Why we should get sweaty in
our 60s: Why novelist Rosie Thomas says exercise is vital as you get older

Let's get physical: Rosie takes some exercise for at least an hour a day

Let's get physical: Rosie takes some exercise for at least an hour a day

I’ll probably never run another marathon. I did the London one just once, in 2006 at the age of 59, and it took a six-month build-up of sweat and determination to propel myself across that finish line.

When the time came I was determined to enjoy myself. Marathon Day itself was a fabulous high from start to finish, and four hours 48 minutes isn’t bad for a novice.

But I’m not a natural runner, and my old knees start protesting if I go too far. Nowadays, at well past 60, an hour’s outing to cover a leisurely six miles is about my limit.

I gained one vital thing from the whole process, though – apart from the joy and satisfaction of knowing what it takes to run 26.6 miles.

It’s an understanding of how vital exercise is to me, and how profoundly
my body now craves it. I’m not talking a gentle stroll or a spot of gardening, either.

I strongly believe that as we hit our ‘free time’ in our 60s, instead of slacking off we should increase our activity levels – gently at first, if we’re not used to it, but deliberately – to the point of regularly becoming sweaty and breathless.

While I was training for the marathon, my spirit often wilted at the prospect of another 15-mile run on a bleak February morning, but my body had never felt so good. I ate healthily, I slept soundly, I ran further and faster.

Then three weeks before the race I tore a hamstring, which meant that I was overdoing it. After the age of 45, tendons and ligaments become more rigid and prone to injury.

I reined in my speed and lowered my expectations, but the point is that I felt I could do more and more. It was like being Superwoman. I don’t ever want to lose that ecstatic feeling of strength.

I don’t come from an active family. My mum died suddenly when I was ten and my dad wouldn’t walk across the village square to the post office if he had the option of driving. At school I was hopeless at games.

But as my 30s crept on, feeling lumpy and exhausted after having two children, I went to my local gym a couple of times a week.

Under the guidance of one of the instructors there, I’d lift some light weights, or use the step or rowing machines. I enjoyed it, as an antidote to long hours of writing novels.

In my 40s, fighting depression, I noticed that more exercise made me feel less sad. Gradually I increased my routines.

Then came the step change. Following the trauma of divorce, I began to travel and look for new challenges.

I discovered that I loved climbing and, in order to be comfortable in these new environments, I had to be really fit.

By her mid-50s, Rosie had moved the level of effort up several gears

By her mid-50s, Rosie had moved the level of effort up several gears

By my mid-50s, I’d moved the level of effort up several gears. I bubbled with energy, I lost weight and the depression melted away.

I’ve realised that as I grow older I want to stay fit and active for as long as I possibly can. I’ve made myself a promise that I won’t ever say, ‘I can’t do that, I’m too old,’ until I know it is physically beyond me.

And when that does happen I’ll do something else to compensate. More Pilates, less mountaineering, perhaps. After all, people can go on running, scuba diving or playing tennis well into their 80s.

Now I do some exercise every day, for at least an hour. I might do an aerobic circuit or a weights programme, or maybe a series of treadmill sprints. While I’m there I see like-minded 60-somethings working out with a trainer or doing a spin class – unthinkable 20 years ago when gyms belonged to the young.

I do a couple of hours of Pilates and also stretch regularly throughout the rest of the week, and I might choose a long swim, rock-climbing at the local wall and, if the weather’s good, a run outside, a bike ride, or just a fast walk.

It’s not always a pleasure – I’d be lying if I tried to insist that it is – but it’s a varied programme and I do what I feel like.

Once it’s done, stiffness, tiredness and low spirits are replaced by good humour and abundant energy.

It does represent quite a time commitment in a busy week, but one of the compensations of being 60-plus with grown-up children is that there is more time.

I’m fortunate that my GP is an exercise enthusiast. He leads a walking group for all levels of ability in our local park, and advocates a manageable 20 minutes of getting breathless two to three times a week.

The benefits for older people, he says, are not just cardiovascular, but extend to improvements in memory, balance, muscle strength, bone density, and guarding against diabetes.

Studies have shown that exercise stimulates the production of chemicals that produce new brain cells, so it’s possible that it makes us cleverer, too.

He’s not so sure about the claim that ageing itself is 80 per cent to do with lifestyle and only 20 per cent to do with genes – although I believe this myself – but he agrees that exercise keeps us healthier (and therefore younger) longer.

I celebrated my 60th birthday by climbing the Eiger, and next year I’m off on a sailing and mountaineering expedition in Antarctica. It’s never too late to start. The benefits will follow.

Lovers & Newcomers by Rosie Thomas is available now priced £7.99, published by HarperCollins.