My Secret to Staying in (Reasonable) Shape at 58
Something had to change, and that was the key to finding fresh motivation
Like many people, I’ve been on-again, off-again with exercise throughout life. Working out always feels good and clears my head, and science confirms these are very real effects. But to stay motivated, I’ve always needed goals and accomplishments: to get faster or stronger, hit some personal best, maybe win an age-group ribbon or at least get a free T-shirt. Into my early 30s, this wasn’t a problem. I could take to the couch for a month, even a year, then come back and regain a good chunk of the speed or strength I’d had before — sometimes more, if I improved technique or worked harder.
Those days are over. And for a long time the realization was demoralizing.
Even if I stay in shape, I know I’ll never again run as fast or as far or lift as much. This personal performance gap crept up gradually, and I pretended for a while it wasn’t happening, but in my late 40s it kicked in big-time and started sapping all desire to exercise. Thing is, this is about the age in life where we really start to need it.
An average guy loses about one beat per minute of potential heart rate every year after around age 30, Harvard medical experts say. That means each year, the heart is capable of pumping less blood and oxygen to the muscles. Then there are all those other nasty effects: blood vessels stiffen; by age 40 we start to lose muscle and gain fat; testosterone declines; coordination goes slowly whacko.
The effects of aging vary by gender and other factors but everyone eventually slows down, and that makes it harder and harder to do what we know we should.
Though we can’t outrun time, the more we try, the more we huff and puff or lift and bend, the better we feel and the greater the odds are we’ll spend a few more years on this planet — and be healthy during that time. Exercise prevents the brain from shrinking. It keeps the heart healthy and cuts down on the risks of, well, practically any bad medical condition you can think of. It even improves sex.
Physical activity is so good for the body and mind, experts say it should be prescribed by doctors.
I wrote that story, so I should know better.
But as time went on, my fits and starts leaned into the fits. A sore back put an end to long runs by age 50. By 55, the true meaning of dumbells became apparent, as though any joint might decide at any moment not to participate in the charade. Shoulders, elbows and wrists started sending out little cautionary pain signals to force a scaling back of weight or a missed workout.
Reluctantly, after several years of doing the same things in the gym every workout, rarely doing them any more impressively, I listened to my body, stopped with the heavy weights, and added push-ups to my routine. They felt safer. I felt like an old loser.
Incorporating push-ups caused me to stumble on a new approach to exercise that totally changed how I think about fitness, one that continues to evolve whenever a body part refuses to cooperate, whenever motivation wanes or life circumstances change.
Here’s what happened: At some point, I realized I was doing more push-ups than ever before. I mean, we’re talking 20! OK, not Jack LaLanne stuff. But I set a goal of doing 100 in a single workout. I took several long breaks between sets, during which I’d do other exercises. Once I hit that mark, taking five or six sets to do it, I aimed to do 100 in four sets, then three. Before long, I was able to knock out 40 in a row. I’d like to say I bounded up off the mat in triumph, but to be honest, I flopped down on my chest, grinned, and rose slowly. Then I walked out of the gym feeling like I could do almost anything.
The numbers don’t matter. What matters is this was an exercise I’d never focused on before. I was able to set new, achievable and personally gratifying goals every few weeks.
I developed muscles I hadn’t seen in years. My whole being felt good. I couldn’t wait to taper, maybe take a day or two off, and see how many push-ups I could at max effort, one set.
That old indispensable exercise ally, motivation, was back.
Around that time, I found a study in JAMA Network Open that said firefighters who can do 40 or more pushups have a much lower risk of heart problems that firefighters who—ahem—can’t do 10. That spurred me on. Soon I did 50 in a row. No big deal for serious pusher-uppers, I’m sure, but monumentally satisfying for me, and better than some firefighters who are way younger.
So then I set a goal to do my age at the time: 56 pushups. It took a few weeks, but I got there. A few months later I turned 57 and eeked out that many.
Then Covid hit and the gym closed and it all fell apart.
In a few short months, my push-up max fell to around 40, and when I turned 58, I didn’t even try. My life-long exercise cycle was ebbing back toward sedentarism.
