Giacomo Fortunato A 29-year-old fitness editor trained with a group of men over 60 for a week to get some experience. Here are eight lessons from senior citizen fitness plans.
My new friend Andy emails me at noon on Thursday to ask if I want to join him and some pals for lunch at a local sports bar. Sure, I answer, thinking that it would be an opportunity to meet some of the guys from the new gym that I just joined. Moreover, the prime rib night is all-you-can-eat.
By 7:30 we're five sitting around a table devouring rare beef slabs. Andy, I'm learning, he's a businessman. Art is a retired urologist, Scott is from the dental sector, and with a medical laboratory, John was an IT specialist. They all look fit, particularly Art, who has a Michael Phelps' lengthy, lean construction.
I'm asking Art what he's doing at the gym. "I'm no longer going to the gym a lot," he answers. "I own 10 acres of territory, taking care of that's my exercise." "After that winter storm back in 2000, you sure had a lot of workouts," John says.
"No, this is not the right year," tells Andy. "Sure," insists John. Everybody will soon bicker and point their forks to create points and try to remember the chronology. These four gentlemen are going to be my mentors for the week, all over the age of 60, some retired.
I was perplexed when my boss gave me the task of ditching my typically intense CrossFit-type routine and starting to practice with old folks. What could the world's most extensive men's magazine's fitness editor possibly learn from guys who can't even remember the last massive blizzard?
"Is anyone interested in more prime rib?" The waitress asks.
"Please, yes," Scott suggests. I believe it's incredible. Where are the old guys putting it?
But when another huge meat strip comes, Scott takes two tiny bites and asks for a to-go box afterward. "I always order an extra one to divide with my dog," he says.
I've been signaling the waitress. Perhaps from these boys, there are a few things I can learn.
1. Be Social Once And Again
I meet Andy at Steel Fitness Premier, an orthopedic center connected large-box gym. Andy— bald, muscular, cross of gold— is the place's mayor. He shakes his hands, says hello, and catches everyone up.
For me, mixing the health club is a fresh experience. I usually practice with headphones when I'm in the gym and prevent eye contact.
But when you're with Andy, this isn't an option. He presents me to Jay, an orthopedist who sees me pull-ups and indicates that I bend my arm before me, pull up my palm as I ask for change, and pick my fingers to my body. That can help me prevent elbow pain caused by too many reps, he claims.
Next, I meet a man carrying a kettlebell while holding the bottom of the kettlebell. This needs you to grip your shoulder more firmly and stabilize it, he suggests.
Then Andy interrupts a 70-something man who exercises harder than anyone else, doing a wild pace of mountain climbers. But the guy is pleased to take a break and share his secret of practicing in old age — in essence, picking up activities that feel nice. In other words, forget to try to motivate yourself with workouts that you're afraid of or doing exercises that you're hearing are great but don't feel right.
It's been 90 minutes before I recognize it. I've only been practicing for a third of that moment, but perhaps the mayor's on something.
I could unplug, forget the clock, and speak to people for one exercise a week. The friendships that I am making and the advice that I hear may keep me coming home for the long haul. In reality, Brazilian scientists discovered that people who communicate during practice with others are more likely to stick to it. "Hey," Andy says as we leave the gym. "Would you like to grab a burger?"
2. Don't Make It Rocket Science
I'm the kind of man who's planning and researching every little thing and can make a 7-Eleven journey for a gallon of milk overcomplicated. And this inclination refers to my practice since I'm in the company. I've been planning a workout once more than doing the exercise.
Andy is telling me about his full-time favorite stationary bike routine. "I'm pedaling hard for a little bit, then rest a little," he says, "and I'm still doing it for 30, 45, or 60 minutes."
I stare at him blankly.
"Yes, I like intervals," I say.
"Since 35 years I've been doing this workout," he says, "and I've always called it ' exercise. '" It's all just "exercise" at the end of the day.
3. Train to Live
One day, as always, Andy was warming up on his usual bicycle for the indoor cycling class when this new woman who began to pitch a fit went in because no bikes were left.
I would have prevented her gaze if it were me and remained put. The concept of granting someone who arrived late a planned exercise is as impossible as JFK telling Khrushchev, "What do you understand? Take from Florida.
So I was shocked to hear what Andy did.
"I gave her my motorcycle," he claims. "I thought, 300 times a year I'm taking this class. I'm going to be all right if I take it 299 times. "I went back to spend Thanksgiving with my mother last year. I made burpees in the garage alone that day. My time is restricted to her. I understand in retrospect that we could have spent an hour reconnecting. That's not going to occur this Thanksgiving.
4. Use Your Energy
My fitness strategy aligns with today's industry's popularity — harder is better, and enhancement involves suffering. If it were a bumper sticker, this philosophy would read, "The harder the workout, the harder the man." No pain, no gain.
Then I come across Clair. He is 92 years old, and every day he goes to Steel Fitness Premier. He was drafted into the army back in WorldWar II, and as a parachutist, he would jump off aircraft to battle the enemy on Europe's battlefield.
