2010 0117tryfirst0005

As I jogged down the street on my way to a gentle run round the waterfront, I passed a house where a team of scaffolders were dismantling their structure and loading it on a truck. They were loud and cheerful with music throbbing along with their banter. I asked if it was safe to pass and got a laugh by sheltering my head with my hands as I scuttled by.

I almost made the obvious remark: 'Well, you don't need to go for a run to get fit' but then I thought of the porters we saw in Nepal. They would pass us going uphill at a steady pace, balancing four full kerosene cans from their headstraps and when we finally arrived at the lodge they were delivering the fuel to, we would see them having a shot putt competition with huge rocks. The scaffolders probably do go for runs or play rugby in their spare time.

They seem tireless but we know that young fit bodies wear out through hard work and Nepali porters don't make old bones. This is also true of our own hard workers. My job brought me into contact with a wide variety of people and I remember the men whose work had broken them, sometimes at a young age. In particular, I think of a jockey deeply sad that he could no longer ride because he had had too many falls and concussions. Another man, in his late fifties when he saw me, had had over forty years of pain and frustration because as a young building apprentice he fell from a beam, injured his back and could never work again. Those who scoff at 'health and safety gone mad' should think of people like him and so many others, injured, worn out, even killed by their jobs, like the forestry workers Helen Kelly campaigned strongly for. They deserve better.

And they're the ones who, if they reach pension age at all, will suffer from injuries and arthritis and not have the 'good age' I'm advocating as they get older. For many, it is no longer possible to do manual work in their sixties and not everyone can shift to a desk job, so poverty also looms.

The best I could offer these men when I worked with them was to advocate acceptance and look for any interests or goals which would bring meaning to their lives. Some were able see new paths ahead; some were mired in grief at the loss of the physical strength and skill they had so strongly identified with.

I've joked to my friends that after a lifetime of working from a comfy chair my joints are in mint condition. Actually, I and many of my colleagues suffered from back pain from sitting too much while mirroring the tortured posture of our clients. For my last years of work I made a point of keeping a straight back and relaxed shoulders no matter what I felt from the other side of the room, and sometimes I instructed my clients in the benefits of good posture, which can be surprisingly empowering.

Jung noted that after mid-life, introverts become more extroverted and extroverts more introverted. I've seen that in people I've known well, and for me the same principle seems to have applied to exercise. I always gone for walks and attended yoga or Tai Chi classes but I was pretty sedentary through my forties and fifties. Since learning to swim and to breathe better, I can walk further, cope better with hills and have good stamina. My day often centres on exercise in some form. A lot of my catch ups with friends are of the 'walk and talk' variety. I find it's no hardship to exercise for an hour each day and I miss it if I don't. I appreciate that good luck and good genes are involved and I also trust that keeping up the activity will keep me well.

I remember sitting at the end of the pool with my friend Bob who in his mid-eighties still swam a set distance – a mile I think – regularly. I was in the difficult early stages of learning to swim and I commented that his example was encouraging because once I gained the skill I would be able to have it for 25 years. He replied, 'And it will give you 25 years.' I'm now a decade on from that time so I hope I'll swim well into my 80s.

I'm grateful to my coach who didn't see age as any kind of excuse and kept expecting more. I've surprised myself over and over again.