It’s long been my mission to be in better shape at 70 than the average 20-year-old and to help others do the same. Here’s how you can do it.
In the summer of 2005, I stated my aim “to be in better shape at 70 than the average 20-year old. I was 35 at the time.
It’s the kind of boastful claim that you might expect a young man to make. On more than one occasion, people told me, “Just wait until you get to 50. You’ll change your mind.”
Six months ago, I turned 50. Surprise, surprise, I’m in better shape now than I was then.
- I’m stronger than ever (a month ago, I set a new lifetime deadlift PR).
- I have better mobility than ever.
- I’ve cleared up my chronic shoulder and knee pain.
- The shin splints that plagued me for years, and made me appear crippled first thing every morning, are gone.
- The arthritis I thought I was developing is gone.
How did I do it? And how do I plan to keep doing it? This article reveals what I have found and believe to be important if you’re after a healthy life into older age (healthspan) as opposed to living a long life with chronic disease.
If you’re going to be in better shape at 70 than the average 20-year-old, your first stop has to be health. Sadly, many people of my age are still chasing athletic performance with no thought to the impact of those goals on their health.
I’m not against athletic performance. In fact, I believe that the drive to keep getting better is extremely good for us, as long as we keep prioritising health first.
My 35-year-old self was a pretty good athlete. My Ironman PR’s are under 9:30 (which still disappoints me because I could have gone even faster, but for the horror show that was and is the sports nutrition industry’s impact on my digestive system).
My 35-year-old self was not healthy. I trained and raced with chronic pain all the time. I was pretty sure that I would spend the rest of my life battling osteo-arthritis brought on by the abuse I doled out to my body in my training.
But I made that commitment to myself and I’ve spent 15 years working on improving my health. What’s even better is that I’ve been able to help my coaching clients get better results whilst avoiding that same pitfalls by taking a “health first” approach
Here are the key health aspects that you should consider if your body is going to regenerate and then continue to serve you well for the future.
Sleep is one of the under-rated health interventions in our modern word.
It’s hard to believe that something so evolutionarily important that humans cannot survive without it is so roundly ignored by people who are looking to live their best lives. Often, as a result, those are the very people who burn out and descend into ill-health in later life.
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan - both of whom prided themselves on sleeping very little - are prime examples of what lack of sleep can do to you in the long term.
The effect of sleep on the clean-up, storage and consolidation of memories and learning has long been known, but we’re only just starting to understand some of the physical processes that occur whilst we sleep. One of these is a “washing” of the brain, cleaning out the proteins that are laid down in the formation of dementia.
Not only does sleep have those brain effects, but it’s also a vital opportunity for the body to repair the physical damage that life (and training) wreaks upon our bodies. Let’s face it, it’s very hard to repair damage to a knee joint that is in constant use whilst we’re awake.
Most people need between 7 and 9 hours of quality sleep. The effects of not getting this can be quite nasty.
- Problems with memory and focus
- Trouble recovering from workouts
- Sore and unstable joints
A dramatic effect that should concern us all is that just 18 hours of being awake leaves us impaired at the same level as being over the drink-drive alcohol limit in most countries!
Some people find getting quality sleep quite difficult. I’ve got some tips here.
If we’re to have a quality life, both mentally and physically, as we age, sleep has to be a priority.
Without the necessary building blocks, the growth and repair of a healthy body is impossible. Of course, your body, being the amazing machine it is, will do the very best it can to keep you strong but, eventually, this becomes impossible.
In our modern world, it can be remarkably easy to forget that nutrition is about so much more than just calories. In fact, the “calories in, calories out”, “eat less, move more” memes have done the human species a huge disservice by removing any understanding that we don’t eat for energy, we eat for nutrients.
The bottom end of the recommended calorie intake of 1600kcal/day for women and 2000kcal/day for men is actually not that much food if you approach it just as energy intake. Most people are still hungry at that level.
Approach that same calorie intake with a “get as many nutrients as possible” approach and it’s different story. Why do people who change their mindset around food lose weight seemingly effortlessly? It’s simple: when your food is nutrient dense, satiety comes well before you get the chance to eat too much food and remains for ages.
I did a little experiment a while ago (which I don’t recommend you repeat).
