Have you ever brainstormed an idea that you were sure would be a smashing success, only to find that it was actually terrible? This happened when I created a “fit after 40” class, aimed at women I wanted to attract to a gym where I train.
I could see the appeal of creating a small training group of people who were in “the mid”: roughly our 40’s-60’s, a period that I am coming to find as a sweet spot in life.
We’ve got our groove back: many of us have survived the whirlwind of starting careers and sleepless nights with newborns. Those of us who are parents now pack lunches for our brood and send them off for the day. We’re often settled into a more comfortable pattern with our careers, though often have more responsibility. In essence, we’re probably busier than ever, but we also are more likely to have our shit together.
There are also changes that happen along the way with both our bodies and our mindset that made me suspect that my class would garner interest. We’d have peers going through the same time of life. Participants could get a great workout that was still mindful of joints that were a little less forgiving. Training would be challenging but smartly designed. So when it went up on the roster, I was full of enthusiasm. I told my friends, and I was sure it would be a hit. Until nobody showed up.
My friend Sarah hit on something when she quipped this remark:
“Nobody our age wants to go to a Fit After 40 class. We want to feel like we’re badasses.”
The more I thought about it, I realized she was right. There’s something about things aimed at middle-aged people that irritates me. Even the term middle aged feels blah. The marketing messaging seems to give women matronly and sexless identities. We’re painted as sensible, turtleneck-wearing soccer moms. We’re less likely to be portrayed as sexy unless it’s in the ‘milfy’ sense. Middle-aged dudes don’t fare much better: they’re stereotyped as pathetically trying to recapture their youth with sports cars and little blue pills.
Maybe that’s okay. I don’t care if my butt looks artfully perky on Instagram. To me, “Netflix and Chill” means I watch a movie and fall asleep halfway through. Put your pants back on. But still, In reality, we’re still us inside. While I can’t speak for everyone, my 40-60 something peers are feeling strong and vibrant. We care a lot less about what everyone thinks about us: in short, we have fewer fucks to give about things that aren’t really that important, and that leaves us more time to focus on being awesome. We’re ready to go kill it. It doesn’t surprise me that my clients in their middle years have goals like these:
- Complete a Half Ironman
- Bench 100 pounds
- Improve performance for cycling races
- Perform a pushup from the floor
- Do an unassisted pullup
I’m 41 now, and when I’m 50, I hope to still be powerlifting competitively like one of my teammates, Terie. She’s a 51 year old powerlifter who believes age is just a number.
I have always had a competitive edge and power lifting is the perfect fit for me at this stage of my life. It’s just me against myself.
Some folks work out to have more energy. Others want to lose weight and feel better naked. But in this age group, I have always had several clients who are motivated by wanting to get better. Classes that point out that we’re aging make us feel like we can’t do something that the young woman next to us can do. And the more that I think about it, I realize that this is a ridiculous notion.
We can and should work hard. Many of us haven’t even reached our peak yet. Especially for those of us who weren’t athletes in our younger years, we are often capable of getting stronger than we ever were in our 20’s. We might even be able to run circles around those young pups around us. We just have to be smarter about it, because some things DO change: our joints might be less forgiving. Strength training becomes even more important. Our needs may shift.
I asked some of my own fitness heroes to share their observations of how their own fitness has changed as they’ve aged as well as their insight into training others in our age group. My overarching question was: “does anything change as we age?” Is there even a thing such as Fit After 40?
Managing Time, Minding Our Bodies
Cassandra Forsythe, Ph.D., RD, is the co-author of The New Rules of Lifting for Women and Women’s Health Perfect Body Diet. She’s an expert in fitness and nutrition, but also has personal insight to share about how her own training has changed with age.
In my experiences personally and professionally, once of the biggest things that has changed is the intensity of exercise. Not that an older woman is unable to exercise as intensely, but our joints aren’t as appreciative of it as they once were. For example, “high knees” and “Jumping butt kickers” are two “warmup moves” that I’ve had to tone down for the enjoyment of myself and others. My back and knees don’t love it any more.
Forsythe also mentioned that she takes more recovery than she used to: in earlier years, she regularly lifted 6 days a week. Now, she feels better lifting 4 days each week while incorporating activities like walking and yoga into her routine.
