“One-third down; Two-thirds to go,” I say. People kept asking how I felt about the upcoming birthday. My dad was 50 years old when I was born; so I guess I feel like I can finally get started on life in only 10 more years. My life plan once marked very specific financial, athletic, and professional points/life achievements AFTER which (presumably it would’ve been around 40) I planned to start having kids. Since I totally mixed up the order, the number no longer means anything to me. I never subscribed to the insane notion that fitness is gifted to the immature and stolen from the mature. Moreover, what I’ve observed in nearly 2 decades of my professional journey in the fitness industry is the precise opposite. I once had a co-worker who daily reminded everyone that we who work in the industry see this evidence all the time: compare a couple dozen dedicated gym-goers in their 40s against a couple dozen in their 20s; and the data sample speaks for itself. If I remember correctly, his exact words were, “the ones you have to WATCH OUT FOR are in their 40s and 50s.”
There are good reasons for this which have to do with trial-and-error, risk, wisdom, application of effort, and averages. There are 4 specific domains in which health and fitness is a lot easier after 40. It’s true that there are some factors which can make it more difficult; but most of those don’t make for good tactics anyway. I’m talking sustainable wellness here:
Everything we want in fitness comes down to IGF or Insulin-like Growth Factor-1. Fat loss. Lean tissue management. It’s IGF. What we think of as "aging" or "loss of ability" is, by definition, accumulated damage concurrent with a diminution of IGF. People like to lay the blame on sex hormones; but that’s very misleading. Testosterone only peripherally affects on-site muscle IGF potential through hepatic signaling. Resistance training is what actually does the trick. It is true that IGF circulating levels tend to decrease over time. But this says very little about how much gets into tissue. Intense muscle contraction gets IGF into lean tissue. And that strength training which accomplishes this doesn’t take much time at all, although it is proven to improve circulating IGF levels by an AVERAGE of 20%: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11283443/. Again, this is the measurement in the blood, which matters less. What actually gets into skeletal muscle tissue is all we really care about; and it is a dramatic uptick from intense training. In fact, in older adults, THE ONLY behavior we know that affects this hormonal axis is intense training for short periods of time: https://www.tandfonline.com/.../10.../13685538.2016.1260108. I'm not even telling you anything you don't know. Take a perfectly healthy and super virile but sedentary slobbish 18 year old male and pit him against a 50 year old woman who has been training sprints and brief heavy weight lifting most days for the past 10 years. You know exactly what is going to happen in a foot race, in any physical feat, in any measure of athletic prowess. IGF doesn't magically shuttle itself into muscle and connective tissue by being young and lazy/untrained. This is just scientific fact. It's biological law.
People waste a lot of time. Generally, IF people have learned anything from their time on earth, it’s to waste less. And you can see this in any subject. Almost every statistic skews harshly toward 40s, 50s and 60s when we’re talking about building wealth, businesses, and so on. Building athletic capability isn't some fantasy outlier. There’s this lingering lie that age robs us of physical capability; but that isn’t bolstered by science so much as anecdote from the time that’s wasted getting injured or NOT investing in wellness. People who consistently invest get returns. Period.
The reality is that most people are wrapping school, launching careers and families, and generally terrible at time management in their 20s and 30s. It’s not to say that all of that evaporates magically on the 40th birthday. It’s just that people should have a much better idea of what they will consistently do every week by their 40s.
Thus, people are more ready to deal with being in shape in a manner which continues to build year over year. The “on again, off again” schedule which never really worked for most people anyway has died out; and a much more even-handed consistency can take its place. The moderate and low-intensity exercise which exerts no change on the body in older adults becomes more obviously useless. The consistency and progression in intensity is all that ever mattered for skill development and investing. People begin to understand this more palpably when they’ve had enough time to LOSE abilities through complacency and “I’ll get around to it later” thinking. It takes most people some aging to realize that nothing gets around to itself later; and nothing is improved through neglect.
It might’ve seemed to make sense around 25 that you’ll spend precious hours every day exercising. Most people didn’t, and now they see the perfect plan was the enemy of the good lifestyle. Even among those of us who did spend countless hours working out, we tend to have moved on to more valuable life experiences, and probably ones which manage stress better. For us, workouts are a fixture BECAUSE they accompany proper time management, not because they are a temporary mania. We’re simply not going to waste a lot of time on workouts; but we’ll do them consistently and in a manner where the intensity progresses.
Tying into the first reason fitness gets easier after 40, there is this second one: regular exercisers know what works and what doesn’t by this point. I’ve basically spent the past 17 years figuring out how LITTLE to exercise. Most of my experiments have to do with putting in the LEAST in order to yield the MOST. Anathema to my peers, I purposely relegated myself to no more than 90 minutes of exercise per week from January 2013 until July 2013 to see just how fit a person can be with limited investment.