I made and consumed in one sitting ±500g of lamb’s liver paté. That’s about 300g of liver. I made myself finish it all. Two things happened:
- I felt very full and a bit sick for about an hour - I can hear people shouting “Vitamin A toxicity”. This may may be the case, but I doubt it.
- I felt great and didn’t feel the need to eat anything for 2 days. Nothing more than I simply wasn’t hungry.
Despite all the howls of protest on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere, if you want to live a long and healthy life, the vast majority of carbohydrates (refined grains) and all sugars need to be banished from your diet. You don’t need to eat them; the little bit that’s physiologically necessary can be made by your body or you’ll get them from non-starchy vegetables, should you choose to eat them.
Exiting close behind the carbs and sugars should be the industrial seed oils (euphemistically called “vegetable oils”). The polyunsaturated fatty acids found in these products are far from the good guys they’ve been made out to be in the marketing you see everywhere. They are poisonous non-foods that almost certainly cause much of the metabolic derangement that becomes Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, stroke etc.You aren’t what you eat, you’re what you absorb from what you eat, and these three items - sugar, refined grains and seed oils - provide nothing other than the calories they contain
Walking is a fundamentally human activity.
If you want to have great posture: Walk.
If you want to work out that soreness: Walk.
If you want to calm your nervous system: Walk.
Humans have been walking bipedally for our entire existence as a species. It’s one of the things that separates us from other apes and every other species. Thus, when you walk, you tap into that humanness.
Short walks after meals have been shown to help with post-prandial glucose control. Your parents were onto something when they suggested a walk around the block after a large meal.
Daily walking is also excellent, low intensity, low impact cardiovascular activity. Even if you struggle with running, walking is accessible to most of us and, even at that low intensity, is extremely good for heart and lungs.
I’ve written a whole article about what I call “Athletic Readiness”. It’s the idea that we should each have a level of conditioning that we consider to be the baseline from which we may choose to attack an athletic performance goal or not.
This state of readiness should be individual to everyone but has some common features.
If you’re going to be in better shape at 70 than the average 20-year-old, you need to have a good level of strength and muscle mass.
Two of the strongest predictors of longevity are grip strength - an indicator of overall body strength - and muscle mass. That’s just longevity. But longevity isn’t all we’re after here, we’re looking for what is quickly becoming known as “healthspan”.
It’s perfectly possible to be kept alive by the miracle of modern medicine for a very long time, regardless of being frail and in very poor health.
I don’t know about you, but I want to live a long, healthy life and die quickly. I don’t want to die a long, lingering death, kept alive by medication and reliant on other people for my every need.
Being able to live independently requires that you be as strong as possible, it’s that simple.
We know that muscle mass declines with age, but much of this is associated with declining levels of activity and, thus, demand. “use it or lose” is very true here.
Making a commitment to do some form of resistance exercise 3 or 4 times a week is an investment that will pay off increasingly as you get older.
There are a large population of people in the fitness industry who decry any form of low intensity cardiovascular training. They’re convinced that it’s a waste of time and ineffective.
They’re simply wrong.
And they’re probably trying to sell you something.
Chronic cardio, where you spend many hours a day training at low intensities is both unnecessary and probably detrimental to your health as you age. In other words, nobody needs to run a marathon every 3 months for health reasons, especially if you want to be in better shape at 70 than the average 20-year-old.
The ability to run or cycle or swim for 20 - 40 minutes is a worthy goal and will support your health as you age. It’s this low level, cyclical cardiovascular activity that helps to maintain the elasticity of your heart muscle. Weight training won’t do it nearly as effectively and may even promote changes to the heart that aren’t positive in the absence of cyclical cardio (concentric ventricular hypertrophy comes to mind).
I make no apology for preferring that people run. It’s an activity that gets a bad rap because people often run thoughtlessly and then get hurt. But, along with walking, running is the most fundamentally human activity. It’s running that allowed us to develop big brains because we could catch nutrient-rich animals for food.
We’re also designed to run and to run distances. I tweeted a series of tweets recently on exactly this topic. Here's the first one.
However, I also recognise that many people don’t want to run anymore, and other options do exist. My favourites, in order of effectiveness are rowing, XC skiing, cycling and swimming.
If you want to do the most effective cardio for your health, have a look at this MAF workout.
