A gym class for older exercisers

Mature people stretch after physical training. Photo U.S. Air Force
Mature people stretch after physical training. Photo U.S. Air Force

My personal trainer (oh that sounds pretentious) is soon to start a class for the over-60s. I must admit I have hassled her over this, with pep talks about growing the business, extending her client base, and the splendid loyalty of older people once we find a regular activity that suits our needs. Truth is, the strength classes that I had enjoyed had been cancelled, and I was longing for an appropriate class. I can’t wait.

While attending normal Crossfit classes, I began to analyse just how my needs differed from the other patrons. I’d guess the majority are in their 20s–40s, with one or two 50+. But I didn’t spot anyone else in their 70s at the time.

My friends over 60 were also unwitting case studies. My dance group friends all have their own programmes, because they are active, kinetic people. I see them swimming or aqua-jogging, or out walking, or off to Pilates or yoga or another dance event. I’ve been thinking about their needs and likes, as well as my own.

What I notice about older people exercising

  1. A wide range of abilities: they vary far more than do those of younger people.
  2. We need to work on balance to prevent falls. Tai Chi (for me), yoga for my friends.
  3. Stretching is crucial — and potentially painful— for people with arthritis.
  4. Getting up from sitting is a timed test of fitness for older people and a big problem with low soft chairs.
  5. My friend Jan runs an exercise group and every week they practice getting up from lying on the floor: this is a potential life-saver when old people fall. (The Feldenkrais corkscrew method is a cunning trick, but everyone is different.)
  6. It’s probably better to use hand weights than bars.
  7. It’s not essential to keep increasing weights. Lowering weights slowly can have even greater impact with older people (AUT research).
  8. Some (I) get dizzy from low blood pressure: so please, no exercises that require tipping the head or sudden head movements, no fast spurts of running, skipping, and OMG no burpees!
  9. Some (I) get dizzy from low oxygen intake: that’s different, and better breathing helps. I hope this will reduce as I get fitter 🙂
  10. Stress incontinence is common: so beware of making us skip and jump.
  11. Some older people need the option of doing exercises sitting down.
  12. Music: not loud (we hate that) — take it easy but no golden oldies from the 1940s please.
  13. KISS: keep instructions super-simple. None of that 2 x 200 @ 50%, 1 x 200 @ 75% 3 x 400 @ 90% business. Our short-term memory may be short but we have other qualities.
  14. I want to be pushed but not hurried!

Recent research on the impact of exercise on older brains and bodies

We older people get VERRRRRRY worried about Alzheimers and other cognitive decline so any research about how exercise reduces that risk is really encouraging. HIIT is all the rage at present, but of course we need a variety of forms. Bernard Levine’s programme sort of fits with what I aim to do. He sounds very sensible.

Do you like to exercise in a class?

Most older gym members seem to exercise independently, or with a group of friends, rather than attend classes. But I’m assuming, rightly or wrongly, that at least some people over 60 would would like to include an appropriate weekly class or two at the gym in their personal exercise regime.

Gym classes are not the whole picture. (I also love to dance and walk and swim, and sometimes I even embark on a feeble jog nowadays.) But a great gym class is a natty combination of supervision, structure, and socialising. Am I alone in this view?

In praise of the humble hobby

Boy on hobbyhorse, illustration from Little Songs, 1889 (public domain)
Boy riding a hobbyhorse


bootcamp2015-small 2(This article is adapted from the original record of my Boot Camp for the Bonus Years.) In which I consider certain peripheral amusements and reject a paradoxical call to regard them all as significant vocations.


The fifth item on the agenda of my Boot Camp for the Bonus years was “Commit to hobbies.” Thus commanded my inner Sergeant Major. How strange, I thought, as I wrote it on the list of 12 tasks. Wasn’t that a contradiction in terms?