During the pandemic-induced plunge in my activity level, I kept thinking of Mike Harrington, an 80-year-old I’d met at the gym who got into powerlifting late in life and had recently taken up planking and set what appears to be an age-group world record of 10 minutes. The day we met, we talked about the lessons we’d both learned in life’s cycle of activity-inactivity: It doesn’t matter so much what activity you pick, or when you start, just do something, we agreed, and if it’s something that you haven’t done before, that’s all the better, because you can improve, how young or old you are, no matter what shape your body is in.
I wrote a story about Mike shortly after we met. He was a very late starter, not exercising at all until he was 69 years old.
Turns out science has actually shown that it’s never too late to get active and enjoy some of the health benefits. People who start exercising only after age 40 still see their risk of premature death go down, according to a study last year.
So a few weeks ago, on a day dominated by comfy interludes in various couches and chairs, exercise amounting to a little padding between each, I got a text from Mike letting me know he was keeping up with his workouts during the pandemic, getting ready for the next powerlifting state championships, whenever they might be held.
If a guy who has since turned 81 can stay fit…
So one day, I’m out for a walk (which, in my defense, is an excellent form of exercise, and I had resigned myself to doing a lot of it), and I spot a set of mailboxes in the distance, up a modest incline. I’d written earlier this year about high-intensity interval training — short bursts of effort that can last as little as a minute, leaving you unable to talk. HIIT, as it’s called, is very effective at whipping you into shape. The mailboxes beckoned, taunted.
I set the stopwatch on my iPhone and sprinted.
Don’t know the exact distance, don’t care. I ran gave it my all, like I was running from a marauding bobcat (we don’t have saber-tooth tigers in our neighborhood). I’d like to say I ran like the wind, but it was more like running in a dream, when the legs don’t quite do what you ask. Anyway, I eventually got to the mailboxes, lungs heaving. I raised my fists in the air, Rocky style (nobody was watching — I made sure) then walked back home and wrote down the time: 56 seconds. I immediately set a goal of doing it in 50.
The next few “training” runs were spicy, each after at least one day’s rest. One involved three sets to the mailbox at roughly 80% effort, walking back. Another involved a longer (but not too long) slow jog with three or four breathless, short dashes to, say, the next house. I made it up each day based on how I felt. Less than two weeks later, I did the mailbox in 50 seconds.
Sprinting, it turns out, flared up some hip pain I’ve been dealing with now and then. OK, so now even short-distance running if off the table. It was time to get creative.
There are many ways to do intense intervals: Stairs, stationary bikes or burpees are all worthy options, says Martin Gibala, a professor in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada and one of the world’s top HIIT researchers. I’ve interviewed Gibala a couple times. His research informed my short-lived mailbox experience, as well as how I approached the next new thing.
Somewhere during all this, my stuck-at-home 19-year-old son discovered a love for mountain biking.
So I cleared my bike of cobwebs, conned him into fixing my flats, and we did a couple short, local rides that practically killed me (though I was in a bit of shape from the mailbox intervals). After a few days of rest we headed to the mountains for some more serious rides, seriously practically killing me. Each burst of effort to try and catch my son was HIIT to the max, and then we put in miles and more miles, and — voila! — I’m getting in better shape while just having fun.
Now I mix mountain biking, walking and hiking with a few exercises that are easy to do at home, indoors or out, including crunches and curls (soup cans really do work — try 100 in a row with each arm), weight-free squats, half-ass pull-ups on a bar that hangs on a door frame (I start with elbows at 90 degrees, so I don’t injure my shoulders) and, of course, push-ups. My indoor sessions are really short and intense, just one or two sets of each exercise in a circuit, with no rest between one and the next. I’d rather be outdoors, and with all this variety, there’s no excuse for not doing something every day.
Science confirms the wisdom of variety: A study earlier this year found that people who do more types of exercise, from walking to pickleball to dancing— and yes, it all counts—spend more time exercising.
I can’t do 58 push-ups anymore, and running is finally, sadly, completely in my rearview mirror. Burpees? No way. I hate burpees. Meantime, I’m sharing a new intense physical activity with my son, and I’m having more fun with my “workouts” than I have in a long time. He just went back to college, a couple hours away up in the mountains, and my motivation is already waning a bit. I biked a lot when I was younger, and, you know, I’ll never again go as fast or as far. But I’m motivated to stay in shape now, so I can head up there and join him for a long ride, if it kills me.
Meantime, maybe I’ll take up planking and see if I can set a personal best. Shouldn’t be too difficult.