SWEAT WITH THE OLDIES

What can a young man take away from a week of work­outs with the over-60 set? We sent our 29-year-old fit­ness editor to find out

Men's Health (South Africa) - - NEWS - BY MICHAEL EASTER • PHO­TO­GRAPHS GIACOMO FROTUNATO

Want some work­out wis­dom? Ask the over-60 crowd

NNOON ON A THURS­DAY, MY NEW FRIEND Andy emails to ask if I want to join him and some pals at a lo­cal sports bar for din­ner. Sure, I re­ply, fig­ur­ing it’d be a chance to meet some of the guys from the new gym I just joined. Plus, it’s al­lyou-can-eat prime rib night. By 7:30pm, the five of us are sit­ting around a ta­ble de­vour­ing slabs of rare beef. Andy, I learn, is a fi­nan­cial guy. Art’s a re­tired urol­o­gist, Scott is from the den­tal in­dus­try, and John was an IT spe­cial­ist with a med­i­cal lab. They all look fit, es­pe­cially Art, who has the long, lean build of a Chad le Clos.

I ask Art what he does in the gym. “I don’t go to the gym much any­more,” he replies. “I own 4 hectares of land, and tak­ing care of that is my work­out.”

“You sure had a lot of ‘work­outs’ af­ter that win­ter storm back in 2000,” says John. “No, that’s not the right year,” Andy says. “Yes, it is,” John in­sists. Soon ev­ery­one is bick­er­ing and point­ing their forks to make points and try­ing to re­mem­ber the chronol­ogy. Th­ese four gen­tle­men, all over age 60, some re­tired, will be my men­tors for the week.

When my boss gave me the as­sign­ment to ditch my typ­i­cally in­tense, CrossFit-type rou­tine and start ex­er­cis­ing with old folks, I was per­plexed. What could I pos­si­bly learn from guys who can’t even re­mem­ber the last big bl­iz­zard?

“Would any­one like more prime rib?” asks the wait­ress.

“Yes, please,” says Scott. Un­be­liev­able, I think. Where do th­ese old guys put it?

But when another mas­sive strip of meat ar­rives, Scott takes two small bites and then asks for a take­away box. “I al­ways or­der an ex­tra one to share with my dog,” he says.

I wave down the wait­ress. Maybe there are a few things I can learn from th­ese guys.

1/ Be So­cial Once in a While

I meet Andy at Steel Fit­ness Pre­mier, a big­box gym at­tached to an or­thopaedic cen­tre. Andy – bald, mus­cu­lar, gold cross – is the mayor of the place. He’s shak­ing hands, say­ing hello, and catch­ing up with ev­ery­one.

Health club min­gling is a new ex­pe­ri­ence for me. Usu­ally when I’m at the gym, I ex­er­cise with head­phones and avoid eye con­tact.

But that’s not an op­tion when you’re with Andy. As we work out, he in­tro­duces me to Jay, an orthopaedist who sees me do­ing pull-ups and sug­gests I straighten my arm out in front of me, palm up, like I’m ask­ing for change, and with my other hand pull my fin­gers to­wards my body. That may help me avoid el­bow pain from im­bal­ances caused by do­ing too many reps, he says.

Next I meet a guy who’s do­ing a ket­tle­bell carry while hold­ing the ket­tle­bell bot­tom up. Do­ing that re­quires you to grip firmer and sta­bilises your shoul­der, he says.

Then Andy in­ter­rupts a 70-some­thing guy who’s ex­er­cis­ing harder than any­one else, do­ing moun­tain climbers at a sav­age pace. But the man is happy to take a break and share his se­cret to ex­er­cis­ing into old age – ba­si­cally, pick­ing ac­tiv­i­ties that feel good.

In other words, for­get about try­ing to mo­ti­vate your­self with work­outs you dread or do­ing ex­er­cises you hear are great but that don’t feel right. Just do what you en­joy.

Be­fore I re­alise it, 90 min­utes have passed. I’ve only ex­er­cised for a third of that time, but maybe the mayor is onto some­thing.

For one work­out a week, I might un­plug, for­get the clock, and ac­tu­ally talk to peo­ple. The friend­ships I form and the tips I hear might keep me com­ing back for the long haul. In fact, re­searchers in Brazil found that peo­ple who in­ter­act with oth­ers dur­ing ex­er­cise are more likely to stick with it.

“Hey,” says Andy as we’re leav­ing the gym. “You want to grab a burger?”

