Leaner for longer: the rise of the super-fit 60somethings

Joel Snape
Mind and body coach Wayne Lèal teachers others how to be 'Super-Agers' - Rii Schroer

Once, you would hit the second half of life confident that nobody would expect you to whip your shirt off at a moment’s notice – or if you decided to disrobe at the beach, you would be afforded a degree of reverence becoming your age. You would hope that, if you ventured into the water, a dignified doggy-paddle would suffice. And you would not expect to have surf sprayed in your face by a 68-year-old Richard Branson, or his 57-year-old pal, Barack Obama, both of them still kiteboarding well into the age when most people are worrying about their chrysanthemums.

But times change. With disturbing parallels to the state pension, the age when you can relax and put your feet up is being nudged back – massaged by the wrinkle-free hands of a generation of celebrity midlifers. Sir Richard is just the front-runner. Close behind come Lenny Henry, 60, and Gregg Wallace (a mere 54), who have both shed many pounds recently. And then there is Noel Edmonds, 70, Mr Crinkley Bottom himself, who spent this year’s edition of I’m a Celebrity flaunting his fat-free torso in the jungle.

Why is this happening? One factor is the rise of age-group sport: as biking, running and Brazilian ju-jitsu offer sexagenarians their own competition brackets, there’s more incentive to keep limber enough to podium against one’s peers (the Ironman championships offer age divisions right up to 79).

“The popularity of CrossFit has helped drive interest in weightlifting, powerlifting, gymnastics and so on across older generations,” says trainer Sean Maloney. “I also don’t think you can discount the trend for consumers to focus more of their spending on experiences instead of material items.”

Where a trend arises, an industry blooms. Books like Joe Friel’s Fast After 50, Lee Bergquist’s Second Wind and Bill Gifford’s Spring Chicken offer athletes advice for those in their later years; and increasing numbers of gyms are targeting 60-somethings with programmes that are a bit more demanding than the typical aerobics or tai chi.

Another part of what’s happening is that we now know more. Science has taught us that physical decline is not just a result of getting older – it’s a result of being less active as we age.

Your metabolism, for instance, does not crash all on its own once you hit the second half of life: the decline that many people see is related to their slow drift away from physical activity, such as taking the lift over the stairs, or ditching their more strenuous hobbies in favour of sedentary ones. As for muscle mass, that’s something you can hang on well into your later years by training correctly. Ditto bone density.

Cardiovascular fitness, which can feel like the first thing to go, can be maintained with training: the world record for a 70-plus marathon is just under three hours. You cannot turn back the clock, but you can slow it down.

“I am seeing an increase in the number of older people that come to the gym on a frequent basis,” says Sarah Butcher, a personal trainer and champion powerlifter in the 60-69 “master” age category. “I think they are realising there are benefits to working out regularly, but there is a negativity as to what can be achieved and just how much work and focus needs to be applied.”

Butcher recommends sessions not far from what a 30-something might tackle. “My belief is that mobility and strength go hand in hand and both need to be addressed – but mobility is often a problem with people who have been relatively inactive for a long time. They are also reluctant to lift something they perceive to be heavy, as they think it might be dangerous – but smart lifting is often the most beneficial thing for bone health and  muscle mass.”

If you are planning on hitting the gym for the first time in a while, Maloney suggests focusing on mobility: “Your hips, ankles and thoracic spine are the big areas to target,” he explains. “Almost anything single-legged, from the yoga tree pose to single-leg dead-lifts, progressing into hops and holds, will aid proprioception. Full-body strength movements will help hold on to muscle. I’d prioritise this over cardio – but the key thing is to do what you enjoy.” Even if it’s kitesurfing.

 

Wayne Lèal, 60

Mind and body coach and the founder of Kun-Aqua and JumpGa

By Joel Snape

Wayne Leal, 60, pictured at Champneys Health Spa Credit: The Telegraph

For some people, the biggest challenge of putting together an exercise regime at 60 is making up for decades of inactivity. For Wayne Lèal, it’s the opposite.

“I’ve injured every major joint in my body,” explains Lèal. “I’ve had several invasive surgeries, a fractured skull, a broken nose. I’ve dislocated both my shoulders, I have a degenerative spine, I’ve had major hip surgery and I’ve had four major knee operations. Recently I discovered I have arthritis in my fingers as well. Andy Murray just had the same hip operation I had four years ago, and I’m fairly sure he won’t play at the level he’s accustomed to ever again.”