The concept of a gym exercise that causes "pain" suddenly seems almost comical, and I'm beginning to feel as hard as an overripe banana. Exercise can certainly be awkward. It has to be a job. But my understanding of suffering— picking up heavy things quickly in a temperature-controlled building next to a Wendy's — is nothing.
This smiling older man makes me wonder why I'm doing such hard work. In today's healthy society (thanks to Clair and his peers in the army), do hard workouts fulfill some existential need for people to demonstrate that they are real people?
I'm talking about this to my friend David Jack, MH fitness advisor. "You can still exercise hard if you want to be tough like Clair, but don't leave your power in the squat rack," he suggests. "Probably within a 5-mile radius of your gym, there are 100 people who need the physical strength you have. Do some good in the world.
Build strength not only for the sake of strength but for serving. Newsticker for the bumper?
5. Be Careful of the Importance of Being Foolish
Ohn used to take 13 classes of indoor cycling a week—676 a year— until the gym cut back on its schedule. I think it's crazy at first. So I hesitate when he invites me to join him in a class. Understand that I primarily use cardio machines to warm up from weight workouts and occasionally cool down, and I have never spent more than 30 minutes on one. So I'm not sure what to demand.
John looks like an aging hippie with his white beard and spectacles, doesn't help by confessing to listening to rare live recordings from Jefferson Airplane to help fight the boredom. I'm thinking of one of the few lyrics I know about JeffersonAirplane: "... and all the joy in you ... dies!"
But this isn't as bad as I'm expecting. It's more than just cardio that boosts your heart. It's a meditation that calms the head. As I pedal, I concentrate on my breathing and turn inward, brain-storming my career, and troubleshooting my life, ultimately losing myself in sweat and cycling. Most of my exercises are so concentrated that zoning out is a welcome change. And the benefits are tangible: a Finnish study suggests that more than high-intensity intervals, long cardio workouts actually improve brain health.
6. Warm Up Your Body—and Mind
I'm waiting for one of the guys to meet in the gym. I hop on an elliptical to kill time and turn on the television. Next to me is the doppelgänger of Bob Barker — a slender, gold-skinned, veneered, white-haired gentleman. While flipping through a book, he works the stair climber at a fast but comfortable pace.
"What are you reading?" I ask, remembering Old Guy Lesson #1.
"The war winds," he says. "It's a World War II novel, but it's historically accurate, so you're learning a lot." I'm telling him that I'm fascinated by the Second World War, and I'm going to read the book for sure.
At the TV screen on my machine, he lifts his bushy eyebrows and glares. Dog, the Bounty Hunter, is tuned, courtesy of the last person who used it. Dog tastes someone who seems like a meth head.
Bob closes his book and heads for a different machine, but he leaves me to think. By my cardio warmup, I have a terrible habit of blasting. Reading a novel or the news of the day would not only stretch my mind but also make sure I don't go overboard: if I have trouble reading at any point, I'll know that my warmup becomes too intense. And learning books, of course, keep you mentally fit.
7. Knowing that personal records are not the essential measure
After a workout, I'm steep in the gym hot tub with Andy and three of the other guys. They are delighted to have their old-man soup freshly added. Me? I want to wear a wetsuit.
I have always believed that moving the dial forward continuously is the key to improvement when it comes to fitness, and I say so.
"But this is what's wrong with it," Andy says. "Let's say your purpose is to lift 200 pounds, so you're working hard and eventually reaching your goal. Where do you go from there? Try 210, then 220, but you can't keep doing that forever." Your quest for more, more, will ultimately result in injury. "You have to sit out once you're hurt, and you end up in worse shape than if you just stuck to that 200-pound weight."
Why is Andy so confident about this? He was there, and in old friends who spent time on the weight rack, he saw it. In fact, to make sure he recovers adequately, he's in this hot tub. You can jump back when you're young, he says, but when the injuries stick and affect your quality of life over the long term, you eventually reach an age.
I've been stepping on for a while. I have no reason other than my ego and the upward curve on an Excel chart to push the envelope. Maybe there's also a lesson here: Perhaps I should start valuing perfection over pounds when doing inherently risky exercises, such as deadlifts. Instead of judging weight improvement, I may need to look at it by shape, movement, and tempo. Who is fitter after all? The man who can lift 250 pounds or the man who can lift 200 pounds until the day he dies?
8. Stay Strong, Stay Young
I'm amazed at how they seemed to "de-age" before my eyes after spending hours hanging out at the gym with these guys. It no longer retains what I viewed as ancient just a week ago. Andy, Scott, Art, John, Clair, Bob Barker, and their fellow gymnastics enthusiasts improve well and live with vitality.
Then it happens to me: they are not the same race of seniors I see shuffling into the diner for 4:30 dinners, or those camped on their motorized chairs in front of casino slots with oxygen tanks. These people enjoy the advantages of decades of healthy living, watching their diets, controlling their weight, and remaining active, most importantly.
Suddenly, I don't think that "old" is so age-spotted and off-putting. Exercise — no, smart exercise — creates a new kind of aging, and I wouldn't mind just being like these boys in 40 more years.