2/ Don’t Make it Rocket Sci­ence

I’m the kind of guy who plans and re­searches ev­ery lit­tle thing and can over­com­pli­cate a trip to Spar for a gal­lon of milk. And since I’m in the busi­ness, that ten­dency ap­plies to my ex­er­cise. I once spent more time plan­ning a work­out than do­ing the work­out.

Andy is telling me about his all-time favourite sta­tion­ary bike rou­tine. “I pedal hard for a bit, then rest for a bit,” he says, “and I keep do­ing that for 30, 45 or even 60 min­utes.” I stare blankly. “Yeah, like in­ter­vals,” I say. “I’ve been do­ing that work­out for 35 years,” he says, “and I’ve al­ways called it ‘ex­er­cise.’ ”

Point taken. At the end of the day, it’s all just “ex­er­cise.” 3/ Train to Live, but Live

One day Andy was early, as al­ways, for the in­door cy­cling class, warm­ing up on his usual bike, when in walked this new woman who started pitch­ing a fit be­cause there weren’t any bikes left.

If it were me, I’d have avoided her gaze and stayed put. The idea of con­ced­ing a sched­uled work­out to some­one who came late is un­think­able, right? So I was sur­prised to hear what Andy did.

“I gave her my bike,” he says. “I fig­ured, I take this class 300 times a year. I’ll be okay if I only take it 299 times.”

Last year I flew home to spend Thanks­giv­ing with my mom. That day I did burpees alone in the garage. My time with her is lim­ited. In ret­ro­spect, I re­alise that it was one hour we could have spent re­con­nect­ing. This Thanks­giv­ing, that won’t hap­pen.

4/ Use Your Strength My ap­proach to fit­ness aligns with what’s pop­u­lar in the in­dus­try to­day – harder is bet­ter and im­prove­ment re­quires suf­fer­ing. If this phi­los­o­phy were a bumper sticker, it would

read, “The harder the work­out, the harder the man.” No pain, no gain.

Then I meet Clair. He’s 92 and goes to Steel Fit­ness Pre­mier ev­ery day. Back in World War II he was drafted into the mil­i­tary, and as a para­trooper he would jump out of planes to fight the en­emy on the ground in Europe.

The idea of a gym work­out caus­ing “suf­fer­ing” sud­denly seems al­most com­i­cal, and I start to feel about as tough as an over­ripe ba­nana. Ex­er­cise can be un­com­fort­able, sure. It needs to be work. But my in­ter­pre­ta­tion of suf­fer­ing – quickly pick­ing up heavy stuff in a tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled build­ing in the sub­urbs – is any­thing but.

In fact, this smil­ing old man makes me won­der why I’m re­ally ex­er­cis­ing so hard. In to­day’s com­fort­able so­ci­ety (no small thanks to Clair and his army col­leagues), do tough work­outs ful­fill some ex­is­ten­tial need that men have to prove they’re re­ally men?

I men­tion this to my friend, David Jack, a MH fit­ness con­sul­tant. “If you want to be tough like Clair, you can still ex­er­cise hard, but don’t leave your strength in the squat rack,” he says. “There are prob­a­bly 100 peo­ple within a 10km ra­dius of your gym who need the phys­i­cal strength you have. Do some good in the world. Look for some vol­un­teer op­por­tu­ni­ties to help them.”

Build strength not just for strength’s sake, but to serve. New bumper sticker?

5/ Be Mind­ful of the Im­por­tance of Be­ing Mind­less John used to take 13 in­door cy­cling classes a week – 676 a year – un­til the gym cut its sched­ule back. I ini­tially think this is in­sane. So when he in­vites me to join him for a class, I hes­i­tate. Un­der­stand that I use car­dio ma­chines pri­mar­ily to warm up for and oc­ca­sion­ally cool down from weight work­outs, and I’ve never spent more than 30 min­utes on one. So I don’t know what to ex­pect. John, who looks like an age­ing hip­pie with his white beard and spec­ta­cles, doesn’t help by con­fess­ing that he lis­tens to rare live Jef­fer­son Air­plane record­ings to help fight the bore­dom. I think of one of the few Jef­fer­son Air­plane lyrics I know: “...and all the joy within you... dies!”

But it’s not as bad as I ex­pect. In fact, it’s more than just heart-boost­ing car­dio. It’s head­calm­ing meditation. As I pedal, I fo­cus on my breath­ing and turn in­ward, brain­storm­ing my ca­reer and trou­bleshoot­ing my life, even­tu­ally just los­ing my­self in the sweat and the cy­cling. It’s been a long time since I sat with my thoughts for 60 un­in­ter­rupted min­utes. Most of my work­outs are so fo­cused that it’s a wel­come change to just zone out. And the ben­e­fits are tan­gi­ble: a study from Fin­land sug­gests that long car­dio work­outs ac­tu­ally im­prove brain health more than high-in­ten­sity in­ter­vals do.