Now, unable to run normally – let alone do high-impact jumping or explosive weightlifting movements – Lèal has developed his own forms of exercise, influenced by yoga (he’s a senior instructor) and years of training in martial arts.

Kun-Aqua (the first word means ‘respect’) is a sort of water-based variant of tai chi, adding movements like biceps curls and triceps pushdowns to the mix for a low-impact, high-energy workout that. “You can get a huge amount of resistance from every angle,” he explains. “When you’re holding a dumbell, you’re working the biceps from one angle – but curling the flat of your hand through the water, you’re not just working your biceps, you’re working every muscle in combination, inclding using your core to resist the water.”

The more meditative sequences of movement, Léal says, will teach you how to ‘slow down in a state of wellness’ – a form of mindfulness that might help you to stay calm after a blood-boiling day at the office. It also includes enough actual exertion that adherents experience the benefits of a cardio workout – even if the sweat isn’t noticeable in the pool.

JumpGa – yoga done on a ‘rebounder’ trampoline – is the other piece of the puzzle, combining high-intensity sprints and bouncing with slower yoga moves and holds. “They’re easy on the joints, so you can do all those things like jumping and leaping, without putting undue pressure on their joints,” says Lèal. “It also works your balance, which is one thing that goes as you age.” 

“Initially I had to exercise to stay mobile, now it’s an integral part of what I do.” adds Lèal, who also trains a growing gang of ‘Super-Agers’ aiming to turn back the clock at Champneys Health Spa in Hampshire. “My training’s quite varied, always adapting. It’s about challenging mind as much as the body – your physical self infleucnes your mind and emotions. Most guys want to lose weight, get ripped and gain muscle, but Super-agers are people who set a behaviourial expectation to exercise - it’s about gaining body confidence through that effort.”

‘Behaviourial expectations’ might sound a bit much, but think about them like brushing your teeth – a regimented daily ritual that you never consider skipping – and you’re getting the idea. Instead of all-out efforts, Lèalrecommends smaller, daily bouts of exercise, focusing on building good habits rather than grimacing and eating chalk.

“When you’re in your teens and twenties you’re driven by ego,” he says. “It’s about size as opposed to quality. But you see a lot of injuries that way.

“Getting your mind and body into shape at 40 and over is a different challenge to the one you faced at 20.”

Lone WOLF: Becoming a Super-Ager by Wayne Lèal is out now (Redshank, £12)

 

Lynne Robinson, 64

Pilates teacher, author and presenter

By Boudicca Fox-Leonard

Lynne Robinson is known as the Queen of Pilates

Rolling about on the floor with her two young granddaughters, Lynne Robinson thanks her lucky stars for Pilates. She knows that, but for accidentally walking into a Pilates class in Sydney, Australia 26 years ago, she wouldn't have the stamina, the strength, or the flexibility to be the hands-on gran that she is today.

Robinson was an ex-pat history teacher in Australia at the time of her induction, supposedly living the dream, but in reality struggling with her weight and painful sciatica due to a herniated disc. “I’m not a coordinated person at all, but I just loved Pilates,” she recalls. “Even though I was bad at it, I’d finally found something that didn’t aggravate my back.”

Over the following months, as she threw herself into the physical fitness system developed in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates, she noticed that her stubborn pear shape disappeared in a way no fad diet had ever managed. “Everything just slotted into place and I felt fantastic. Then it became like a drug; you can't be without it.”

And indeed she hasn’t. Robinson trained as a Pilates teacher, and on returning to the UK started to spread the word. “I remember putting a poster up on a wall in a hall in Sevenoaks. No one turned up, because no one had heard about it before.” From small acorns, mighty oaks grow. Today, Robinson is often referred to as the Queen of Pilates: she’s the co-founder and director of Body Control Pilates; one of the world’s top-selling Pilates authors and presenters, with DVDs for sale in over 30 countries; and surely the most mobile and youthful gran a granddaughter could hope for.

The good news for the rest of us is that Robinson says it’s never too late to get started. All you need is a good teacher. “Find one with a solid qualification, where the teacher pays attention and isn't just at the front doing the moves for you to copy.”

As for the benefits, they’re not limited to the physical. “Afterwards I feel calmer and energised,” says Robinson. “Pilates makes me stop, think and listen to my body. It calms me down and makes me feel ready for whatever the day brings.”

So much so that she says ageing doesn’t terrify her. “You never know what the future holds. But I know I'll be in good shape to meet whatever it is. I was 38 when I walked into that first class, and you can be old at 40 if you're not careful. Whereas you can be really, really fit at 80.”

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