I struggled to perceive any logical reason for this task, but eventually conceded that the following might be true. As we gear up for the final decades of life, it seems sensible to have hobbies that demand our very best, because hobbies can provide so many of the essentials for a good (older) life. For example, a social life—endless learning—a sense of mastery—inner or outer travel—a weekly schedule—aesthetic or physical or mental satisfaction—self expression—a purpose in life, even. I could carry on all day about the theoretical benefits of hobbies.

Also, while spying on other retirees, I could see that the lack of hobbies could be a handicap. After leaving paid employment, your days and weeks can seem shapeless, lonely or bleak if you have to construct a schedule from scratch. A hobby is often much wider than a personal pursuit: it may involve regular meetings or rehearsals every week, and a role to replace the old one.

Mind you, starting a hobby after retirement is a bit on the late side for some people. Best have at least some hobby-habits set up in advance, I thought.

Hobby: the etymology belittles the passion

I have been rather puzzled about hobbies all my life. Stamp collecting was the archetypal hobby of the 1940s, and as a child I couldn’t see the appeal, not at all. I had no idea about the many pleasures of philately, including a potential income. One person’s hobby is another person’s job.


Le Philateliste, Francois Barraud, public domain

Hobby is a peculiar word. It looks kind of silly on the page. This noun does not invite us to take it seriously. Two dictionary definitions:

  1. An activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure. Synonyms: pastime, amateur interest, sideline…
  2. Short for hobby horse.

Now, what’s a hobby horse?

  1. A child’s toy consisting of a stick with a model of a horse’s head at one end.
  2. A preoccupation or favourite topic.

With such a heritage, no wonder hobbies have a bad name. A crude toy, a cheap imitation, a childish, pointless substitute for a real occupation, an autodidact’s boring obsession… No wonder I was shocked to see this item on my own agenda: did I even have hobbies, and if so, why was I supposed to take them seriously?

Whenever I think I’ve got it sussed, I am so wrong.

For a retired person, which are leisure time activities?

I am still trying to figure this out. What is my work, now that I’ve stopped running a business, and what are my hobbies? Surely writing is still my job. Wait, I decided that keeping fit is my job. Then again, being the body corporate chair is certainly not something I do for pleasure, so is that an unpaid part-time job?

What’s a job, after retirement? Is it something you have to do whether you like it or not? Is it your top priority, something you were born to do? Is it simply work that you’re paid to do?

As for my own hobbies, should I include reading, watching TV, walking, socialising, Tai Chi, cooking,  travel — the list is endless, the list is life!

My two designated hobbies: singing and dancing

It took me until November of my boot camp year to even consider this particular challenge, but then suddenly, it became easy peasy. I was home and hosed, I’d passed before I even started examining my so-called (sarcastic quote marks) “hobbies”.

That’s because I cheated: I decided arbitrarily that dancing and singing should be my designated hobbies, because I was already fully committed to both.

By November 2015 I had been dancing in the Crows Feet Dance Collective for 9 years and singing in Wellington’s Capital Choir for 12 years. As for commitment — that year we danced a major new work The Armed Man five times in three venues, and the choir premiered a brilliant new work that I’d been heavily involved in creating: Shaky Places: a song cycle of New Zealand poems for mixed voices. Whew, what a year.

So you’d think I would just need to tick the boxes, wouldn’t you? Commit to hobbies?Pass!

The boot camp was a serious short-term hobby

However, my Boot Camp for the Bonus Years was never about ticking boxes. I undertook the boot camp in my leisure time, from choice, but it never felt like a hobby. It felt like a serious commitment that might cause me some pain, and would end after my year of being old.

Which is a bit like what my inner Sergeant Major was calling for. I think she wants me to give my best to every activity that I choose to do for my own amusement. To do each one to the best of my ability, or not at all. It’s about a professional commitment to do my best at leisure activities that I love, even though they are not my life work, and may seem trivial to others.

Tough titties, Sergeant Major! I’m not going overboard just because you say so. I’m not a perfectionist: I’m a very very-goodist, which is better. I’m right, you’re wrong, suck it up!

