A few posts back I mentioned that better fitness was one of my goals in 2013 - exactly the same as most other health-conscious people in the overweight Western world! And I briefly described a personal home exercise routine that I had commenced.
Well, I've kept it up, and elaborated on it, and get a lot of satisfaction from it. It's part of my morning routine now, to such an extent that I'm getting concerned as to how I will be able to exercise in this way while holidaying in the caravan during the months ahead. Because you do need a certain amount of headroom and sideways space, and there's no scope for swinging even a kitten inside my little caravan! I suppose that I could substitute an especially brisk walk - that's always possible while away - but it won't be quite the same.
The particular aim of these fitness-building exercises is to improve my general suppleness, put a gravity-defying load on my bones, stretch my arm and leg muscles, and tense my abdominal muscles. It's tailored to me, and probably won't meet the needs of someone else unless they have my particular body and state of health. Still, I thought it worth explaining what I do, and what the aims are.
I'm not seeking to build muscle, just to tone up what I have. Strength is not really an issue. I'm quite content to stay as strong as I am at present, which is as strong as the average woman of my height and build, but not strong enough to lift paving slabs, or heavy suitcases, or to move washing machines and cookers about, even by 'walking' them.
There are really no occasions in my life, as it is now, when serious strength is required. The most I have to do is push or pull at the caravan, to turn it around on its two wheels. On a hard level surface that's not yet beyond me, although increasingly I'm saving effort and strain by using the car to back the caravan precisely onto its pitch, which is excellent reversing practice. In other circumstances where muscle is needed - in the house or in the garden, I suppose - I'd ask a man to help, or make it a co-operative effort with one or more willing women. Or try to figure out how something heavy can be dragged or slid or rolled into position unaided.
Back to what I'm doing to gradually get fitter.
The essential, unmissable part of my exercise routine is sustained stepping up and down, using my spare caravan steps. These are exactly the same as the ones I keep with the caravan, to help me step up from ground level into the caravan interior (which is otherwise a really big hoick up). For those who don't know what I'm talking about, imagine a stout platform, nine inches by fourteen, ten inches off the ground, supported by four strong metal legs. That ten inches is a bit more than the normal riser height on a domestic staircase. The extra height is the big secret: it will puff you out to climb a lot of steps with a big riser like this one, and that's where the aerobic exercise comes in.
This what I do. I start off with the right foot. On the count of 'one', and with a straight back, I step up on the right foot, then up with the left; then down with the right foot, and down with the left. Four brisk steps in all, two of them against gravity. Then 'two', a repeat of the four steps up and down again. and I continue till I get to 'fifty', which is all I can comfortably manage for now. Even so, that's two hundred individual steps, half of them defying gravity. At this point I am a bit puffed and my heart is beating faster than normal. So I take a short break, and go off to do something useful, such as make the bed or wash up the dishes, but not sit down. Then back to the caravan steps, and this time I begin with the left foot, repeating what I did before till I can say 'fifty'. At the end of all this, I will have stepped up or down four hundred times, carefully counting aloud, and I feel pretty good.
As I get fitter, I will extend the count to sixty, and then seventy, and so on. I don't play any background music. It might interfere with my counting.
The other half of my exercise routine is done on a long, thin blue rubber mat that I keep rolled up when not in use. It's derived in part - and very loosely at that - from a Pilates course I attended during the Mediterranean cruise in April 2009. Here's how it goes:
1. I begin by lying down on my back. (All but the last of these exercises (number 8) are performed lying on my back) With legs together and stretched out, and arms outstretched on either side, and stomach slightly tensed, I spend a few moments in this position, breathing deeply. Even that much feels pretty good!
2. Then I bring my arms down to my waist, and, starting with the right arm, I raise it up towards my head, till it reaches a vertical position. Then I lower it gently. I do this twenty times, counting the movements out loud. These are all smooth, slow, controlled arm movements, co-ordination and stretching being as important as overcoming gravity. So no upward jerks, and no letting the arm flop back to waist level. I linger just a little on the twentieth movement, to make the final lowering of the arm as smooth and controlled as I can make it. I repeat with the left arm, twenty times, and after that relax for a moment or two.
3. Next, I extend my arms sideways again, to how they were at position 1. Starting with the right arm, I raise it up and across my body, in an arc, to touch the upper part of my left arm. Then back again, in a reverse arc. I do this twenty times, pause briefly to relax, then repeat with my left arm, also twenty times. As before, all these movements are smooth, slow and controlled, and once completed are followed by a short interlude to relax (the same thing applies to all of these exercises).
4. I now bring my arms back to my waist, and raise my knees while drawing my feet in towards my bottom. Pushing with my feet, I raise my abdomen and thighs off the mat, hold them up for a second or two, then gently lower the ensemble back onto the mat. I do this twenty times. I hold the twentieth raising just a little longer than the rest.
5. Now I stretch my legs out again, with knees together. Beginning with my right leg, and making sure that both sides of my bottom never leave the mat, I raise the leg, keeping it straight and not bent. Then I lower it gently down again. I do this ten times, then pause to relax. Now I switch to the left leg, and repeat the ten raisings and lowerings. After another pause, ten more with the right leg. Finally, ten more with the left leg. So that each leg has been raised and lowered twenty times in all.
6. Now I repeat the exercise at 4.
7. Next, with my knees together, I bring my legs up towards my abdomen, holding myself in a curled-up position with my arms behind my knees. Straightening my legs, and releasing the knee-hold, I do two things simultaneously: I lower my legs slowly back to the mat (with knees still together), at the same time stretching my arms fully out, and equally slowly lowering my top half back onto the mat. I do this ten times, pausing for rest if required, because this is a tiring exercise, and the objects are to maintain complete smoothness and control, to feel properly stretched, and to tense the abdomen - and not to damage anything by rushing through it in one go. A rather longer rest after this.
8. Finally, I turn over and kneel on the mat, with my feet tensed for some press ups. My palms are flat on the mat, the arms vertical to it. Pushing on my arms, and stretching my legs, I raise my body off the mat, briefly hold it there, then gently lower myself to my knees again. This really stretches the legs. I do this ten times, pausing for rest as required.
And that's it, apart from getting up off the floor, and winding down with miscellaneous smooth and gentle arm and leg movements, like a strange ballet if you like, nothing jerky or quick, just enough to relax my entire body.
The whole routine, both halves, can easily be fitted inside half and hour. It's all done in my lounge at home. The outside weather doesn't matter two hoots.
It makes me feel energised and de-cobwebbed and mildly virtuous. And it's entirely free. What's not to like?