This weekend I ran an Alexander Technique workshop on 'Ageing Gracefully', and this has got me thinking about more general ways we can go about taking care of ourselves as we grow older. Here are five things we can do to ease the transition into later life which we are both enjoyable and beneficial:
1. Move expansively
Movement is life! As we get older many of us allow ourselves a more and more limited range of ways to move. Think how varied young children are in their movements compared to the average 80 year old! This is not just an issue for physical fitness and flexibility. The brain and body aren’t separate and the ways we move reflect how we feel and how we experience ourselves in the world. Relaxing, spreading our arms wide, smiling and taking a deep breath feels very different to holding ourselves hunched in with our arms by our sides!
Human bodies are amazing. There are an infinite number of ways we can feel, move and express. If we don’t ‘go there’ and only stay with what feels safe and familiar we not only start to suffer physically but are also limiting the ways we can feel and experience life. So if we want to stay feeling young inside, it helps to reflect that in how we act on the outside. How do you feel about stretching out and taking up more space around you, moving in an exploratory, meditative way, or dancing with your eyes closed? When was the last time you walked along a wall like a kid? Or kicked the autumn leaves as you walked along, or rolled down a hill? Of course we all come up against limitations as we get older but often there are far more options open to us than we allow ourselves.
Here’s a video from a man who takes this idea to extremes. We probably don’t need to go quite as far as he has, but we can certainly learn from his example!
2. Balance better
As Stephen says in the video above, balance is important. One of the things you notice about people as they age is that often their balance becomes quite poor, and that this can be really debilitating. Balance is a ‘core skill’ that underlies everything else we do. Without a good sense of balance the body cannot coordinate any activities with skill or grace and there is the constant risk of falling and injury. But that’s not the only downside. With a decrease in balance comes a lowering of our inner feeling of psychological security. If the body feels unsafe and is constantly sending little alarm signals to the brain, this tends to be reflected in how we experience the world— our feeling of emotional security and confidence is rooted to a large extent in our physical sense of balance.
So we need to use it or loose it, and to find fun things to do that require require you to use your sense of balance. Of course as age we might find some such activities to be out of reach (though many are still possible) but even if we don’t feel up to surfboarding or horse-riding, practices such as yoga, tai-chi and Alexander Technique can help to keep the body’s balance system in good working order.
3. Stay adventurous
For some people the uncertainty around getting older can make them long for the security of the familiar. However if we allow ourselves to get ‘stuck in a rut’ with the things we know, we are most likely hastening the symptoms of ageing that are causing us to worry in the first place! The longer we can keep interested in new things, new experiences, new people, new books, new types of art, the longer we keep feeling young. An added bonus is that the more variety there is in our lives the slower time seems to pass (this effect can be quite dramatic) so even if we don’t actually live longer it feels as if we are.
Any physical exercise has an anti-ageing effect on the brain but dancing is one of the forms of exercise which has been shown to help not just our bodies and our brains but our balance as well, which as we have seen is critical to our sense of wellbeing as we grow older! In addition dancing is fun, and gives our whole system a really good, relatively low impact workout. It also increases our range and variety of movement, and the rhythmic component can help to boost the immune system.
5. Get musical
If you ever played an instrument as a child now might be the time to dust it off and take it up again. Playing an instrument is an excellent body-mind workout that helps improve cognitive functioning and learning at any age and, like dancing, has been shown to improve immune system functioning. In addition it can have a valuable social function, with numerous opportunities to meet and connect with others which for many becomes more problematic with advancing years. Singing is another great way to help us stay young, particularly in a group setting. It releases stress relieving hormones, and has been shown to make people feel happy and reduce loneliness. And finally it's very accessible—pretty much everyone can learn to sing at any age.
There’s always a choice
For all of us ageing can a daunting prospect, and none of us can guarantee how things will be for us in the future. However the good news is that there are things we can do to help maintain and even improve our quality of life as we get older, and we can make positive choices now that will affect us beneficially for years to come. The even better news is that many of these things are enjoyable in their own right. So why not make an anti-ageing strategy for yourself that is full of things you actually enjoy (there’s no point forcing yourself to do things you don’t like as you won’t keep it up) and make a start—however old you are it’s never to early—or too late!