Aiming for perfection is counterproductive

As I said, commitment is natural for me with dancing and singing. But how about my other possibly-hobbies, like reading and gardening and Tai Chi? To heck with it— I’m letting myself off the hook.

  • I love reading, and I do it all the time; but I don’t write reviews or join book groups or read scholarly journals.
  • I like gardening, and I like to do this about four times a year.
  • I love Tai Chi, and I do it for 7 minutes every morning.

Enough. If I gave the same level of dedication to every hobby, what a mess my life would be. First to suffer would be dancing and choir.

A modified version of the boot camp task

Commit to one or two leisure activities, and enjoy others without commitment or guilt. And blob out whenever you need to, OK?

What are your thoughts? I’ve got a lot to learn and I hope you’ll help me!

Please feel free to share this article and any others! 

Air travel style: from glamour to practicality in one lifetime

In Singapore Airport T1,I was admiring the confident, relaxed travellers all around me and remembering my first trips on a commercial airline, in the early 1960s. At the time, air travel seemed impossibly glamorous and we were all strongly aware that these journeys were changing the world of travel forever.

We bought special outfits or at least wore our Sunday best. (Don’t ask.) For my first trip I wore my “going away suit”: Mrs McAlpine ascended the steps to the entry dressed in a sage green two-piece suit, with a short straight skirt and a perky shaped jacket with collar and bow. Her outfit was topped off with a multicoloured raffia hat to hold her golden hair neatly in place for the long journey to Australia. Her handsome husband Grant wore a crisp navy reefer jacket with silver buttons, a polo necked sweater, and classic trousers in khaki wool gaberdine.

One turned at the top of the steps to wave farewell to the sniffling relatives left on the ground, then one disappeared into the bowels of the plane. As the plane taxied on to the runway, a uniformed official ran ahead waving a red flag to shoo stray cattle off the tarmac … just kidding. Then we were in the hands of the Air Stewardesses, the most glamorous, modern job available to ambitious young women.

Jump ahead 50 years. Comfort rules, and most travellers wear jeans, shorts, T-shirts or sweatshirts, and sneakers. Backpacks and roller cases and rolling tracks and golf-carty-things make carting luggage around a fairly simple business. One tiny device acts as portable phone, map, ticket, boarding pass, camera, wallet, newspaper, book, movie theatre, games room, insurance policy, address book — oh stop me or I’ll go on all night. Coffee comes in a cardboard cup. Airports unrecognisable.

You know what I mean. We moan and groan about new inconveniences around travel (security checks, cancelled planes, bad this, bad that, jet lag, leg room not…) — fair enough. But it’s good to remind ourselves of those long ago days, when every air trip was noisy and slow and wildly exotic, and we knew exactly how great was our privilege.

Introducing On Research — a blog for Age Concern New Zealand

Let me introduce a blog written by my friend Professor Judith Davey, On Research. She writes this for Age Concern in New Zealand, who have “a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and be included and valued.”

Here’s a link to her latest article:

University Study in Retirement — Choices and Balance

If your own interests overlap with Judith’s area of expertise, please explore her blog and hey, how about leaving a comment?

6 reasons for reading this particular blog about ageing

  1. On Research is read by distinguished people worldwide: they quote from it!
  2. You can trust the information to be strictly true and correct. Now that’s a little bit unusual.
  3. You’ll read case histories and stories, but they won’t be random. They’ll be in context and they’ll illustrate broad truths.
  4. You can comment, share your own experience and give her feedback. You’re good at that! The blog has readers but Judith never knows what they’re thinking, and it’s lonely.
  5. The writing is easy to read and easy to understand. That’s a gift, especially when it comes to research.
  6. We need this information. In the wider world we’re choking on truckloads of instant research results, true and false. Judith is the calm compassionate voice of reason.