Mobility is more than just flexibility, although flexibility is a component part.
It’s the ability to have full range of movement around a joint and to be able to control that entire range of movement.
This requires flexibility, which tends to decline with age and disuse. It also requires stability and motor control, both of which also decline when we don’t use them. This area is one of the toughest to maintain but we have to address it effective if we want to be in better shape at 70 than the average 20-year-old; for most of them, this isn't an issue at all.
Whilst many people are very good about working on strength and cardiovascular conditioning, most of us are very lax about doing mobility work. It’s a little time-consuming, it’s not all that exciting and progress is usually a bit slow.
Rather than trying to attack it like we do strength and cardio, I’d suggest figuring out where your weaknesses are and including little “mobility snacks” into your day.
Areas most people should look at include:
- Hip Flexors
- Quadratus Lumborum
- Thoracic Spine
- Anything around the hips
This is only a short list. If you find you have restriction in your movement around any joint, that’s something to address. It doesn’t matter how strong you are if you can’t use that strength effectively.
I include performance in everything because I believe that even the simple fact that we’re human makes us athletes. Not only that, but for many of us, having a performance goal of some sort helps to keep us on track with some sort of training.
The key, as mentioned above is that this performance should proceed from a place of health and we should NEVER compromise health for performance.
To quote Dan John: “When you’re in your twenties, an injury is a nuisance. On the far side of 50, it can become a friend for life.”
It’s simply not worth hurting yourself for any athletic goal, especially if you want to be in better shape at 70 than the average 20-year-old, because injuries are setbacks that become harder to bounce back from as time passes.
The 80-20 Rule
The 80-20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle states that 80% of your results will come from 20% of your activities. It applies in a range of things across our lives, including in our training.
As we get older, our ability to recover from training sessions tends to decline, meaning that we can no longer train as we did when we were in our twenties.
This is a nuisance because we all develop habits around training regarding how much and how hard we need to train to get a result. It can be very hard to accept that we should do less.
However, here’s the really good news: much of the training you did in your twenties was just fluff. You’re being forced to train less by your biology, but that reduction is to the levels that would have got you the same result in your twenties as you did get.
The trick here is to figure out what your most effective sessions are and to prioritise those.
When you have the ego of a young person, your ability to make these choices is limited. As we get older, this is to our advantage on our quest to be in better shape at 70 than the average 20-year-old.
Contrary to what most of us would like to believe, most of the really effective sessions are the low intensity sessions, done consistently.
Use Intervals Sparingly
Back to our fitness industry experts who want us to buy their HIIT protocols.
In any performance environment, athletes will do very few intervals. In fact, they’ll spend less than 10% of their training time doing high intensity work. The rest of their training is unsettlingly easy.
You should do no different.
I like to think of intervals as the cherry on top of a large, well-iced cake, in which the cake is health and the icing is low intensity training.
I felt the need to include a quick note about relationships in this article.
We often forget that the people around us share in any sacrifices we make and any victories we achieve. It’s important to share especially the victories because the sacrifices are often made almost by default.
It's going to be very difficult to be in better shape at 70 than the average 20-year-old if your partner, your kids and your social circle are constantly working against you.
Also, who wants to live a long, healthy life with nobody to share it?
I’m no relationship counsellor and often struggle in this area myself, but it’s an area that is extremely important because isolation in old age has reached epidemic proportions in some parts of the world.
I don’t believe that my goal to be in better shape at 70 than the average 20-year-old is that extraordinary for three reasons.
Firstly, we’re living in a time when the condition of the average person is becoming increasingly poor. Twenty-year-olds tend to value things like video games and indoor activities in a way that my generation doesn’t. I’d far rather spend my time outside, doing physical stuff.
Secondly, we live in a time when it’s possible for many of us to learn more about what it takes to stay healthy into old age than many of our ancestors could. The internet has allowed us to learn that much of what we’re taught by government is flat wrong. And we’re able to make better choices.
Lastly, we are a generation that has largely been able to avoid the impact of heavy manual labour and the injuries that often accompany it.
Best of all, the solutions to increasing health span are very simple and don’t demand medical intervention or complex advice.
We simply have to give our amazing, self-healing body the right inputs to allow it to do its work.