Why old dogs really can learn new tricks


When I was a young man, fresh out of University, I had to look for a proper job.

I got one quite quickly…

So I bought some smart clothes and turned up at the office on a Monday morning after a heavy weekend of rugby and pints with the lads.

By lunchtime I was knackered…

By teatime I thought I was going to faint…

As I crashed on to the sofa in my cramped little flat that night, totally exhausted, I remember thinking in horror….

“People do this EVERY DAY?!”

Of course, the day job became routine, and soon I developed the mental and physical stamina that was needed.

It’s surprising how quickly we can adjust to new ways of life.

For instance, if you’d told me a year ago that I would STAND UP to write all my Good Life Letters, I’d have shaken my head.

“No, I have always sat down at my desk to write” I’d have said, “I can’t change that now”.

(You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, as they say).

And yet…

Driven by excruciating pain in my lower back and buttock muscles, I was forced to buy myself a standing desk.

At first, I despaired.

It just wasn’t the same standing up to write.

I felt like I was a keyboard player in an 80s synth pop band.

It was just so awkward.

But as soon as I lowered the desk to a seated position, the pains would start again, and I’d have to stand up.

This continued for a few weeks.

Then… it all because to feel a lot more normal.

And soon it became my favourite way to write.

Sitting down now feels stranger to me.

The same thing happened almost 20 years ago, when I got repetitive strain injury in my wrists and hands from poor posture and too much computer work.

My ‘mouse hand’ (by that I mean the hand I used to move the computer mouse, rather than a tiny, furry hand) was the worst affected.

Any movement at all and shooting pains went right up my arm.

So I changed hands and started using my left hand to move the mouse.

Again, it felt weird.

But decades on, it’s just the way it is.

The reason I’m telling you this is to give you some reassurance.

It doesn’t matter how old you are, you CAN learn new tricks.

First, it’s worth remembering that changing a habit is really hard in the initial stages – it might cause you discomfort, fear or irritation.

This is especially true for older people.

That’s because over the decades you’ve developed a strong neural pathway to control certain tasks and habits. These get stronger with repetition.

For instance, one study by University College London, showed that black cab drivers who memorise the city’s complex layout have a larger hippocampus, the brain area involved in spatial memory.

But if you can push through using your conscious mind to override a specific habit, then things DO change.

You will adapt and form new neural pathways via a process known as ‘neuroplasticity’.

Effectively, you re-wire your brain.

What seems, at first, alien and strange will become familiar when new neural pathways entrench the new habit in your life.

A study in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that, on average, it takes two months before a new behaviour becomes automatic (66 days to be exact.)

After that, going back to the old way is quite hard.

This goes for healthy eating, doing exercise, creating a new bedroom routine, or altering the way you work.

For instance, when you start a new fitness regimen, it feels physically and mentally taxing at first – you wonder how you could possibly keep it up!

However, over time, it becomes more natural and enjoyable.

Eventually, you feel a bit weird and unsettled if you DON’T do the exercise.

So if you’ve taken on some healthy habits in January, don’t give them up now that’s it’s February – this is the time to push through and forge those new neural pathways.

And speaking of my fancy standing desk…

New study backs up the benefits of standing

A recent study at University College in London used fitness trackers on 15,000 adults across a week.

They measured things like cholesterol, weight, and waist circumference, then also looked at the amount of time each subject spent standing, sitting, sleeping, or doing exercise.

Turns out that sitting too much was linked to the worst heart health, with more likelihood or weight gain and higher blood sugar.

And that study didn’t even go into the problems that caused me to change my working habit – that is, all the musculoskeletal problems like bad posture, back pain, and neck pain, along with muscle stiffness and weakness.

So I’m pretty happy that I made the switch from sitting at my desk to standing at it.

It might not be for everyone, but it shows that it is possible to change your ways – even a grizzled old writer like me!