Once upon a time I was a badass. Ran a sub-six-minute mile. Benched over 300. Competed in kickboxing and jiujitsu and won. I was high speed, low drag, and aerodynamically efficient. But that was once upon a time.
Being a grownup changed all that. More hands on my time left less time for the gym. A body in its 40s doesn’t build muscle or burn fat like the one I had two decades ago. My joints hurt more. Everything takes longer to recover from.
In the vein of “I make mistakes so you don’t have to,” here are 10 commandments of fitness for men as they enter middle age. If you follow them, your body will thank you well into retirement.
1. Thou shalt not skip the warmup
As we age, our muscles and tendons become less flexible and more subject to injury. A solid 10- to 15-minute warmup of light motion (not static stretching, which can actually cause damage when done cold) helps counteract that unavoidable truth. It’s time to start thinking of the warmup not as a thing you do before the workout, but rather the first part of the workout.
2. Thou shalt not be too busy
Middle age is a demanding time. Kids, a spouse, a job, your community, and maybe a minute for a hobby conspire to leave very few hours in the day for you to spend on fitness. But you have to make it happen. Here are a couple of strong options:
- Exercise early in the morning, before things go wrong with your day that could impinge on your workout time.
- Make exercise a necessary part of your daily routine. For example, bicycle to work.
- Exercise with your family (I do jiujitsu with my son) to combine quality time with exercise.
- Find a workout buddy who will harass you into showing up even when it’s hard.
3. Thou shalt focus on flexibility
Flexible muscles and resilient joints will prevent you from sustaining a sidelining injury you may not fully recover from. The best way to insure them is to build in a cooldown stretching routine lasting 10 to 20 minutes at the end of your workout. Stretching while muscles are warm is a flexibility-force multiplier. Take advantage of it.
4. Thou shalt not ignore it
Two advantages of being a grown adult are (often) having decent health insurance and being old enough that your doctor will listen to you. If you experience pain, go get it checked out. The days of “walking it off” or “no pain, no gain” are behind us, gents. Pain is instead a warning that we’re about to get broken.
5. Thou shalt shift your workouts
Those manly, crazy workouts of our 20s are no good anymore. One-rep maxes, rounds in the right, lifting tractor tires like Rocky are still within our capacity, but we pay for them with soreness and injuries.
Instead, focus on medium-weight, medium-rep exercises with large ranges of motion. Good calls include:
- barbell exercises
- certain martial arts
These exercises produce exactly the kind of strength and flexibility your older body needs.
6. Thou shalt not prove it
Whatever your exercise, it’s going to happen. Some 20-something who’s almost as good as you used to be is going to be in class, on the gym floor, or in the next lane over. You’ll be overcome with the impulse to show that you’ve still “got it.” And you might even win.
But you up your chances of injury exponentially when you do so. Even if you get away clean, your muscles will be sore and fatigued for as much as a week afterward, which limits how good your next few workouts can be.
7. Thou shalt put competition behind you
Friendly contests are fine, but resist the urge to enter into serious athletic competitions. It’s simply asking for injury.
This commandment is a corollary to the one directly above, because competition forces you to prove it. Even if you’re in a “master’s league” or similar division, you’ll still be driven to make your body do things it shouldn’t. If you have to compete, look to lower-impact sports, like curling and fun runs.
8. Thou shalt not listen to ‘Glory Days’ by Bruce Springsteen
You know what I mean. Listen all you want, but don’t reminisce too hard about the athlete you used to be.
The best-case outcome is you spend a little time mildly depressed about how your body is now past its peak. The worst case is that the thoughts lead you to put one plate too many on the bar and you get yourself hurt. Stay mindful and celebratory of the present.
9. Thou shalt mind your own damn bucket
There’s an old Zen parable about a monk getting frustrated about how much another monk is able to do while filling buckets with water. The moral is the monk should only focus on what he was able to do, not compare it to the accomplishments of others.
Sure, there are 80-year-olds still benching 400 and finishing an Ironman, but that’s got nothing to do with you. Stay active, stay healthy, and only compare yourself against the goals you’ve set for you.
10. Thou shalt mind what goes into your body, too
No, you don’t have to deprive yourself of all earthly delights to stay fit and healthy. But fueling your 40-plus bod with the right balance of whole grains, protein, veggies, and fruits can help keep you energized and strong. Be sure you’re getting enough of the right nutrients, whether from food, protein powders, or supplements.
From one aging jock to another, I recommend following these rules. They won’t all apply to every man out there, but give each and every one some committed thought.
Jason Brick is a freelance writer and journalist who came to that career after over a decade in the health and wellness industry. When not writing, he cooks, practices martial arts, and spoils his wife and two fine sons. He lives in Oregon.