Journey to Fitness: Stories of Progress, Challenges, and Triumphs.

Meet John, a client of mine retired at sixty-five. At his checkup, just before he stopped working, John was a hundred pounds overweight. He had dangerously high cholesterol, high blood pressure, low energy, and he was eating mountains of garbage. John was under a lot of stress at work and at home, and he was sick with anxiety about retirement, even though he was not mad for his job. He was in dreadful shape and he was depressed. In other words, he was like a lot of men of his age and station in life. Not typical, maybe, but damn close.

John and his wife were moving to Malindi and got a place a block from the beach. I was worried about him and started talking about exercise. John wasn’t having it. No, he said almost angrily, he was not an athlete, never had been one and had no plans to start now. “Fine, but there’s a good chance you will die soon if you don’t do something.” I said to him. John thought that one over and reluctantly agreed to walk on the beach once a day, six days a week, for a while.

He Gave it a shot.

On the first day, John walked about four hundred meters. More like one lap around a football field, and felt pretty good. The next morning, he felt as if he’d been hit by a truck. Everything ached, and he could barely get out of bed. But here’s the thing. He showed up the next day. Struggled out of bed, God bless him, took a couple of painkillers and went to the beach again. He walked about a half of a kilometer this time and went home exhausted. The next day, he did the same thing. And for several days thereafter. Soon he was walking a couple of meters; then more. He would run out of breath, but every day he got up and did his thing. In a few months, he was comfortably walking a Kilometer in that soft sand, and he was feeling significantly better.

Start slow. Slower than feels good. But hold at that level only until you get your feet under you.

He Feels Great Today.

He had better energy, took more interest in decent food and felt more enthusiastic and optimistic about starting life over down there in Malindi. The daily dose of walking was working its magic. A year later, John returned to Nairobi to see me for his annual checkup. He reported that he was walking five Kilometers a day on the beach, seven days a week. He had lost sixty pounds. His cholesterol and blood pressure were within normal ranges, and he looked ten years younger. He felt great. He feels great today.

Don’t feel like an idiot if you can barely stay on the treadmill for fifteen minutes at low speed the first day. It is not struggling on the first day or the thirtieth or sixtieth that’s going to work. It’s showing up every day and doing something. Do something every day for a week, and at week’s end you’ll be doing twenty minutes. Or thirty. Whatever. Push yourself a little. Don’t push yourself over the edge if you want to stay young. Before too long, you should get up to doing forty-five minutes a day of aerobic exercise.

Coach Phil.

The Master Athlete.

At the other end of the spectrum, consider my patient Angela, a serious endurance athlete who had hiked, done marathons and triathlons competitively. Alphonso, Angie’s husband was a serious athlete, too, and they had won a number of events together. Despite this history, their path had gotten bumpy by the time Angela reached sixty, and she questioned whether she should continue her endurance training. My answer was a resounding yes, and she went for it with renewed vigor and determination.

She questioned whether she should continue her endurance training.

A Structured Exercise Program.

For her, that meant a carefully structured exercise program, focused on a series of Masters marathon races, which had her doing an average of two hours a day of heavy aerobics or strength training. And it worked fine. At sixty-one, Angie came in fourth in her latest event, and she continues to train and race. She is one of the fittest women her age in the whole country. This article is not designed for the likes of Angela, but keep her in mind when you worry that maybe you’re doing too much. You’ve probably got a little room yet, before you catch up with her.

Is Exercise a cure for all?

Incidentally, it may be worth noting that Angela had had some serious illnesses in her fifties, despite the fact that she’d been a big exercise guy all her life. You may ask, how come? How come someone like that gets sick if exercise is such a cure-all? The answer is that there is a randomness to disease and death, just as there is a randomness to life. There’s genetics, which matters much less than people think, but still matters some. And then there’s bad luck.

But the point is, following a proper exercise regimen enormously improves the chances of good health and a great life. I mean improves them by 70 percent. You don’t get a guarantee—you still have a shot at picking up a fatal case of this or that—but 70 percent is not too shabby. There is not a pill or a course of treatment in all of medicine that comes anywhere near that.

Younger Next Year-Chris Crowley.

The Guy Who Loved to Bike.

Find Something You can Do.

When I first talked to Phil, I was in much better shape than John, in better shape than most of Phil’s clients, but not on the same planet with real athletes like Angela. In response to Phil’s urging, I took up spinning, which means joining a class of twenty to thirty people working out on stationary bikes to the accompaniment of music and the exhortations of a leader. I already liked to bike, and I had heard spinning was great exercise. Also, if I was going to follow Phil’s rules, I had to find something I could do every day in a manageable chunk of time.