6/ Warm Up Your Body – and Mind I’m at the gym wait­ing to meet one of the guys. To kill time I hop on an el­lip­ti­cal and turn on the TV. Next to me is Bob Barker’s dop­pel­gänger – a slen­der, gold-skinned, white-haired, ve­neered gen­tle­man. He’s work­ing the stair climber at a fast-but-com­fort­able pace while flip­ping through a book.

“What are you read­ing?” I ask, re­mem­ber­ing Old Guy Les­son #1.

“The Winds of War,” he says. “It’s a novel about World War II, but it’s his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate, so you learn a lot.” I tell him that the Sec­ond World War fas­ci­nates me, and I’ll be sure to read the book.

He lifts his bushy eye­brows and glares at the TV screen on my ma­chine. It’s tuned to Dog the Bounty Hunter, cour­tesy of the last per­son who used it. Dog is tas­ing some­one who ap­pears to be a meth head.

Bob closes his book and heads for another ma­chine, but he leaves me think­ing. I have a bad habit of blast­ing through my car­dio warmup. Read­ing a novel or the day’s news would not only stretch my mind but also en­sure that I don’t go over­board: if at any point I have trou­ble read­ing, I’ll know my warmup is be­com­ing too in­tense. And read­ing reg­u­larly keeps you men­tally fit, of course.

7/ Know that PRs Aren’t the Only Barom­e­ter of Im­prove­ment I’m soak­ing in the gym’s hot tub with Andy and three of the other guys af­ter a work­out. They’re de­lighted to have a fresh ad­di­tion to their old­man soup. Me? I’m wish­ing I’d worn a wet­suit.

When it comes to fit­ness, I’ve al­ways be­lieved that con­tin­u­ally mov­ing the dial for­ward is the key to im­prove­ment, and I say so.

“But here’s what’s wrong with that,” says Andy. “Let’s say your goal is to lift 90kg. So you work re­ally hard and even­tu­ally reach your goal. Where do you go from there? You try for 100, then 120, but you can’t keep do­ing that for­ever.” Your quest for more, more, more will even­tu­ally lead to in­jury. “And once you’re hurt, you have to sit out, and you end up in worse shape than if you’d just stuck to that 90kg weight.”

Why is Andy so sure of this? He’s been there, and he’s seen it in old friends who’ve spent time at the weight rack. In fact, he’s in this hot tub to make sure he re­cov­ers ad­e­quately. You can bounce back when you’re young, he says, but even­tu­ally you reach an age when the in­juries stick and af­fect your long-term qual­ity of life.

I stew on this awhile. I have no rea­son to push the en­ve­lope other than my ego and the up­ward curve on an Ex­cel chart. Maybe there’s a les­son here too: when do­ing in­her­ently risky ex­er­cises, such as dead­lifts, maybe I should start valu­ing per­fec­tion over pounds. In­stead of judg­ing im­prove­ment by weight, per­haps I should gauge it by form, move­ment, and tempo. Af­ter all, who’s fit­ter? The guy who can lift 120kg un­til he tries for 130 and shat­ters, or the guy who can lift 90 un­til the day he dies?

8/ Stay Fit, Stay Young Af­ter spend­ing hours hang­ing out at the gym with th­ese gen­tle­men, I’m shocked at how they seemed to “de-age” be­fore my eyes. What I per­ceived as old just a week ago no longer holds. Andy, Scott, Art, John, Clair, Bob Barker, and their fel­low gym geezers move well and live with vi­tal­ity.

Then it oc­curs to me:tThey aren’t the same breed of se­niors I see shuf­fling into the diner for 4:30pm din­ners, or the ones camped in front of casino slots with oxy­gen tanks on their mo­torised chairs. Th­ese guys are en­joy­ing the ben­e­fits of decades of healthy liv­ing, hav­ing watched their di­ets, con­trolled their weight and, most im­por­tant, stayed ac­tive.

Sud­denly, “old” doesn’t seem so age-spot­ted and off-putting to me. Ex­er­cise – no, smart ex­er­cise – cre­ates a new type of age­ing, and in 40 more years I wouldn’t mind be­ing just like th­ese guys.

Andy (left) and John taught me the truth: It’s not in­door cy­cling. It’s meditation.

OLD-MAN SOUP FOR THE SOUL Cook­ing in the gym’s hot tub was a chance to re­cover and soak up some wis­dom.

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