New Year, New You

We all know New Year’s resolutions tend to last no longer than the first week or two, but it does no harm to reflect at this time of year what might improve body and soul as well as output and all the other drivers of an academic’s life. I am conscious, as full-time (formal) retirement beckons at the end of this academic year when I step down as Master of Churchill College, that I need to be sure I stay fit and active. One of the consequences of the pandemic from my perspective, is the loss of casual exercise in the form of cycling between meetings. Far fewer meetings, held outside the College but within the University, at least of the ones I still attend, are now held in person. This means the need for me to cycle in and out of the city centre once or twice a day is much lessened. Likewise, many of the meetings I used to attend in person in London are now hybrid, if not totally via Zoom/Teams and so I cycle across Cambridge to the railway station comparatively rarely. I never used to think anything about my cycling habits, but reflection tells me I no longer get anything like as much casual but necessary cycling exercise as I used to. This cannot be good for me. In the summer, an evening walk simply for the sake of it may be pleasant; much less so when evenings are dark, cold and – of late – so often simply wet and uninviting.

So, I need to take much more care to exercise deliberately in some shape or form or I will find, when I finally have time on my hands, I don’t have the energy or strength to get out and about. Later life is tedious in this respect (and anyone can check on Wikipedia how many years I have now accumulated in my life), as things one took for granted no longer seem quite so straightforward. One of these days I shall squat down to lock my bicycle to the rack at ground level and find I need the help of a passing stranger to get me back on my feet, which would be embarrassing. So, exercises to ensure my leg muscles are as strong as possible are part of my new year’s resolutions, and something I hope I will have the motivation to keep up with.

However, more generally, I think I just have to concentrate on getting away from the screen. One good thing about going to London is that it provides an excuse not only to cycle to the station, but also – time permitting – to walk across London. Typically, my meetings are at the Royal Society, so that facilitates a good 45-50 minute walk from Kings Cross, healthy if one ignores the pollution levels on most of the streets I need to go along. It must be better than being squeezed into an underground train, particularly with the high levels of respiratory infections present currently, Covid, ‘flu and more (and yes, I do still wear a mask on the tube, and have been shouted at for so doing). However, there is no doubt that on some of the recent days, attempting to do this walk would only mean I ended up looking drowned and less professional than I might like upon arrival.

I attended a London meeting this week at which one of the attendees, slim and accused always of eating, admitted he walked ten miles a day. That is an aspiration few of us probably have in mind, but it clearly worked for him. Most of us in academia are probably fixedly starting at a screen, or a test-tube or an equation for far too much of our days, and equally too much for our well-being. It is hard to make sufficient allowance for our health. Personally, I am no believer in gyms, because I prefer to exercise in private. Back in the days when I would run/jog regularly, before my Achilles tendon forced me to give up, I never chose company for my runs. The pleasure – particularly back when I was a postdoc in Ithaca and the scenery was delightful even if the climate less so – came from being able to watch the changing seasons and just take it all in.

The pandemic meant every local walk was walked to excess. The opening up of the new site at Eddington (North West Cambridge, as it was initially and unimaginatively known) during my tenure at the College did provide new routes, some of which are pleasantly, if only relatively, ‘rural’, offering rabbits, foxes, kestrels etc to admire from time to time. By now, however, I’ve been that way far too often. Just as moving into the College in 2014 gave me a new viewpoint and routes, with the prospect of returning to my own house in the autumn I will have different opportunities, including along the Cam, for a gentle afternoon’s walk, even if they’re the same ones that used to be so familiar. If I can keep up my New Year’s resolutions, maybe I’ll even be up for longer walks and I should certainly have more time in which to undertake them.

It is a strange feeling to be considering full retirement, not something I’m looking forward to. Everyone assures me that ‘something will turn up’, Micawber style, to keep me busy, but equally I am told forcefully not to take the first thing that comes along. In a year’s time, who knows what I’ll be doing or where my centre of gravity will be, but I hope I will still be working hard at not letting old age overtake me and my muscles.

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