The late, great Victoria Wood is one of my all-time comedy heroes. With lines like, ‘Take my knickers off and my ovaries will ‘ave fell out or something,’ I challenge you to watch this genius step aerobics scene without splitting your sides. God, I miss her.
I read an article in Reuters this morning, entitled, When Heart Disease Runs in the Family, Exercise Tied to Lower Risk. I sat on this thought for a little while, wondering whether my youngest daughter would mind being buckled to me while I used the step machine. Concluding that she really, really would, I scrubbed that idea. Yet the truth hit me harder than she did when I suggested it. Heart disease does run in my family. It runs harder then we all have, judging by the look of things.
I’ve been thinking about my own morbidity a lot, which has driven me to exercise. It started, as I’ve written about previously, as I entered perimenopause and began thinking every cough or earache I have means I’m going to die. The solution to the problem has to be to take more exercise, yet I’ve had to alter my approach somewhat. All of a sudden, working out on a step machine while listening to Alicia Keys and belting out, ‘This girl is on fire!’ has become less of an empowering chant and more of a literal experience. So instead of giving in to this overwhelming fear of death, which is definitely connected to the fact that when my dad was my age he only had seven years left to live, I’ve begun to try and turn all my new anxieties into something positive. I’ve come to realise there is (sometimes) much to learn from those we’ve lost while figuring out the way to make our own lives fuller and longer.
My father died when he was just fifty four. The ultimate cause was the last in a series of strokes that began as early as when he was in his thirties. A late life onset diabetic, he had to have his leg amputated due to complications and spent his last years in a wheelchair. This after being a young, fit corporal in the Royal Engineers and later, a damn fine architect forced to quit very early in his career due to ill health. Because, as it turned out, my dad was not such a damn fine architect of was his own health and longevity. He smoked like a chimney, was addicted to sugar (he liked to take carnation milk and syrup in his coffee) and was morbidly obese. It still hurts my heart to recall the times I eagerly ran errands to the shop for him each day after my step-mother left for work, because I would get to keep the change. I was sent to fetch what I wasn’t to know were prohibited chocolate bars and sweets for him, things that had been banned from the house and that he was no longer able to get out to collect for himself. Not a big drinker, my dad’s drug of choice was sugar and it, along with the cigarettes, took him from my life when I was fifteen.
My mother was a chain-smoker and died more recently. She was seventy-four and suffered from, among many other things, chronic obstructive airways disease. Something that will stay with me forever is the fact that during her last days in hospital, terrified from her experience in an induced coma in ITU and unaware she was dying, she told my sister and I that she would never touch another cigarette for as long as she lived. She was quite correct. Mum was a diabetic too, and had a lifelong battle with her weight. When my sister and I went to clear out her home after she’d died, we found boxes of Slimfast shakes everywhere. I cried, remembering that mum had been ecstatic at waking from a coma to find she’d lost around forty pounds – a feat that had alluded her, despite her best efforts, for all of her adult life.
My parents have taught me more very valuable lessons than they could ever know. It is how they lived that has influenced the way I have. It was their addictions to tobacco and sugar, the resulting chronic illnesses and the realisation that both of them would have had so much more time had they known what I know today. Both of my parents had heart disease too, hence my interest in the Reuters article. I’ve never smoked, and have read everything on insulin resistance, fasting and type 2 diabetes reversal going, my favourite books on the subject being Dr Jason Fung’s The Obesity Code and The 8 Week Blood Sugar Diet by Dr Michael Mosley. The latter resulted in my easily losing a staggering twenty-seven pounds in two months! My eating habits are far healthier – and more informed – these days than it ever was in my twenties and thirties. I fast three times a week and feel all the better for it. I will never be a slave to sugar again, unless Gerard Butler coats himself in chocolate and gives me a call.
Yet I can’t find, nor understand, the will to engage in punishing exercise. In my younger years I did try hard to join those I considered to be the elite fitness folk, i.e. everyone with a gym membership card that gets used every week, and not just for scraping ice off car windscreens or to remind them of that loan they defaulted on after going for four months then giving up. I went to the gym once, and it resulted in a cardiovascular accident of a different kind: my public humiliation by treadmill, which I wrote about in my article, Who’s Laughing Now. Now news items like the one I read today, coupled with my advancing years, are making me worry all over again about whether I’m doing enough to avoid an early demise.
I confess, I don’t go to the gym anymore and it’s because I’m older. I’ve developed a more laid back perspective on life in general, and that includes anything connected to exercise. From years of listening to people brag about lifting fifty, I find myself pushing fifty and wondering what it was all for. Do I want to run for hours on a treadmill where the scenery never changes? Isn’t breathing in the fresh air of outdoors preferable to the CO2 and sweat of forty other people? Do my personal health objectives have to include letting a fit twenty-two year old monitor my vital statistics? Why did I even ask that last question? (Scrub that and file under life goals – Ed).
The fact is exercise, whilst important, shouldn’t feel like a chore. It’s like everything else in life. Time is precious. I want to spend it engaging in what I love, never what I feel forced to endure.
I have two, regular workouts of choice: walking my dogs and freestyle dancing in a sporran.
The first began as something I had to do, but developed along with my deep love of the countryside. Where I live now, out in the Southern Uplands of Scotland, this exercise routine has frequently and unexpectedly launched me closer to Sportswoman of the Year than I ever thought I’d get. I’ve broken the four minute mile while been chased by Galloway cows; I’ve invented and competed in the world’s first solitary version of Tough Mudder in Socks by trudging up boggy hills without realising I’ve left my boots stuck in the mud at the bottom, and I hold the current record for most falls on my backside. I’m less of a fell runner and more of a ‘fell running’ kind of person.
And never let it be said that I don’t take the advice I write into my own stories. Dancing in a sporran was an activity I invented for a character in my book, I Hate That You Bloody Left Me. Elderly widow, Fleur Brookes, would put her mobile phone inside her husband’s sporran, plug in her earphones and dance away to rap music. Being married to a Scotsman myself, this has been my favoured method of keeping fit ever since. The beauty of it is being able to harp back to the days where I liked to dance about my bedroom, behind closed doors, pretending I was Suzy Quattro. I’ve been down to Devil Gate Drive a lot in secret recently, and no one knew until today. I do this mostly in the afternoons as I started walking first thing in the morning, after reading that working out early could mean you get more sunlight, a key to setting your body’s circadian rhythm. It’s been reported that people who bask in early sunlight tend to be thinner. This could be true. I live in Scotland, where basking in early sunlight results in your double chin being eaten by ten thousand midges.
Anyhow, I’m still alive and so are you as you’re here reading this. So between us we must be doing something right. My work in progress has a leading character who works out by letting a neighbour’s dog chase her up the street. There’s an idea I won’t be adopting in the near future, given that my nearest neighbour breeds and sells Boerboels, which aren’t Christmas tree decorations, as I first thought.
Have a lovely, healthful week.