Phwoar, Angela! Anyone who tuned into last night’s Strictly Come Dancing, or has seen pictures of the 78-year-old journalist and TV presenter strutting her stuff in the most glamorous of outfits, will likely have been transfixed by one thing – or more accurately, one pair of things: her legs. Rippon might be the oldest contestant ever to have taken part in Strictly, but since she appeared on Morecambe and Wise in 1976, high-kicking her way out from behind a BBC newsdesk, she’s been wowing the nation with her dance moves – and she’s got pins that anyone (including me) might envy, whatever their age. Not for her the sagging skin and flabby muscles of your average septuagenarian; Angela’s legs remain enviably toned and taut.
So how can we all get legs like Angela Rippon? I confess, it’s a question that has been vexing me for some time. Growing up, my legs were alternately the bane and the boon of my life. I couldn’t do a high-kick like Angela (not flexible enough), and I’ve never loved my thighs: I’m a classic pear shape and they’re my most generous body part. But the comparative length of my lower limbs meant I could always see in a crowd, regularly got the (male) lead part in school plays and never had to stand at the front of a photo. It also meant that, until I hit my 40s, I was able to get away with the merest of shorts and skirts just by dint of surface area.
At 42 I no longer wear very short skirts, unless my limbs are safely encased in opaque tights, and my thighs are not only still my largest part, but now also my wobbliest: the cellulite that was always lurking beneath the surface has spread and become more obvious. There have been several outbreaks of unsightly veins, of both the spider and varicose variety, and my always slightly knobbly knees seem to have got knobblier. My legs might be long, but I simply don’t want to get them out anymore, unless I’m on holiday – and so I hide them away under maxi skirts, floaty dresses and the aforementioned tights.
But could I rescue my legs from their enforced purgatory? Or would it be cheesecloth dresses all the way, for the rest of my life?
First of all, the cold hard facts. While everything, naturally, starts to droop a bit with age, “cellulite and fluid retention get worse as we get older – especially for women with the menopause”, says Kate Shapland, founder of cult leg-care line Legology, whose customers include the likes of Suki Waterhouse and Shirley Ballas.
After the age of 30, we start to lose muscle mass and function, a process known as sarcopenia; if you’re physically inactive, this can be as much as 3 to 5 per cent per decade. Even if you do keep moving, hormone changes mean it’s impossible to halt the process entirely, although upping your protein intake (as I was advised to, of which more later) helps to counteract sarcopenia and boost muscle protein synthesis.
There’s no question that bad legs can be ageing: think of the standard baggy knees and flabby muscles on display at any British beach in summertime and compare it to the toned lower limbs of, say, Madonna (65) or Jennifer Aniston (54), who look years younger than their age in part because of their ability to flash a length of thigh and still look fabulous.
But getting your legs in shape past a certain age does require a bit of hard work. “Fat loss is the first thing,” says James Castle-Mason, a personal trainer at Roar fitness, where I signed up to see if I could sort my pins out. That means a strict diet: in my case, cutting down to 1,500 calories a day, of which the majority (150g a day) needed to be protein. Quite quickly, I found that my protein intake was nowhere near as high as it should be: while I knew I had a weakness for carbs (my go-to snack would always be a piece of toast slathered in butter), I thought I did OK on protein, also eating a lot of nuts and nut butter, seeds, chicken, eggs and yoghurt. But to get what I needed meant upping my intake of things like steamed chicken and fish, starting the day with eggs or even a burger (no bun), and making use of protein powder, something I’d never tried before.
Surprisingly, the diet worked – not only was I consuming fewer calories, but the high protein content meant I didn’t feel hungry, and was also full of energy (as long as I also remembered to drink enough water: crucial for both weight training and healthy legs, as staying hydrated helps your lymph – the fluid that flows around your lymphatic system – keep moving). Which was a good thing, because along with the diet came exercise: specifically weight training sessions, ideally three times a week. “Holding onto lean muscle mass is key,” explained Abigail Eaton, COO at Roar. Even while resting, muscles burn calories; fat cells do not. So the more lean muscle tissue you have, the more calories you burn throughout the day. Strength training also, as the name implies, makes you stronger in your bones, joints and muscles, all of which leads to better definition.
James put me on a punishing programme that worked my whole body, but acknowledged that certain exercises would target my legs more specifically. We started every session with split squats (see box), which are like static lunges, while holding weights. Regular sessions of leg extension exercises were also effective (not least because I could literally see my flabby muscles quivering when I did it). Leg presses have a similar effect, while deadlifts tone the bum and hamstrings. In between sessions, on the advice of Shapland, I dry body-brushed furiously, which helps improve skin tone and boost circulation.
Three months on and there’s been a big difference, despite a two-week holiday where the most strenuous exercise I got was pottering to the beach. I confess the diet has pretty much gone out of the window, although I am eating more protein than I was, and have virtually given up bread. But my energy levels have stayed high, and amazingly, my legs have also slimmed: over 13 weeks, the fat around my knees has decreased from 11.2mm to 9mm, my quad fat has shrunk from 25.8mm to 21mm, my hamstrings are more slender by 5.8mm and my previously verging-on-bulky calves have had half a centimetre shaved off them.
My basic shape hasn’t changed but my legs feel more in proportion with my slimmer upper half, they feel stronger and, crucially, I feel better about them. I even donned a pair of shorts in the recent heatwave, albeit just to hang out in my parents’ garden.
I’m not sure Angela will be joining me in the weights room any time soon, although I wouldn’t put it past her. “Dance is the best overall mind and body exercise”, she claimed in an interview earlier this month. She recalls a film she made with Dr Chris van Tulleken, called How to Stay Young, which carried out scientific research, with a group in Germany, on the best kind of exercise to do as you age. “The university pitted dancers who were aged 60-plus up to 80 against people in the gym and the dancers came out overall as the fittest.” Certainly dancing boosts cardio health, flexibility, strength and balance – as well as being fun.
I’m not as flexible as Angela, so you won’t catch me on Strictly any time soon. And while I’m not about to give up my weights regime, perhaps I’ll dig out the tap shoes. Time to get those tunes on!