Her entire article is reposted below and I cannot remove it. I reckon you’ll be better off just going straight to her blog:

Age Concern blog: On Research

On Research

Judith A. Davey


Why university study? Many of the 60-plus interviewees in our Victoria University study[1], who had not previously been at university expressed a long-held desire for study at this level, and for those who had been before it was an obvious choice for learning. Several people had tried distance learning but found it isolating and others were not satisfied by community-based classes. There were several comments on U3A courses, which were seen as low level and non-participatory.

Why study at all and why these subjects?

These questions are difficult to separate. For some interviewees the answer was a desire to pursue an interest of very long standing – either work-related, a hobby, or an aspect of personal experience. Work-related interests were not to the fore, although Don was taking BCA to update his accountancy skills and Katherine and Carl chose courses relating back to their…

View original post 743 more words

19 books about aging, happiness, and the bonus years

Books to sustain, enlighten and entertain us as we dare to contemplate the prospect of growing older and dying.

For the record, I list some books below that have educated or entertained or enlightened me as I nervously anticipate the final stage of life. Happy reading! Links are to the Amazon page for each book.

Please share your own favourite books about these topics, and tell us what they gave you. (That’ll be your good deed for the day.)


  1. The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. Norman Doidge, 2007 — Inspiring. Revolutionary at the time. Introducing neuroplasticity, the reason why a boot camp for old age is a goer.
  2. The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable discoveries and recoveries from the frontiers of neuroplasticity. Norman Doidge, 2015 — Exciting sequel to The Brain That Changes Itself.
  3. Mindful Work: How Meditation is changing Business from the Inside Out. David Gelles, 2015 — Valuable. Entertaining. Why it’s never too late to start meditating.
  4. The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Charles Duhigg, 2014 — Boot camp basic. The science behind forming good new habits and replacing bad ones.
  5. The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: Discover the surprising talents of the middle-aged mind. Barbara Strauch, 2010 — Thrilling.
  6. Stumbling on Happiness. Daniel Gilbert, 2006 — Joyful science.
  7. Amortality: The pleasures and perils of living agelessly. Catherine Mayer, 2011 — Sobering. Documents the new wave of Peter Pans and their (our?) denial of old age.
  8. The Art of Aging: A doctor’s prescription for well-being. Sherwin B. Nuland, 2007 — Thoughtful.
  9. How we die. Sherwin B. Nuland, 1995 — Unforgettable description of exactly what happens to body and brain as we age and die. Lays bare the cost and conflict induced by medicalized death.
  10. Being mortal: Medicine and what matters in the end. Atul Gawande, 2014 — Brilliant and brave. Deservedly top of the pops.
  11. The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, time and aging. Doowe Draaisma, 2013 — Fascinating, perceptive and wise.
  12. Travels With Epicurus: A journey to a Greek island in search of a fulfilled life.  Daniel Klein, 2014 — Enriching. Studies contented old age as lived by Greek friends and described by philosophers.
  13. Somewhere Towards the End: A memoir. Diana Athill, 2009 — Irritating, but widely admired.
  14. From age-ing to sage-ing: A revolutionary new approach to growing older.  Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, 1997 — Advice on how to become wiser with age, and start a revolution. (Good luck with that.)
  15. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. Jonathan Haidt, 2006 —Walk through 10 big ideas and find one that matches your style.
  16. How to Age. Anne Karpf — An important essay on gerontophobia in the west with all its cruelty, daftness and implicit self-sabotage — and the high price we pay for this.
  17. This Chair Rocks: a Manifesto Against Ageism. Ashton Applewhite. This book is  a tonic, suit of armour and box of chocs rolled into one. Go Ashton!

Fiction and poetry

This list is short, because I quickly realised that it could become e-n-o-r-m-o-u-s. Please share your favourite fiction and poems that sustain or enlighten or entertain you, because of some association with death and aging.

  1. The Summer before the Dark. Doris Lessing — Stunning. Must-read. The heroine is plunged into an artificial old age by circumstance. An exercise in empathy and experimentation.
  2. Memento Mori. Muriel Spark — Loved it. A mysterious caller announces to each character in turn, “Remember you must die.” Rrright! How do you respond? Call the police? Explode? Run away? Or agree… Beneath a feather-light, frivolous treatment of death lies a timeless message for us all.

