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Over-use it – and lose it, says Mary Killen

Blog | By Mary Killen | Apr 30, 2024


A few years ago, I went to stay with well-appointed friends who invited me to join them on a ride around their park.

I replied that I hadn’t ridden for years and had lost my nerve on horses who, being instinctive, would be able to tell I was anxious and wouldn’t respect my authority.

‘Don’t worry,’ my friends replied. ‘You can go on Dumpy. Look at him – he’s the sweetest old boy imaginable. He never goes beyond ambling. It’s just like being on a sofa.’

We looked out of the window at the tethered Dumpy, small and squat, who was genially chewing cud and emanating calm.

And so I found myself ambling along behind the others, thinking, ‘This is marvellous. I’m going to start riding again.’

But then Dumpy began whinnying and broke into a gallop. Further into the park, he could see other horses, gathered for a lawn meet, and naturally wanted to join in. For him it was the horse equivalent of Glastonbury and just too tempting to resist.

Pulling the reins had no effect. I felt like one of those toy cowboys of my childhood who came with their legs already spread out to accommodate a horse. I used to try to straighten the toy legs so the cowboys could stand up in my doll’s house, but they were unwieldy, stiff plastic.

I now found my own legs were unwieldy too – I could not shut them. It had been so many years since I had needed to grip with my thighs that the gripping muscles had fallen into desuetude.

By some miracle, I didn’t come off – but my message is, after a certain age, don’t just resume any physical activity you were always able to do in the past. If you haven’t been using them, the relevant muscles may well no longer be operative.

A woman I know named Janet, on ‘going off’ in her mid-sixties, decided to turn what the French call a coup de vieux (a sudden blow of age) into a coup de mieux (I coined this term myself) – a sudden improvement in appearance.

She joined a running club and began running for five miles a day with other women who had been running for years. Guess what? She developed plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the fibrous tissue along the bottom of the foot that connects the heel bone to the toes.

Plantar fasciitis can cause intense heel pain. For three months, when Janet got out of bed in the morning she could barely put her feet on the ground.

There are the very public, often excessively dishevelled, moderate joggers, such as Boris and Michael Gove. They give the wrong message to novice runners. Another highly successful man I know, in his early fifties, thought he would add to his string of achievements by training for the London Marathon. His running on concrete in preparation means that he has now had to have a previously perfectly good knee replaced.

On her 68th birthday, a relation of mine decided to signal her continued fitness by walking 20 miles on the South West Coast Path and then lifting weights in the gym. She slipped a disc.

The son of The Oldie’s late medical correspondent, Dr Thomas Stuttaford, has shared with me a term he has coined himself – peterpanopathy.

‘Peterpanopathy has always been around in one form or another,’ observes Tom Stuttaford Jr. ‘Mid-fifties men wearing falling-down jeans – mutton dressed as lamb. Harley Davidson syndrome – where men who had motorbikes in their twenties buy another one in their fifties and find it “over-responsive”.’

The Duke of Edinburgh carried on with carriage riding till his mid-nineties, and the late Queen rode almost to the end. But oldie riders do have terrible falls, whether or not they have kept their parts in well-oiled working order.

I will never forget attending the Countryside Rally in 1997 as a journalist. Tony Blair, who had received a £1m donation for the party from an animal-rights charity, had announced he would ban hunting (although, curiously, not fishing).

The rally’s VIP enclosure, which doubled as a press enclosure, was notable for the number of former riders, now confined to wheelchairs following accidents out hunting. They had made superhuman efforts to come up from the country to show their support for this dangerous country sport, even after what it had done to them.

Forget about showing off and signalling youth through running, motorbikes and collecting back injuries through overdoing it in the gym. There is a reason doctors recommend walking, swimming and particularly gardening.

These are the least dangerous activities for keeping all your body parts in full working order.

If you still want to signal youth and fitness, you can then surprise contemporaries by being flexible enough to climb stepladders or crawl under cars.