Fitter at 40.

Let’s be honest about most training advice online. It’s awful.

It’s awful in general, but doubly so if you’re in the forty-plus crowd. And it’s awful for one very simple reason…

…it’s not designed for us.

The fitness industry as a whole is largely based on two things: Making young guys muscular and lean, or making females skinny and hot. Because of the market that all the training is aimed at no one gives a thought to how that training might work in forty or fifty years time. Because at forty-plus we have to ask ourselves some very serious questions about our training time, the rewards we get from it, how it’s impacting our life, and whether that impact is positive or negative.

Every week I speak on the phone with men and women in their forties and beyond all wanting to be in the best shape possible. While many have some experience with fitness they all feel lost and unable to make progress any further because of the burn out created by their training and/ or diet. You know, the program they’re following that was deigned for someone half their age. The reason those programs all fail comes down to one thing…

They’re not sustainable.

Let’s imagine that you decide to get in shape once and for all. You sign up to the gym and commit to going every day. Great job! The first few days are hard but a little uncomfortable for you as you push your muscles harder than they’ve been pushed in years. The only problem is that after a few years of inactivity your muscles aren’t used to doing so much work and within that first week you now have so much muscle soreness you can’t even walk without pain. So within a week, despite your best intentions, you’ve made your fitness journey unsustainable.

A far better start would have been to have a think about this game you’re playing. The fitness game isn’t a short term activity that runs for a few weeks. It’s for the rest of your life.

So if we were going to start a race that lasted from now until you died, how fast would you start running right now? You’d run, because it is a race after all, but you likely wouldn’t start running flat out because you know you need to pace yourself for many years to come. Make no mistake though that this is a race. It’s a race against muscle loss and fat gain. A race against ever increasing poor health. So while you may not need to run hard now, you do need to get moving. But that movement should come with the question, “can I still be doing this at age eighty?”

This question crystallizes our activity into what is and isn’t of vital importance. For instance, most fitness approaches – the ones aimed at younger trainees –  won’t have a care for long term consequences. Female fitness is rife with this. Just drop their calories low so they lose weight and look good in a bikini. Never mind about the problems you’ve just caused to the menstrual cycle or for long term bone density problems by dropping energy availability to dangerous levels. Looking good now is all that matters and to hell with any consequences for this short term diet. Youth comes with a feeling recklessness and invincibility. Mature age not so much, especially for those of us who may have had a few injuries and know how long and annoying the recovery process can be.

So the question about what you should be doing, and how hard you should be doing it, is easily answered when you use this long term view.

If we’re honest about what you’re going to need at eighty we can then work back from there and figure out our short term plan. You can still lift weights at eighty, but your plan will be limited to the most important exercises. My mother still deadlifts and squats. But she only deadlifts once per week, and never anywhere close to her maximum. She still squats, but she does kettlebell goblet squats and not barbell squats. For pushing and pulling we tend to use bodyweight exercises like push ups and rows using either gymnastic rings, or a TRX. The rest of the gym training plan is devoted to performing mobility work to make sure her body stays as supple as possible.

Why is suppleness important? Because the moment you can’t tie your own shoes anymore, or dress yourself, you have lost independence. And both of things require a degree of flexibility that you may not notice when you’re younger, but you certainly will as you get older. Flexibility and mobility are also the things that help you stave off some easily avoided injuries. For those who want to perform any running related activities, there are studies (like this one) that show that reduced ankle range increase other landing forces and make you more likely to suffer injuries. Simply spending time to ensure that you have full ankle range of motion (that’s 3-4″ FYI) will help to prevent most running related injuries then. And it’s the same for strength related activities too. To safely perform a deadlift you’ll need some spare range of motion beyond just being able to touch the bar. A good rule of thumb is to be able to perform a standing toe touch with straight legs to ensure you’ve got enough spare range to deal with the added load and stress of deadlifts.

So we know you need some strength training and we know you need some flexibility work to stave off injuries and retain independence, but what about cardio? Again, think about eighty-year old you and what kind of activities seem likely? Will you really be doing that HIIT class or do you think you’re more likely to be going for a walk? That walk may be “just a walk” to you now, but at eighty walking will likely be enough to get your heart working hard enough to maintain, or even gain fitness. If walking on flat is too easy then add a hill.

So the Fit After Forty plan involves some basic strength work, flexibility work, and some easy to moderate steady state cardio but what diet are you following? Are you going to be following the crash and burn starve yourself beach body diet, or are you going to be doing something sustainable? I was in a fitness group on Facebook this week and a guy on there was asking about his diet. His current diet was seeing him either be extremely constipated or the opposite. So basically either shitting his pants or unable to go at all. Hardly seems sustainable, right?

Let’s go back to our guiding question about what you’ll be doing at eighty… What kind of diet do you see yourself following at eighty? is it the extreme diet you’re on now that excludes whole food groups like ketogenic or vegan diets or is it something that is going to be able to fit into any social or travel situation? There is no problem in the short term for the extreme diets – they can be excellent to change health quickly – but eventually they become problematic for one reason. Sooner or later you’re going to come off that diet. Either by choice because you’ve achieved that short term goal or because you fell off it and found yourself face first in whatever food you’d been excluding. There’s also the social environment to consider when you’ve got a family and kids. Don’t be the guy who doesn’t eat your kids birthday cake because it isn’t paleo. That’s not making your life any better by excluding you from that activity (and humans have bonded over food for a million years). Instead, think back to being eighty and think about if you want to spend more quality time with your family and how you might accomplish that? For sure there are going to be a number of family social events in there that involve food. Wouldn’t it be better to have a diet that allowed you to eat at those meals freely while still allowing you to stay healthy, lean, and fit longer term?

When we look at all the various factors here from training to suppleness to food, it is pretty obvious which one should have your main focus…it’s the food! Sooner or later training is going to have to be diminished. There is no way you’ll be able to train with the same intensity at eighty as you do at thirty or even fifty. I see so many people focus on the wrong things and wonder why they don’t get anywhere and the answer is simple – they’re focused on the wrong things. In order, to stay healthy, lean, and fit after forty these are your priorities:

Cardio/ walking
Strength training

Don’t do it back to front and wonder why your health seems to be negligible and your results non-existent.