How can we maintain our identity as we grow old?

Child contemplates two women turned to stone
Is this my future? A child contemplates two women turned to stone.

bootcamp2015-small 2

In which, despite a disheartening deterioration of the ageing body and some ill-judged wardrobe choices, I discover a salutary harmony between the front I present to the world and my subjective experience of a dislocated identity.

“Be who you are”

That’s the eleventh challenge in my boot camp for old age, in which I work on improving my chances in the brain-gain lottery that lies ahead. This particular task is to figure out my changing identity — I’m changing into an old person — and starting to live with it instead of fight it.

Another way of putting this: I would prefer my outside to match my inside, for people to look at me and get an accurate idea of who I am and what I feel like inside. I’ve been searching for an inherent personal coherence, consonance, or harmony.

But this is not straightforward, because right now life is rapidly changing my outside. Grey hair, wrinkles and all that cranky stuff that shrieks “Old lady! Old lady!” — when inside, I’m still a bit confused. Like you (I presume) I have moments of feeling like a 6- or 26- or 36- or 56-year-old, which are all a big mis-match with my chronological age.

OK, I’ve had 12 months to complete the boot camp. Plenty of time, huh? You’d think so. But over the summer I got lazy, wallowing in late mornings and a dormant business and sweet sunshine, socialising and sea-swims.

The fruit of procrastination: a list

  1. Right now I sort of match how I feel: a vigorous 76 and I look like a vigorous … 70, perhaps? Not bad consonance.
  2. I’ve always enjoyed choosing what to wear and I still do, it’s fun. But nowadays I make more mistakes than previously. I never look like an old fuddy duddy (not in my own eyes, anyway) but I do sometimes look slightly ridiculous. I think that’s fine, that’s definitely a pass. Because this combination of sartorial qualities is a good match for how I perceive myself: not young but youthful; vibrant (colours); original to the point of seeming a bit “off” at times. I’m just me.
  3. A few people “get me”, people to whom I never have to explain my jokes or my serious opinions. That’s enough. I only need a few people to see right into my real self.
  4. Just as I’m scrutinising my own external appearance and inner self, I’m also scrutinising others. I’m discovering a new delight in seeing friends and strangers with new eyes. Far from thinking, “Why do you always wear that boring old cardigan/jeans/fleece/sneakers?” I find myself thinking, “Look at you! I see you: you are yourself through and through, and you are like nobody else in the entire world — how wonderful is that!”

We are who we are. Was there any need for this challenge at all? For you, probably not. For me, maybe.

Image by W Heath Robinson in ‘Old Time Stories’ 1921

So many friends! How did that happen?

A birthday party. Birthday girl is 70 years younger than 75. Image Mary Mapes Hodge, public domain

bootcamp2015-small 2

Long read, written in 2015. In which I notice with astonishment that I have many friends, and compare them to a trampoline.


Back in February I abruptly decided to throw a party for my 75th birthday. I’d never had a biggish party at my place, because the layout was difficult—steep narrow stairs, one hard-to-find bathroom, and so forth. But suddenly the penny dropped.. With caterers, the layout would be manageable. With a new bathroom upstairs, traffic flow was simplified. With a new-old couch, visitors could overflow into in the study. I got a handrail for the staircase, and behold,  this party was a goer.

Whipping through my memory and contact list, I was amazed at how many people are closely involved in my life. It helps to belong to a big family, even though only two of my sisters could make it. I am still remembering people I should have and would have asked, given more time to think. But even with very short notice, friends and family filled my apartment nicely.

My friend Liz made an enormous heart-stompingly luscious double-chocolate cake, family blew up balloons, and like Hansel and Gretel I laid a trail of glitter on the footpath to my place. Caterers arrived in plenty of time, establishing a calm and competent atmosphere. Ready? Ready. Time to party!

