‘I do sometimes feel like a cliche,” says Rich Jones. We’re in the cafe at his gym and he is in workout gear. It’s true, something about the language and the before and after pictures from his physical transformation – severely overweight to lean and chiselled – would appear familiar from thousands of adverts and magazine spreads, if it wasn’t for one thing; Jones got into the best shape of his adult life after he passed 50. “On 9 August 2019, I walked in here. I was 54 and 127kg [20st].”
He worked out at least six days a week, for 90 minutes or more at a time. “I immersed myself in everything, I did gym, I did classes, Pilates, I even did barre,” he says. Within eight or 10 weeks, he was able to stop taking painkillers for a shoulder injury. He now cycles and runs on top of his gym sessions. “It’s just a habit – I brush my teeth every day, I go for a run every day.”
This new, dramatic fitness coupled with a weight loss programme (Jones lost 43kg (6st 11lb) in eight months) has been transformative in ways that don’t show in pictures. “I enjoy the feeling of being able to walk upstairs and not getting out of breath, of being fit and strong,” he says. The effect on his self-image was equally dramatic: “It changed how I think about myself. I didn’t realise how you feel about the world, how you interact with people, is so tied to your body image.” Now on the dating scene after a separation, he is bursting with new-found confidence.
What combination of factors leads anyone to go all out at the gym, become a marathon runner or walk miles a day after the age of 50? Motivation is complex, and people differ, but the fact that mortality is nibbling at your heels, midlife restlessness has set in and with it the desire for reinvention, alongside a shift from active parenting or full-time work, may all contribute. Sometimes, a low-level unease gradually crystallises into a sense of urgency. “I had this sense that if I didn’t do something soon, it would be too late,” says Jones. Timing, he thinks, is key. Having retired early from his job as a chief information officer for a police force, the time was right. “I didn’t need to work, so I was my project – I was my work, really.”
Not every super-fit person over 50 has a clear “push”. Mags Cook wasn’t particularly looking to lose weight or get fit. “I was always quite a busy person – I didn’t sit around too much,” she says. A retired teacher, Cook, 69, only started running properly at 59 when a friend encouraged her to try parkrun, the national weekly free fun run. “My husband died in 2006 and it was a good thing to know I’d be doing it every Saturday.” She enjoyed it, and her son-in-law suggested she join a running club. “I thought it was the most hilarious idea, because I was coming up to 60 and didn’t think of myself as a runner. But it was the best thing I’ve done – it was amazing.”
Cook runs three or four times a week, and says: “Please don’t be too impressed, I don’t go fast or anything.” She is being modest – she has completed two marathons and a triathlon, for which she took swimming lessons to learn front crawl, and rode a bike for the first time since childhood. “I thought: ‘Might as well have a go,’” she says. The triathlon meant open-water swimming. “I cannot tell you how terrified I was … but, actually, after the swim I was completely elated that I’d done something I didn’t think could do.”
While getting fit was not the end in itself for Cook, she can feel the difference now. “When I started running, I couldn’t do more than 50 metres without collapsing, but you discover you don’t have to run fast all the time – you can just keep going.”
For Shashi Hussain, 53, staying sane rather than getting fit motivated her to start a walking regime in the first Covid-19 lockdown. “I’m quite sociable and being locked in my house, not being able to meet my friends and family, I found it really tough, so I decided to turn it into some sort of positive.” She began to walk daily, using the time to call friends and family to catch up. Gradually she went up from 5,000 steps to 10,000, “then 12,000, then 15,000; now I do anything between 20,000 and 30,000 steps a day”.
It’s a significant time commitment: Hussain is an NHS manager, and splits her daily step count into a walk before work, one at lunchtime and more steps after work. She walks the streets and parks around her home in Essex, often combining exercise with errands, exploring new areas or taking photographs. “I’ve turned it into a bit of a learning exercise; I’ve learned so much about plants and flowers.” She has also lost weight, gone through two pairs of trainers and transformed her fitness. “My husband has always walked really fast. Before, I’d almost have to run to catch up with him, but he sees a difference in my breathing, my walking – I’m not out of breath.”
For both women, the mental benefits have been crucial during the pandemic. Cook’s running club set members running tasks during lockdown: “They kept us going, it was brilliant. It really made lockdown so different.”
“For my mental wellbeing, it’s been the best thing ever,” says Hussain, who has surprised herself with her unwavering commitment. It’s almost a compulsion: if her step count is lower at weekends, she sometimes goes back out when her husband is asleep. “It has become part of my life.” For Cook: “It has made me braver, I think.”
While Cook, Jones and Hussain may be in the best shape of their lives, the same is not true of everyone in their age group: 42% of over-55s are inactive, compared with 29% of UK adults, according to Sport England research. Perhaps that is not surprising, when the fitness industry often appears to be tailored to the young.
Chris Zaremba is very aware of that. Another convert to super-fitness after 50, he is a personal trainer who specialises in the over-50s. He coined the term “gymtimidation” to describe how many older people feel about fitness clubs. “A new gym opens in your town and, guess what, they are playing loud music, there are loads of mirrors and industrial grungy design – it’s not welcoming for anybody over 40, which is really stupid.”
