Let’s face it, none of us is getting any younger. And if we take into consideration the stress and distress the current circumstances are causing us, we are probably ageing faster than before. If premature ageing wasn’t bad enough, when we look at natural fitness vis a vis ageing, studies have shown that strength, stamina, and flexibility all drop significantly after the age of 55. However, the good news is that many of these functional losses can be reversed, as a 1994 study by Harvard and Tufts researchers found, through an active life and exercise.
An active life and exercise is exactly what sustains Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to summit Mt Everest. “I have to be active. I walk a lot and work in the fields to keep myself fit,” says the 67-year-old mountaineer from her home in the hills of Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand, adding, “I have been working in the fields and tending to our cattle since I was a teenager. There were no gyms or health studios back then. Nature has been my gym, always.”
With advancing years, one has to listen to the body and adapt, say Bhasker Desai, 68, a Mumbai-based businessman and marathon runner. Desai only started working out in his 50s and his routine included strength training and running. “I have seen my body shrink and my skin is wrinkling, but regular exercise has kept me strong and healthy,” says Desai, who enjoyed many podium finishes in races. He has had to tweak his approach to fitness over the years. “I am not that strong anymore, so I have stopped lifting weights even though I should try and incorporate it in my routine. All through my 50s, there was a lot of aimless, mindless running. Now, I don’t do that because my body can’t take that much. So, now I run only on days set aside for running and stick to the distance decided for that day. I have also cut down my pace so as to not risk injury,” he adds.
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Pal also says that she isn’t as fast as she used to be. Not only has she compromised on speed, she also doesn’t carry as much load now as she used to in her 20s. “My father used to weigh stones and I’d carry them up the hills when I was training for Everest. On my way back I’d gather food for the cattle and carry that back too. Today, I don’t carry that much load… I need to listen to my body,” says Pal, who feels the strength of the youth has been replaced by sharper focus and a stronger will. “I usually walk 10-14km a few times a week. I now take breaks along the way but always cover the distance. Only after that do I eat my breakfast,” she says.
It is this strong focus and motivation that has helped her all through her mountaineering career and has also helped her manage an early onset of arthritis, which she was diagnosed with in 2007. “People think a sportsperson is done once she turns 50. I have always wanted to prove that wrong. I had knee pain due to early arthritis and was told it will be a life-long thing that will have to be managed. So, I decided to continue training and climbing mountains instead of hanging up my boots and resting. Today, I don’t feel the pain much,” she adds.
Summing up the findings of several studies on ageing and exercise, an article called Exercise After Age 70, published in Harvard Health Publishing in 2007, says, “If you can move a muscle, you should. It may help you live longer and better.”
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The best way to embrace ageing is by preparing for it. “I am ageing, I know it. So, I am preparing myself for it today by staying active,” says Kolkata-based Chetna Sahoo, 55, who climbed Mt Everest at the age 49. If you do not stay active, all the things you’ve always enjoyed doing and taken for granted may start to become that much harder, warns the UK’s National Health Service. Sahoo, who has been a mountaineer since she was 15, also says she has had to cut down speed over the last few years. “I now focus on rhythm and continuity,” she says. Sahoo spends a lot of time walking and has seen almost all of Kolkata on foot. She also does a lot of stair climbs, has incorporated pranayam and suryanamaskars along with yoga into her routine and makes sure she clocks 10,000 steps a day as she prepares to walk healthily into her 60s.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.