I struggle sometimes. Well, I struggle a fair bit actually. One of the things I struggle with is finding that happy balance we need as we get older, between giving up on physical activity and going for it in ways that might just cause a heart attack, injury or worse.
Let me give an example. I write this while I am on holiday in South Africa. A beautiful country, by the way, which I would not have visited had it not been for my oldest stepson falling in love with and marrying a lovely South African woman. We came over for the wedding. While staying in Cape Town, my husband and I agreed we wanted to walk up Table Mountain. The last mountain I walked up was Ben Lomond in Queenstown, New Zealand in February 2016 – so roughly 19 months ago. On that occasion, I got a laryngeal spasm, for the second time in roughly a week (the previous occasion being on a fairly steep but familiar hill, Queenstown Hill, when I was still recovering from a virus). My first experience of a laryngeal spasm was a couple of years before this, walking up a very familiar hill in the UK which I had previously taken in my stride (pardon the pun). On that first occasion, we were walking with some particularly fit friends. I was embarrassed to be lagging behind, and so I pushed myself. Nearing the top I got breathless and thought at first it was an asthma attack, but I found myself making a very scary rasping noise, unable to talk without sounding as if I might be breathing my last. I know, I know, I am being dramatic. My inhaler didn’t touch it, and my GP later diagnosed the incident as a laryngeal spasm.
So, having now a history of laryngeal spasms when exerting myself on hills, and knowing I had not trained for this mountain hike, I was a little apprehensive about Table Mountain. I made sure my husband knew where to find my inhaler in my backpack should I find it impossible to talk, and warned him I would be taking it easy. But let me tell you, the Platterklip Gorge is steep, with almost no relief from the constant climb.
I took rests, drank water and ate frequent small amounts of chocolate. However, I knew that if I was ever to reach the top I must get going as soon as possible after each brief rest. My husband and I were the oldest people climbing that day. The young people we passed were all very sweet, telling us we were doing well and bless them, openly amazed that such an old woman would even attempt such a climb.
But sure enough, I spotted the early signs of a laryngeal spasm as I found myself clearing my throat repeatedly and swallowing frequently. When I stopped, I was suddenly aware that my breathing had got a whole lot worse and when I tried to talk my voice had that familiar sound of someone with a very nasty throat condition. By now we were about an hour and a half from the top, but the way down looked even more treacherous than the way ahead. And so I went on, cross and embarrassed that I was holding us both up.
As I continued, I was also aware that I felt dizzy (especially if I looked round!), and after a while all four limbs began shaking. But the views were to die for (I hoped I wouldn’t!), and eventually as we entered the gorge about 45 minutes from the top we encountered some welcome shade. Here, I sat and ate one of my two sandwiches. It tasted like the food of the gods.
Finally, we reached the top. I felt elated, high fived my husband, and we wandered around the top marvelling at the 365 degree views. It had taken us two and a half hours to get there (including a stupid half hour detour). Average time, in fact, though my hubby admitted later he could have shaved half an hour off that if he hadn’t been with me. It was one of those peak experiences that I will never forget.
I wonder what my doctor would say? Would he say I was foolish to attempt it, given how manifestly unfit I was, and my age? Or would he secretly want to high five me? My arthritic hip was painful for days afterwards and still has not fully recovered more than a week later. It gets caught and clicks, painfully. Have I made my arthritis worse? Was I close to having a heart attack or stroke, given that my BP was probably through the roof? Where is the advice for people my age who want to get fitter?
Where is the line between a failure to accept the limitations of ageing, and giving up? I am not yet ready to put on my slippers and watch daytime TV. I want to live. I want to have adventures while I can. Should I worry, or just carry on doing crazy things?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I suspect I will keep on keeping on. I am currently planning how I might get more used to hills and train to walk up to Scafell Pike next year, maybe doing the Yorkshire Three Peaks in one week (not one day, and not even consecutive days, in order to give my hip a break). I am not daft (though my family might disagree with me).
I would love to hear your comments below.
Are you over 60, fit and healthy, or battling against physical limitations?
Do you find yourself wondering how to strike the balance between doing yourself harm through exercise, and doing yourself harm by not exercising?
Do you have specialist knowledge that might be useful to people in my situation?
Looking forward to hearing from you!