Although middle age can bring with it family, physical and mental changes, for many people it is also a time of increased freedom, funds and opportunity. All of which give us greater reason to spend more time outside.
Getting half way is usually a cause for celebration. Half way on a car journey, half way up a mountain, even half way across the English Channel (although maybe not if you are swimming it four times). Which makes it seem strange that we don’t celebrate getting half way through life.
We don’t though do we. Phrases like, ‘The wrong side of forty’ and ‘past one’s prime’ combined with the way we whisper the number ‘fifty’ all put a negative slant on what, in truth should be a time of celebration.
Middle aged and outdoors
I turned 51 this year, which means that, no matter how you read the life-expectancy statistics; I am already past the half way point. By default therefore I must be middle aged. I have to say that, although I am definitely enjoying middle age, it has brought with it some issues that have had influence on the ways in which I enjoy getting outside.
Have no doubt, I still love the outdoors, it helps me to feel physically and emotionally well and I would recommend an outdoor lifestyle to anyone who has starting noticing their physical age. Getting outside isn’t the secret of eternal youth but it can help you celebrate your age. And as for those age-related issues, well here are a few ideas that might help.
Is that a sheep?
I teach navigation skills and have recently discovered that map reading whilst out on the hills is quite a demanding activity for my eyes. I need to be able to swap between spotting the tiniest dots on an often-wet piece of paper and noticing similar sized dots on the horizon. My ‘small or a long way away’ affliction has been with me for most of my adult life but my newfound need to hold a book (or map) at arm’s length hasn’t.
I haven’t succumbed yet to varifocal glasses, mainly because my eyesight is changing so quickly but I have found that multifocal contact lenses are nothing short of miraculous, especially on a rainy day. Despite some evidence to the contrary, my brain must still be functioning very cleverly because it can work out which stripe of lens to look through depending on whether I need to see tree symbols or actual trees.
Are my knees working today?
For me one of the earlier signs of physical middle age was that my knees started hurting. Small wonder really as I am not the lightest person ever and, as a younger woman, spent many of my weekends tromping a heavy rucksack around Dartmoor trying to keep up with teenagers. I can’t remember how long ago it was that the doctor said, ‘Your days of carrying a heavy rucksack are over’ but I have been trying to lighten the load (on me and in the bag) ever since.
Osteoarthritis affects almost 9 million people in the UK and commonly develops during middle age. Apparently my knees have eight years left in them if I look after them so, although I definitely haven’t given up walking, I have been trying to practice a bit of knee kindness by:
- Using walking poles to walk downhill or over rough ground
- Taking less kit in my day sack
- Walking shorter distances with my wild camping rucksack
- Using outdoor swimming instead of walking as my daily exercise
- Swimming front crawl instead of breaststroke
- Planning ‘naughty knee’ options into my outdoor days
Some of these strategies bring with them issues. Juggling a pair of walking poles, a map and a compass can be tricky, and chatting with friends in the sea is awkward when your head is mostly underwater (I have developed a rather impressive doggy-paddle to help with this). One thing that I have struggled with is reducing my rucksack load. I still lead adults and teenagers outdoors and, as an outdoor leader, have a requirement to carry certain safety and first aid equipment. Of course, reducing the weight on me is another option but even that becomes more difficult with middle age.
We have probably passed the half way point of this article now so let’s have a little celebration. So far I have used the words ‘middle’ and ‘age’ together eight times and I still feel pretty good about myself!
Hormones, what hormones?
Hormones are chemical messengers that tell our bodies how to behave. The messages they deliver change throughout life but for both men and women, these changes are particularly noticeable at puberty and during middle age. I would like to say that for me this element of hormonal surprise has made life more exciting, but in reality it has sometimes made my outdoor lifestyle trickier to manage.
However the converse is also true. When my hormones are all over the place, getting outside gives me direct contact with things that are steady and unchanging. The sea is always chilly, granite tors are always solid and fresh air on my face always cheers me up. My top tips for middle age hormonal changes would be:
- Talk to other people (the outdoors is a great place to do this)
- Find ways to get outside, even for a short time, every day
- Enjoy the wind in your hair and the rain on your face
- Touch rocks, hug trees and remember that your experiences are part of a natural process
What’s your name again?
Until recent years I have been proud of my ability to multitask. Three children, a classroom of 30 teenagers, leading groups on Dartmoor, all of these things built up my ability to feel epic in the brain department.
More recently however, although my body can still do lots of things at once, my brain sometimes struggles to keep up. In a blink of an eye I can go from summarising the latest statistics on a number of subjects to forgetting what the long stuff you eat with bolognaise sauce is called. I would like to be able to tell you that going outside has helped with this but I am just as likely to forget the next thing I want to say standing on the top of a tor as I am lying in bed.
What being outside does do for my brain however is give it a rest and the opportunity to reset. There is a meditative quality to the repetition of outdoor activities. My steps up a hill, my arm strokes in the sea and even the mantras of compass work, all contribute to a feeling of overall wellbeing and seem to settle my brain back into what I call its ‘sensible zone’. I am not a medical expert but I imagine that, if there were such a thing as defibrillation for the brain, a cold-water swim would be a good way of achieving it.
So there we have it. Perhaps one of the most useless pieces of advice about middle age I have ever read was, ‘Everyone experiences it differently’. Useless but true; my knees are not your knees and you almost certainly know the correct name for spaghetti. However, if you are in your 40s, 50s or 60s, you have probably by now noticed a few changes.
My first piece of advice would be not to panic. My second would be to spend more time outside. Out there you will find a world that is both constant and constantly changing, which might remind you of someone! Middle age as it turns out is an exciting place to be, why not celebrate it and perhaps at the same time show those youngsters a thing or two!