An unexpected encounter in the park inspires writer Yang-May Ooi to reflect on how it’s never too late to re-discover our wild bodies and remain fit into old age.
How to Retain a Wild Body into Old Age ¦ ReWilding My Life
I couldn’t work out what I was seeing at first.
The wheelchair was rolling along in the park at a slow jog. It was empty. That was odd.
Then I noticed the woman who was pushing it. She was elderly – perhaps in her mid to late 70s, thin, pale and fragile-looking, her grey hair loose on her shoulders.
She was running. And she was using the wheelchair for support.
Not far behind, a man I took to be her husband followed – stocky, with an Abraham Lincoln white beard.
It was a cold day in late December. I had been stuck indoors in bed with a cold. My head was still stuffy and my nose still sniffly. I felt my muscles had turned to sludge and I was dragging myself round the park for a short stroll – my first foray outside in over a week.
I hadn’t run or done any proper exercise for almost two weeks, having felt under the weather for awhile before the cold bloomed into its full sneezing, snotty, exhausting grandeur.
The energy of Running Woman was impressive – despite her age and her evident frailty.
I walked another round through the park, trying to make my pace brisk but not quite managing it.
I saw her and her husband again at the outdoor gym section. He was standing over her like a personal trainer.
She was doing sit-ups on the sit-up recliner.
Even at my fittest, I have great difficulty doing those reclining sit-ups – you have to fight against gravity much harder since your head and torso are below your waist.
I stopped and watched her as she finished up. She didn’t seem breathless at all as she moved away from the gym equipment back to the path, her husband pushing the wheelchair for now.
A Life Spent Outdoors
“You’re amazing!” I said as she neared. “I’ve been watching you running and doing sit-ups. I’m so impressed.”
She looked at me, surprised – and then a pleased grin spread over her face. “Thank you.”
But she waved away my comment in a self-deprecating way.
“I mean it,” I continued. “If I were as fit as you are when I get to your age, it would be amazing…”
She said, “I had a stroke earlier this year and I was paralysed down one side.”
“Oh wow,” I took in her full range of movement, her clarity of speech. “I would never have known it.”
She looked even more chuffed.
Then a fleeting look of wistfulness crossed her face.
I had glimpse in my mind of a young, sporty woman. I asked, “Were you always into fitness before?”
“I used to run long distance. And play hockey. I loved sailing…” Her voice trailed off. Her expression withdrew into herself.
I picture a younger version of this elderly woman – the young girl was tanned and fit, sea spray in her face, wind in her hair, in full control of a sailing dinghy as it skidded along on the waves.
An Inspiration to Younger Folk
She said, “And now… I feel so useless…”
“No, not at all, you’re out here, doing what you love. You’re an inspiration.”
She looked at me. That idea of herself – as an inspiration – was new. She beamed.
As she and her husband moved away, she turned back and called, “You will be as fit you want when you’re my age!”
I laughed and waved.
Ageing and Our Bodies
Since then, my partner and I are have noticed them in the park regularly doing circuits. They must be there almost every day, taking turns on the different gym equipment.
Seeing them, active and engaged in the outdoors, working out together makes me think about how we tend to neglect our bodies in today’s urban world of offices, computers and TVs. Even our going out activities in a city often involve sitting – theatre, cinema, restaurants and bars. It’s so easy to focus only on mental and cerebral activities and become disconnected from our bodies.
While we are younger, we may not care if we have tame bodies or wild bodies – and we may not even think about our bodies at all. Our bodies manage to get us around whether we are fit or not. But as we age, our bodies will start to let us down – and it is in old age that health problems that we might ordinarily get over can become insurmountable and start us into fast decline towards incapacity.
Being fit does not stop all health problems happening to us as there are many factors – including old age itself – that may cause a breakdown in our bodies. For Running Woman, she was sporty and active and still suffered a stroke. But I wonder if being fit and having a lifetime’s connection to her physicality meant that she could work her way back to as much functionality as she could achieve after the stroke – so that she was not completely paralysed or completely stuck in a wheelchair.
Made For the Wild
I am not a physical fitness trainer or a doctor, of course, and these reflections are my personal interpretation of my encounter with Running Woman and her husband. For me, as part of my exploration into ReWilding My Life and what it means to re-connect with nature, I wonder if an aspect of that is also about re-connecting with our bodies.
The human body is made for running and physical activity and for millenia, that has been our natural way of living. In pre-history, humanity lived in the wild of course – and when we built civilisations, we still lived much closer to nature and the wilderness before the industrial and technological ages.
It’s only in the last century or so, as machines and technology has taken away the need for many city dwellers to walk or do any manual tasks that breaks us out into a sweat as part of daily life, that we are becoming disembodied beings. And there is a price to be paid for that according to many research studies – in terms of obesity, diabetes, heart problems, cancer and other health issues.
A lifetime’s passion for physical fitness and the outdoors perhaps means that Running Woman can easily and regularly head outside and exercise to the best of her ability at any given time. For someone who has never exercised or cultivated an interest in physical activity, to start at a senior age and after something like a stroke and with only a feeling of obligation to do it would probably not fare so well or be so committed to a daily routine. So, if we are to retain the wild nature of our bodies, there’s no time like now to start discovering a passion for physical activity.
Re-discovering My “Wild Body”
For me, I am going to widen my ReWilding project to include investigations into how to re-discover my natural physicality – my “wild body” – as well as simply focusing on nature external to myself. I’m not sure what this will involve – if you have any suggestions, please let me know!
Inspired by Running Woman, I am making sure that I do some form of exercise daily – preferably of an aerobic nature and also including weight or resistance elements. As I live in London, I am not going to be able to go out into the countryside as often as I’d like. So some days, I go for a brisk walk or a run. I’m not a purist about having always to exercise in nature so sometimes, I go on a cardio machine in the gym. Other days, I have a dance round the living room at home. Additionally, I have free weights and resistance bands as well as my own body weight to build strength and muscle tone..
But I wonder – could I be more diverse in my physical activity? What else could I do that would also involve being more in nature?
NB. Please consult your doctor or healthcare professional before taking up any physical activity. These are my personal reflections for myself and my own life, shared for the purposes of discussion only.
Rewilding My Life is creative actionista, Yang-May Ooi’s personal journey to explore how our urban lives alienate us from the natural world – and how we can re-connect with nature and our sense of the wild. Follow this Tiger Spirit project via Rewilding My Life link on the left sidebar.
Photos from flickr (CCL):
Author: Yang-May Ooi
Yang-May Ooi is a multimedia author & TEDx speaker. Her creative projects include Bound Feet Blues (theatre), South London Voices and Creative Conversations (podcasts) and The Nowhere Land Project (photography). She also works with individuals, non-profits and small businesses to help them tell their unique stories in inspiring words and images. ¦ www.TigerSpirit.co.uk