Jones agrees: “You think they’re judging you.” He tried and disliked other gyms (“just a room with kit and pumping music”) before finding a small, supportive one.
At 50, Zaremba himself was “allergic to exercise” and very overweight; his first experiences in the gym were typically off-putting. “Everyone there was already several times fitter than I was,” he says. But he conquered his misgivings in spectacular style: he has run marathons and a triathlon, and in 2014 won the world championships in both fitness and muscle modelling (similar to bodybuilding). His recent book, Fat to Fit at Fifty, describes his journey and provides training tips.
Getting fit after 50 is an optimistic act; a positive statement of intent for the second half of your life. “I hear time and time again: ‘It’s too late for me to start,’” says Zaremba. “I say, no, it’s not. I did not exercise at all when I was 50 and by the time I was 55, I was one of the healthiest 55-year-olds on the planet.” Most of his clients have gentler aspirations. “It’s about maintaining independent living for longer; being mobile, living a happy, independent life.”
Is there a risk that extraordinary stories such as Zaremba’s might discourage rather than inspire? “Headlines like: ‘Anyone can run a marathon’ are not fair because it’s not actually true,” says Dr Lucy Pollock, a consultant in geriatric medicine and author of The Book About Getting Older (For People Who Don’t Want to Talk About It).
But getting fit after 50 need not mean becoming a ropey-calved cycling obsessive in Lycra or signing up for the Marathon des Sables. “I think depictions of older people getting fitter fall into two camps,” says Kate Dale of Sport England; its Active Ageing campaign funds projects that target inactivity in older people. “It’s either chairobics stuff or you’ve got marathon runners, like the Skipping Sikh. He’s amazing, but you don’t have to go to one of those extremes, you can find what’s right for you.”
This is vital because, as Pollock’s book highlights, research shows that activity can improve longevity and, crucially, quality of life for older people, including the group she describes as the “super old”. One of the best parts of her job, Pollock says, is seeing someone very fragile, with poor mobility, regain strength and the ability to move independently. “It’s amazing how quickly small amounts of exercise make a difference. There are lots of people who are never going to be able to do a squat again – that doesn’t mean they can’t do anything.”
Brian Nathan can’t do a full plié (pretty close to a squat, but much more elegant), but at 82, he goes down on one leg at a time at his Silver Swans class, a Royal Academy of Dance initiative for over-55 ballet beginners and returners. Nathan started three years ago. “I thought: ‘I’ve got to exercise’, but I loathe exercise and hate ploughing up and down a swimming pool, so what is there in the dancing world?” He finds it “impossibly difficult”, but says: “What is marvellous about the teachers of Silver Swans is that they understand we are old and don’t make us relentlessly go on and on.”
An accomplished ballroom dancer in his youth (“I discovered girls love dancing so it was simple: become a decent dancer”), Nathan also played cricket and rugby. But with six children and a successful tool-and-equipment hire business, “it petered out”. Now, though, his weekly regime puts mine to shame. “On Monday, I do old gits cricket and old gits tennis – it’s brilliant. Tuesday, I have a rest, Wednesday, I do Move to the Musicals (another Royal Academy dance class), Thursdays I rest again and Fridays I do ballet.” Nathan says he has improved. “I’m motivated to try and get better because I love trying to be graceful to music – and totally failing; I still want to try every week. We were walking this morning, and walking as a ballet dancer walks is hard. I can remember trying to do it three years ago and I couldn’t; I thought good God, I’m better at it. I can see the point, you know.”
There are as many ways to get moving, and what works will depend on individual circumstances and health, resources, time and inclination. “It’s about forgiving yourself to some degree,” says Pollock. “Accepting your limits and working within them.” For those who are ready to take on a challenge, Zaremba recommends trying to incorporate some resistance work as well as an activity that raises the heart rate (he is another parkrun fan). It’s important, he says, to try and fight sarcopenia, the process of losing skeletal muscle mass as we age (Pollock also recommends light weights, perhaps using a tin of beans).
Flexibility, mobility and coordination work can also be improved hugely in later life and have day-to-day benefits, in staying agile and preventing falls. This can be quite modest: Zaremba recommends doorframe stretches as a good simple starter. However gentle your exercise regime, advises Pollock, give yourself credit as you improve. “Notice that you’re better at it this week than last week. Give yourself a pat on the back and notice how far you have come in a very short time.”
As an additional bonus, the fitness efforts of people over 50 seem to have a powerful trickle-down effect on friends and family. Cook has converted several friends to running and runs with her daughter; Hussain has inspired her friends. “A lot of people have started doing it with me, which is brilliant.” Even her mother, who is 76, now walks 10,000 to 15,000 steps a day. “She says I’ve really helped her because otherwise, she’d have nothing to do.”
“I wouldn’t call myself a role model in any way,” says Jones, “But both my boys in their early 20s now take better care of themselves. I think there has been a kind of shared awakening.”