My clients also note that weight management seems more challenging. Women going through menopause have noted more accumulation of fat around their mid section. Forsythe noted that our lifestyle might play a role in the difficulty. She mentions responsibilities like work and children that may make nutrition take a back seat on our list of priorities.
When you’re younger (and when I was younger), it was much easier to cut out calories and exercise all the time. When we age, other responsibilities take the forefront and body comp is a concern, but much less so.
My takeaway: in the mid, time management becomes more critical for incorporating fitness into our days. Additionally, we are more likely to revise what we see as realistic outcomes from our nutrition and fitness in order to manage the bigger picture.
Accepting Less Control in Our Training Outcomes
Lou Schuler is a journalist and author of many of my favorite books, including his new release, Strong. (I had a chance to read this one, by the way, and it’s absolutely outstanding. Nab it for an excellent, approachable guide for strength training, whether you’re a beginner or more experienced.) Schuler also had some thoughts about how his own training has evolved through the years.
His most interesting observation was about progress no longer feeling linear. After making steady progress on a lift, he sometimes experiences a sharp reduction in strength “almost inexplicably”.
I say “almost” because there’s usually something going in the background — cranky knees, or tight hammies, or a shoulder that’s sore for no apparent reason.
I can relate to him: as I approached 40, the accumulation of events in my life began to reveal themselves as I trained. My labrum tore in my hip. My shoulders protest loudly if I ask too much of them. Schuler noted something similar:
After all these years of feeling like I’m in charge of my body, my body has suddenly discovered checks and balances… I miss my days as a dictator!
So what do we do? Hang it up and go to senior aerobics? Hell no. Not for Schuler, who believes that a lifetime of movement with some aches and pains trumps years of inactivity.
“Rust out or wear out”.
This sentiment was also echoed by the trainer of trainers, Nick Tumminello, who is the author of one of my staple training manuals, Strength Training for Fat Loss. Tumminello is still a young lad in his 30’s but has worked with countless folks in the most popular demographic for personal training: ages 35-50.
I chatted with him about this not only for his experience but because he posted the following on his Facebook wall recently:
When it comes to working with adults, I don’t train them by their age. I train them by their ability.
Tumminello points to the great amount of diversity among us: genetics, lifestyle, and personal history play a much greater role in how our bodies respond to training than how many birthday candles we’ve lit. Just like younger counterparts, we need to base our programs on general guidelines for safety and progression.
Still, Tumminello acknowledges that there are common issues that arise as our bodies age. We are more likely to have previous injuries that may affect the exercises and training strategies that we choose. Many of the common exercises we chose for years may no longer feel so comfortable.
Tumminello’s overarching point is that we need to get creative and, like everyone else, adjust exercises to our bodies. His points make sense to me: does it really matter if you do a conventional deadlift off the floor if it bugs your body? Can you find another hinging movement that creates a similar training effect yet feels good?
I asked him if listening to our bodies is the wisest course of action, but he challenged this phrase: is it really very useful? What does it actually mean? For Tumminello, the idea of listening to your body means finding tolerable movements that you can do, while progressing very gradually. Don’t be afraid to modify exercises and you’ll be able to get (and stay) fit with less risk of injury.
Don’t Train To Be a Hero
Bryan Krahn knows a little something about getting people fit in our age group: along with fitness writing, he specializes in improving physique and strength for men over 35. Like Tumminello, Krahn also emphasizes the importance of training intelligently.
Everyone suffers joint breakdown as they age. Those who accept that and don’t train to be heroes can avoid most problems. Those who try to bench like they’re 19 again are setting themselves up for a world of hurt.
As I spoke with fit pros, a common thread began to emerge: continue to train, because it’s more important than ever. Don’t be an idiot. Respect what your body needs.
Along with these common themes, fitness after 40 should bring with it the wisdom to appreciate the bigger picture. We are less likely to be chasing six-packs. We’re much more likely to begin to appreciate what fitness can bring us in terms of longevity. As we see our parents age and our more sedentary peers begin to reveal the markers of time, getting and staying fit takes on a new urgency.