Five years after that, I dropped the number to 27 minutes per week for 5 months. Even now, I perform less than 150 minutes of overt exercise on a high week. And that’s all I want. Because of this, for me anyway, being in shape will be even easier in my 50s. One, I will have gained 10 more years of skill and investment aggregated. And two, when my kids are 10 years older, I’ll have more time to fill with something for myself; and some of that is probably going to go to fitness, as long as it doesn’t lower the intensity.
You see: all that matters to me is figuring out how regular people will live their optimal lives. So I run experiments from which average people can learn. Efficiency always scales. You know what doesn’t scale? Being 20-something and working out 3 times per day to get on a magazine cover. Giving up vast amounts of family time doesn’t scale. I mean, that’s cool and all that people sacrifice relationships and depth of character to add a few reps. But that has ZERO application to basically everyone. Maybe 1 percent of 1 percent of the populace cares about executing an exercise program which places all of life on the back burner.
By 40, a lot of people get this. They know they need to do something to at least lower their risks of all-cause-mortality OR at a bare minimum be capable of crouching down for their grandkids in a few decades from now. And they realize that’s ALL they need to do. Something. So they actually do it. Efficiency means follow-through. The primary roadblock to getting in shape is a false belief that you have to spend more time on it than you will actually spend. People mostly haven’t learned efficiency before 40. Some never do. But if they will, it will usually be around this age.
Pacing Work Ethic
The tortoise and the hare. Tied into efficiency is the long-run on consistency. Some people call all of this “train smarter.” And that’s fair. I just happen to think about it more like pacing while working smarter - a grown-up version of "work harder." No one, including yourself, cares if you work so hard that you break and have to take big steps back. To that point, I don’t get injured anymore. I don’t get hurt. I don’t ache. I place a lot of my self-care around pacing and a different type of work ethic. I had chronic pain from 17 to 27. I still logged a couple significant injuries requiring time off of exercise in my mid-30s. In the past 3 years, ZERO injury AND a number of lifelong personal bests on lifts. I fully anticipate this trend to hold for another 3-4 decades.
This isn’t delusional. Dr. Fred Hatfield didn’t set the squat world record at 1,014lbs (460 kilos) UNTIL he was 45. This may come as a shocker to people who don’t work in the fitness industry, but the absolute best outcomes among regular serious exercisers at gyms is well over 40. Mark Sisson has as good or better of a build at 67 years old than he did in his 20s. The reader must also understand that Sisson was training over 30 hours per week in his 20s and now does a short 13-40 minute routine every few days. He was around the 2:18 marathon time back then. Now, he just lifts or sprints. When asked about why he doesn't do any lengthy training or long distance runs anymore, his answer is, "what's the point?" Compare his build now at almost 70 years old to when he was training 30 hours of running in his 20s, and there's a good chance that you too will say the same thing about long duration exercise.
Honesty with Self
How can a young person keep her word about the future? Even to herself? She doesn’t have any context for follow-through. Only with age can we understand best how to be honest about the future. And as we learn this, it keeps getting easier to make larger goals and achieve them. As a youth, we can’t skillfully account for the forthcoming challenges which will thwart our word. I argue young people lack the ability to be honest with themselves about what they will do, because they don’t understand enough about consequences.
Look no further than what the stats are on New Year’s Resolutions and goal-setting, and you quickly discover there is large disconnect between what people tell themselves they will do and what they actually do. Only time and paying attention rectify this. With time we have the opportunity to be honest with ourselves.
Younger people are especially vulnerable to this problem, as they simply don’t have the experience to properly wager risks and benefits. For a kid, everything seems riskless until he breaks an arm, bruises his face, cracks a kneecap. When kids assess benefit, they simply can't wrap their heads around working hard at something for a longer period than they've even been alive. Kids have this magical expectation of reward without slaving for it. Adults ought to know better. By theirs 30s, many do.
Honesty with oneself makes everything easier. A lot easier. It’s not to say many people don’t continue being dishonest with themselves after 40. It’s just less likely. And so the success rate goes up. As the rate goes up, the positive reinforcement improves. As the positive reinforcement improves, buy-in continues, and follow-through on your word gets easier and easier and easier.
Blended into the honesty issue is a popular lie people tell themselves that they “get away” with a whole litany of foolish choices because of youth. No one ever “got away” with anything. They just transferred the balance payment to their future selves. When the future self arrives, payments are due. Eventually the bill comes due. It always comes due.
A mature person - and only a mature person - can handle this. It is the physiological stewardship equivalent of basic financial literacy. Clear your balance (reduce or remove counterproductive food choices). Stop predatory interest (eliminate sedentary behaviors). Get your house in order (prioritize health and wellness). And focus on building the retirement savings (regular progressive strength training).
I don’t actually see how any youth COULD be capable of going toe-to-toe on this with someone more mature. It gets a lot easier to be in shape after 40.