable. I can honestly say there are no feelings of missing out. In fact, I can hardly believe I persisted on battering on through life, neglecting my health for so long.
Do I wish I’d made these changes somewhat sooner than in middle age? Of course I do. My younger life was filled with laughs and adventures, but it brought plenty of stress along the way. Tottering home at 3.30am, clutching a battered A-Z and a broken shoe, I probably needed that health retreat more than most.
I wonder if they’ll have me back?
The old me...
• Waking up exhausted
• Trying - and failing - to “be healthier”
• Self loathing
• Hair of the dog
• Running out of mixers for gin - and liquidising strawberries
• Waking up with anxiety
• Dashing to the booze store
• Craving constant excitement
• Joining gyms and never going
And, the new me...
• Waking up feeling great
• Making small changes one at a time
• Being kinder to myself
• Downward Dog
• Throwing leafy greens into the NutriBullet
• Waking up and stretching
• Walking the dog
• Appreciating peace and quiet
• Regarding yoga classes as natural
— The Daily Telegraph