What do you say at your 75th birthday party? At cake-cutting time I shared my thoughts about all these people in my life, and why I was surprised to find myself surrounded by them.

I was a late starter with friendship

I was at high school when I made a friend for the first time. Before that, I wasn’t lonely—I had five sisters, for goodness’ sake, and we comprised a ready-made, self-contained community, so who needed friends? People were friendly to me, but I wasn’t particularly interested in them. Family relationships and the contents of my own head seemed generally more exciting. I needed feeding from within and I still do.

In other words, I was born a happy introvert and only popped out of my own head occasionally to communicate with my family and cope with school. I talked, I listened sometimes, but people outside the family didn’t seem quite … real.

Then along came Elisabeth. Funny, witty, outrageous. Rule follower, rule breaker. Thoughtful, conscientious, and often silly. Also from a family of sisters. Someone who was most emphatically my very own personal friend.

That was the turning point. Very soon I discovered that I already did have other friends: I just hadn’t noticed them. Gosh, people were interesting—who knew?

I’m still happy to sit in a paddock all alone for months at a time writing a book. My own company is still a precious commodity and by now I love it far too much. I’d probably go mad in a marriage. But I looked around at my birthday party in surprise. Gee, so many friends? How did that happen? Somewhere along the way I must have got the knack.

Friends, meet my friends

Until you clap eyes on them, other people’s friends and relatives leave only a fuzzy impression.

My friends must get sick of me saying, “I’ve got to meet John…” “Kate’s at the Coberg Salsa Festival…” “Elke says to try less hard…” “Jan’s making us do a whole dance with our knees bent…” Sometimes they can’t help thinking very loudly, “Who’s Karl? Who’s Kate? Who’s Elke? Who’s Jan?”

This party was a chance to muster friends from different batches into a single room.

Members of my family. My business partner. Capital Choir friends. Dancing mates from Crows Feet Dance Collective. My writing buddy. Neighbourhood friends. Friends from Feldenkreis classes. Literary friends. Ukulaliens. And one-off friends who pop up out of nowhere.

“See,” I said, “John is a real person. Meet my sisters Lesley and Deirdre. Look, here are three of my solid gold children, Geoff, Kate and Diana. Say hello to Rebecca and Elsie and Celia.. Meet Felicia, Anne, Denise, John, Richard, Austin…” Strangers had a chance to put faces to some of the magic names.

You are my trampoline

Trampolining. Photo by Twins Watch 7/08 (co07) on Flickr cc-by-2.0

You, my lovely people, provide structure to my week and my year. I meet some of you at ukulele group on Mondays, others at choir on Tuesdays, others at Crows on Wednesday, and so forth. You keep me safe.

You know those fantastic modern trampolines enclosed in a safety net? I think of myself as bouncing up and down and up and down as high as I can, and I always land on the same place and I never fall off.

That’s only possible because of my people. These special people, my family and friends, keep me bouncing and they also keep me safe from hurting myself.

Without my people, I’m not sure whether I would even be me. I am amazed to think this thought, that our very identity may depend heavily on who is in our life. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe it’s true and unhealthy. Anyway, I’m turning that thought over in my  mind.

Please Friend me—no, don’t!

Someone asks to Friend you on Facebook… You sort of know them… Decisions, decisions…

A Facebook account broadcasts your apparent popularity. “431 friends” means no such thing. It means that 431 people including real life friends and relatives, plus acquaintances, plus random contacts of acquaintances who happen to be on Facebook have drifted into your orbit.

Please Friend me! Well, no — actually, I would much rather you liked or followed this blog or commented on one of the posts. Here am I writing away at my desk, spilling my heart out as part of a personal boot camp for old age, and wonder if anyone is interested. Hello, hello?

And seriously, I feel excited and lucky whenever someone makes a comment or likes a post or follows my blog . Like everyone, I need a bit of encouragement now and then, so thank you very much.