The point of all this is that there is a range of approaches to aerobics.

Join A Group Class.

I thought spinning might be it. So here I go. I am at the gym. I have signed up for a year at shocking cost, and I have gotten the spin class schedule. It’s six-thirty in the morning, and I am feeling very, very shy. Because I am very old, I am forty pounds overweight and I do not look becoming in my biking costume. The instructor, an alarmingly pretty woman with a slight accent, sees me looking helpless; she comes over to my bike and shows me what to do. The bike has a huge flywheel in front with a brake-like thing that can make it easier or harder to pedal. It’s hard to get it started and really hard to slow it down. I feel as if I could wreck my ankle if I got off wrong. Maybe break a leg.

Don’t be Intimidated.

The room fills with beautiful creatures in their twenties and thirties. One or two seniors, but no one as old as I am. The music starts . . . a song with a heavy, compulsive beat. The instructor has a mike, and she starts telling us how to pedal . . . how fast and with how much resistance. My hearing has gone to hell, but I follow as best I can. Speed up, slow down. Tighten or ease the resistance with a knob on the frame. I do not fall off, but I feel as if I could. And I do not break my leg trying to slow the damn flywheel, but I know I could do that. “Out of the saddle!” the instructor shouts, and everyone stands up, pumping like crazy. “Resistance!” she shouts, and everyone takes a turn to the right on the resistance knob. My quadriceps, which I thought were strong, start to scream. How many seconds can this go on? Actually, it goes on for about three minutes, but I don’t.

Stay Until The End.

Did I mention that the walls are all mirrors? Well, they are, and I have just caught sight of my own face. I am so frightened that I sit down. (The instructors often urge novices not to stand for long.) My face is purple, a bad purple, and I am sweating in a way that suggests the onset of serious illness, not good health. After that, I only do some of the things the instructor says to do. But I hang, man. I stay there until the end, all forty-five minutes of it. There are stretching exercises when it’s finally over. My color is still peculiar. As I staggered out of the room at the end, the instructor comes up and says, “Nice going. First time?” “How could you tell?” I give her a smile. She just nods and says again, “Nice going.” I stumble home, bathe and go to bed. It is now 7:45 A.M., and my day is over.

It is good that I’m retired; I could not go to work like this. Okay, spinning was a bit intense, but the beauty of it—for a person of my ridiculous temperament—is that it caught my attention. It was hard. It was interesting. It was a challenge. And, with a touch of dread, I went back the next day. And every day for a long time after that. I’ve been doing it for years now, and I still get a kick out of it. And I’m in very, very good shape, at least for a guy who loves to eat and drink and is congenitally unathletic.

Client Anonymous.

Do What is Heavy for You.

I sometimes feel guilty for not doing more, but from Phil’s more rational perspective, I am one of the success stories. He says I’ve probably achieved about 70 percent of my potential fitness (as opposed to him, at probably 98 percent or Faith Kipyegon, who is 100 percent), but that’s fine. That’s as far as I’m going. I can do everything I want to, and I feel great almost all the time. Gotta love that. The point of all this is that there is a range of approaches to aerobics. I do not urge you to go out and push yourself to the point of purple on the first day. But I do urge you to get into pretty heavy aerobics eventually. Remember, that walk in the sand in Malindi was heavy for John. You have to do what’s heavy for you.

There is a Range of Approaches to Aerobics-Start Slow.

My early spin regimen would have been too easy for Angela, too hard for most adults in their sixties and near-fatal for John. Phil and I are now of one mind on how to start. Start slow. Slower than feels good. But hold at that level only until you get your feet under you. Take it up as you get more comfortable. Feel your way, feel your fitness but eventually give yourself a little push. Don’t go so slow that you get bored. Get heavy for you, but only after you’ve been at it for a few weeks and feel comfortable. You’ll know.

Start slow. Slower than feels good. But hold at that level only until you get your feet under you. Take it up as you get more comfortable. Feel your way, feel your fitness but eventually give yourself a little push. Don’t go so slow that you get bored.

Coach Philip.

Are you a John, an Angela or the guy who loved the spin class? Make a realistic assessment of the shape you are in today and then make a start that fits your condition. Whether you are retired or not, it’s a lot easier to exercise if you have a regular time. The best trick is to have a schedule and a habit. Boring tip-if you are still working and you are going to make exercise a priority, you might have to go to bed a little earlier.