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Staying Fit In Your 40s

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Up until aged 20 I was a pretty lazy guy. Then one day a switch flipped in my head and everything changed. I started running and literally managed to run for about 30 seconds before collapsing, exhausted. That made me keep trying until I was able to comfortably run a marathon distance with a friend of mine a couple of years later, just for fun (although it turned out it was not fun). I also discovered mountain biking and particularly the slog of pedalling up long, steep hills. In my early 20s I felt like I could run all day long. I’d spend my weekends hiking and climbing the mountains of Scotland until ultimately I passed (and then a year later failed thanks to the flu) Royal Marine Officer selection. After that dream was over I got on with my life but always wanted to stay fit and active.

I started playing football and as a result cut down on the distance running as the two didn’t seem to mix well. Eventually I tore my knee ligaments and saw a physio afterwards where I learned that if I wanted to keep playing I needed to incorporate strength work into my routine rather than just turning up and playing. I had to train to be able to play or my knee would start causing me problems (welcome to getting older). I adapted, bought a Smith Machine and started doing weights to improve my general strength and it worked well for some years.

By my mid 30s the niggling injuries started piling up and I’d take days to recover from a game. I figured my time playing football was drawing to a close until a physio suggested I try yoga to improve my flexibility. This was a revelation and I wished I’d started years before – my movement improved, my recovery times reduced dramatically and the injuries went away.

Fast forward a few years and I discovered P90X with Tony Horton (pictured below). My new life of fitness began.

Tony Horton is an American personal fitness trainer who is best known for his P90X workout programs (along with several others) that you could initially buy on DVD but as technology moved on became available to stream on the Beach Body on Demand service. It’s the sort of thing if I’d read about – some annoying American fitness trainer guy – I’d not have been remotely interested in. Yet as soon as I started doing the P90X program I was hooked. His charm and humour along with doing the workouts with 3 people who show different modifications for each exercise made it fun and highly addictive.

I thought I was well above average in terms of fitness when I started but I suddenly felt like I had a long way to go – it was a new level of fitness I’d need to get to and I loved the journey. The program spans 90 days (hence the 90) and you do blocks of weeks with different workouts each day ranging from cardio to upper body to legs with weights and so on (lots of pull-ups and pushups too). Oh and yoga! They’re the kind of workouts you can do at home with bands or a few dumbbells or in a fully kitted out gym (watched on your phone over bluetooth headphones) and the results were quite dramatic to my fitness levels. There is structure and recovery built in that meant I felt like I was getting fitter and stronger every week and I was able to do many more pullups than I ever thought possible (among other things). I loved P90X. But it turns out I loved P90X2 even more. And this is the training program I’ve spent most of my time doing over the past few years.

Whereas P90X was a great way to get fit using a variety of different workouts, P90X2 is athletics training. If you’ve watched any documentaries of professional football teams like All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur then it’s exactly what they do. Rather than focussing on muscle building or cardio, it’s all about introducing instability into workouts so that you use your core. The simplest example is doing any standing exercise with dumbbells. Try doing arm curls or shoulder presses on one leg. Suddenly as well as the muscles you’re working you have to work much harder with the rest of your body to balance. You’ll have to reduce the weight for starters, but in time you’ll work a lot more than one muscle group.

Another example is pushups. Easy enough, but try doing it where each foot and hand is on a separate med ball that can move around independently. Suddenly your entire body comes into play to balance as well as do the actual pushup. It took me a LOT of practise to be any good at them.

P90X2 is full of such exercises using balance balls and med balls. There are gymnastics pull-up moves and some workouts I could barely do initially. The program is well designed in that each major muscle group gets a sufficient amount of rest between workouts, the warmups and cooldowns (including good use of foam rolling) meant I didn’t feel stiff and beaten up afterwards and always felt like I could give it my all pretty much every time.

The key words are: functional fitness. Rather than working one muscle group alone it recognises that in the real world every movement requires a collaboration of a group of muscles. The training focusses on improving that collaboration. If you want to run and quickly change direction (like when you’re playing football) then a lot of muscles combine to make that move, so it’s the complete movement that matters rather than an isolated one. You involve pretty much all the muscles in your body combined with a strong core – and I noticed week after week my movement on the football field was improving. There was no such thing as simply “leg day” – sure you’d have workouts more specific to the legs, but it was never just about working the legs and leaving the rest of your body alone – everything is connected. It was a different way to think about exercise but one that clearly works for elite athletes as well as guys like me in their mid-40s.

I stuck with it and when I got to the end of the program, despite supposedly being past my peak, I was the fittest I’d been in my life (although I still couldn’t do levers first time around). It was amazing! I’ve never exercised to look good, always to perform whether it be hiking, biking or footballing. But I was quite surprised how good my body looked. When I’m a really old man I will look back with pride for sure. Here’s the obligatory before and after photos (being Scottish I don’t ever have much of a suntan so apologies about that).

My girlfriend and I did P90X2 in a public gym and the people watching must have thought we were crazy with some of the things we were doing. But very few of the gym rats we saw would have been able to do what we were doing by the end – it’s high level athletics exercise and to be able to do it in our 40s made us feel very proud. We’ve continued doing rounds of P90X2 and it pushes you no matter how fit you are. It’s all thanks to Tony Horton. He literally changed our lives.

While my own fitness benefits have been clear to see (I’m still in the shape of my life), my girlfriend decided to change her career from being a business analyst to a personal trainer. She knocked down her garage, built a gym, did her personal trainer training and qualifications. She then started training clients remotely during lockdown and in person afterwards and hasn’t looked back! Here we are posing after a workout in her gym with Tony hovering on the screen above.

You can read all about her here. She’s fitter than I am and highly recommended!

Tony has done several other workout series (P90X3 I’ve done, although it was more aimed at the masses so wasn’t as challenging as P90X2) and recently he’s started his own venture – Power Nation Fitness. He’s built a new program based on his decades of experience along with hosting some other trainers workouts in the app. I’m 4 weeks into his Power of 4 programme and really enjoying it.

He’s 63 himself now yet is still in far better shape than I’ve ever been. While you can dye your hair, administer botox, lots of makeup and fake tan, the one thing you can’t fake is a lean, fit, muscular, flexible physique like Tony has. There’s no secret pill you can take or magic formula to make it happen. You’ve got to put the work in the right way, eat properly, recover and work on it all the time. You have to change your life and never go back. And as long as I can get breath in my lungs that’s what I’ll continue to do with Tony Horton’s workouts as my guide. As he often says: just do your best and forget the rest!