Even though my “Fit After 40” class flopped, another women’s strength training group I instruct for a community ed program is flourishing. The only description for the program flyer was “women’s strength training”. And it just happens to be completely populated by women in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. I asked them why they pursue fitness. Aesthetic goals were voiced here and there, but overwhelmingly, women wanted to get strong in order to be able to do all the things we hope for as we age:
- We want to continue to move well and be able to be active on vacations.
- We want to feel strong.
- We want to live longer.
- We want to not only live longer, we want to live better.
The last bullet point is really the rub, isn’t it? Dan John differentiates between “carp level survival”, which sounds pretty grim, and thriving as we pursue longevity.
John is a legendary strength coach, record holding athlete, academic, and author of multiple books, including Can You Go?. He’s the total package of wisdom and experience when it comes to understanding how aging impacts us, and I was lucky enough to chat with him about it.
The Most Dangerous Part Of Dan John’s Day: Statistics, Survival, and Moving Beyond
Coach John is a captivating person to speak with: right off the bat, he shook up the way I’d been thinking about staying fit.
Dan John: What do you think the most dangerous part of my day is?
Dan John: The most dangerous part of my day is when I get into the shower. After that, it’s when I ride my bike to work.
A gifted storyteller, Dan John often makes us consider things differently. If we want to consider purely surviving, our bacon abstinence isn’t really a big deal. For people over the age of 55, the biggest risk faced is breaking a joint like our hip.
We have a statistically better chance of surviving cancer than we do of surviving a break of the hip.
Along with advice like flossing our teeth for better heart health, using movement as preventative medicine is often overlooked as a way to survive. And beyond survival, maintaining a healthy foundation of movement is critical for feeling good too.
Dan John breaks down movement into six categories:
5. Loaded Carry
Tumbling? According to him, the sixth movement is one of the most important things that someone new to exercise should pursue. By tumbling, John means work that teaches us to fall safely. We do Turkish Get Ups, practice safely tumbling (John uses techniques learned from Judo) and balance drills that teach us to safely stumble. Here’s one he showed me:
It may seem like an unnecessary exercise if it felt easy, but I can tell you that I get people on the ground and make them get back up. They are often surprised by how challenging it is. One of my long-time clients remarked “how is it that suddenly one day it’s a pain in the ass to get off the floor?”
It creeps up on us. If we keep training this all along, we won’t face unpleasant surprises.
Along with urging us to get down onto the floor more, John puts a high priority on the 5th category: doing loaded carries. Getting good at carrying heavy things doesn’t just make it easier to haul in our groceries. It also increases our work capacity, which in turn, according to John, equals a thriving life.
After focusing on those two movement types initially, we get our squat back. We might start down on the ground on hands and knees, and then progress to the goblet squat, a movement that John popularized and has cleaned up the squatting movement of just about every client I’ve trained. After that, he looks at what we can do and combines the movements. Like other pros suggest, we find what fits us and attempt to get better at it.
Patience is a Virtue
I was curious about what James Fell had to say. Fell, a syndicated columnist and author of Lose It Right is a straight shooter who has unique insights into fitness. He’s also ridiculously witty; definitely read his articles on his website, Body for Wife.
Fell believes that the greatest virtue for the over 40 crowd is patience. Lack of patience has long been my achilles heel: it’s brought me not only frustration but injuries that could easily have been avoided if I’d respected my body’s needs. Perhaps the training considerations that we need to put in place as we age aren’t so much a factor of the aging process as they are a consequence of all the dumb shit we did when we were younger: the 15-mile runs I limped through preparing for a marathon at age 21, or the day I decided to do a max rep bench at a blindly optimistic weight, despite having only trained the bench press for about a month. Those were not super ideas.
Regardless, Fell doesn’t take a doom and gloom approach: he points to the benefit of being over 40, when we often have more dedication and focus than we did in our younger years.
The tortoise approach can take someone a long way when they are persistent and keep going towards their goal at a rational pace.
Fell nails it on the head, I think. He sees his fitness goals as not being terribly different than when he was a younger guy: he’s a little less focused on vanity, yet he still wants to look good. Just like most of us. We’re less fixated on our bodies, but we still appreciate what they look like and what they can do. We want to pursue performance, but not at the cost of our well being.
In short, we are badasses. We may have some extra aches and pains but we’re smarter now. We don’t define ourselves by our age, but we can respect the changes that come. When we see the long game, we can win.
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