Lose Weight and Get Fit After 40
The habit journey of a formerly chunky corporate guy
Disclaimer: I’m not a personal trainer or physician. I also don’t receive any type of affiliate income from the training programs I mention. I’m just a normal middle-aged guy who got his health back!
I remember the day that I had finally had it with my declining health.
It was during the holiday season at the end of 2008. I was tired all the time, drinking buckets of coffee to keep going all day, and the scale had tipped over 200 lbs. That might have been okay if I was 6'4" like my son, but I am not. It might also have been okay if I was a powerlifter or bodybuilder. I assure you, at that time, that was also untrue.
I typically write about work and careers — so why am I talking about my journey back to health? After 7 years of spiraling down, I discovered that my health and fitness levels were directly affecting my work. When you feel like crap and have low energy levels, you simply are not doing your best work. If your physical body isn’t 100%, you can’t give your career 100%. (On top of all of this, you also face increased job discrimination when you’re overweight.)
I was 42 years old and had spent decades of my life in a sedentary career, going from desk jobs to graduate school to Silicon Valley. I spent years of my life hunched over a keyboard: designing software, modifying spreadsheets, and preparing presentations. I spent countless hours sitting in conference rooms in endless meetings, eating donuts, pizza, sandwiches, and slices of someone’s birthday cake. When you work in a big company, it’s always someone’s birthday.
Getting back into shape takes about 9 minutes where you’re in your teens. It’s not even that difficult in your 20s, if you commit to it. You hit your 30s and a little voice inside your head says, “Uh oh… what’s going on here?” You can no longer get away with unhealthy eating and a sedentary lifestyle. Pounds start sneaking on more quickly.
And your 40s? Well… it’s not pretty. A perfect storm of factors collide. You’re spending long hours at work. You may even have a long commute, and so you sit and sit and sit. You’re becoming increasingly busy with your commitments to friends and family.
You could get up early in the morning and work out before your commute. But, you’re barely getting enough sleep as it is, and you just want another half hour of sleep. It’s a vicious cycle. So, your poor health and fitness make you sluggish and tired, and you don’t feel like you have the energy to work out — and this drags your health and fitness lower and lower.
Even when you do commit to getting your health back, weight loss and muscle growth are physiologically more challenging after age 40 as well:
- Your basal metabolic rate, which accounts for about 50–70% of total energy expenditure, decreases linearly with age (about 1–2% per decade).
- Your recovery from exercise takes longer than when you were younger.
- You need to consume even higher levels of protein to support protein synthesis and muscle growth.
But, I’m here to tell you that there is hope. I found a way reclaim my health after 40, even though I have a desk job. More importantly, the lifestyle changes that I made stuck, and I’ve stayed healthy ever since.
Three habits that worked for me
I know these may seem obvious and simplistic, but the devil is in the details. It is critical to be absolutely consistent and intentional. This is about a daily process and a permanent lifestyle change.
You can’t just do this like an “8 week bootcamp” and you’re magically back in shape forever. This isn’t a quick car repair. It’s consistent, ongoing, preventative maintenance.
Silly metaphor? Perhaps. But, your physical body is the one and only ‘vehicle’ you have to carry you through the rest of your life.
My permanent lifestyle changes that enable me to maintain my health include:
- Exercising consistently
- Embracing intensity
- Eating intentionally
You can probably notice the weight loss from my face below. I don’t have photo of me at the beach from 2008. Lucky you.
A decade-long journey towards a healthy lifestyle
When I first started on this journey, I tracked my weight as a goal-setting, motivational tool. Seeing that steady progress helped me to get through those first few months. Giving up my favorite comfort foods wasn’t fun or easy.
The initial weight loss was fairly drastic. I attribute that to giving up junk food and high-calorie drinks cold turkey. I used to eat a few slices of pizza with a soda for lunch every day at work, and many meetings had donuts and snacks. I stopped the snacking and switched to eating a huge salad with added protein with some sparkling water.
As I stuck with the healthier eating and exercising more, I lost a total of over 30 lbs by the end of 2009. I lost another 10 lbs over the next two years. But, as I became increasingly interested in my strength, fitness, and general physical capabilities, the numbers on the scale meant less and less.
Now, I’m focused on my health markers (e.g., blood pressure, resting heart rate, cholesterol levels), how I feel, and what I’m capable of doing. Those all matter much more than scale weight, or even how you look.
You know how some people engage in yo-yo dieting? I was a yo-yo exerciser. When I was a child, I was really thin. The thought of being deliberate about how I exercised didn’t even cross my mind.
I grew up in the Midwest during the 70s and 80s. It wasn’t exactly a healthy living mecca and the fitness craze hadn’t really kicked in yet. Okay, I guess aerobics and jazzercise were becoming popular, but certainly not with teen boys.
For most of my adult life, I dabbled in exercise. I would occasionally lift weights. I would go through periods of jogging, but would eventually get injured and quit again. I had the incorrect fitness model in my head of being able to get back into shape and then rest on that new plateau of health.
I finally got it through my thick skull that I had to make daily exercise part of my life forever. I started slowly, with an evening walk after dinner for about an hour. After several months that turned into a combination of jogging and walking. Then I added in bodyweight exercises, and eventually got into weightlifting and trail running.
The key to all of this was ramping things up slowly and surely (to avoid a setback from injury) and being absolutely consistent. For me, that meant making exercise my very first activity of the day.
If I waited and tried to exercise later in the day, work and life conspired to thwart that plan. There was always some “urgent emergency” every week. But, my newfound energy from being healthier made it easier to get up earlier. It became a virtuous cycle.
Intense exercise: P90X, Crossfit, and more
Being consistent with my exercise schedule was the first key factor, but embracing intensity was the next important step. I was training consistently, but I wasn’t pushing myself very hard. That all changed when I finally decided to commit to the P90X program.
Yeah, yeah, I know. The late night infomercials. Well, I was so unhappy with my weight gain that I finally decided to buy the DVD set and give it a try. I should probably admit that I had the P90X program for a couple of years before I broke open the seal. But, I stuck with the program seven days a week, tracking my workouts for almost a year before moving on to CrossFit.
I have my wife to thank for the almost four years I spent doing CrossFit. I also want to give a shout out to my old coach, Courtney Maxwell, at MaxFit Campbell (FKA CrossFit Campbell). A lot of criticism is leveled at CrossFit, and some of it is justified. But, thanks to my coach, I was introduced to powerlifting and olympic lifting, and learned how to lift safely with good technique and form. It’s kind of funny to be introduced to serious weightlifting in your 40s, but I really do enjoy it. At this point, I’ve been lifting four days a week for the past 7+ years.
My wife suckered me into training for a Tough Mudder competition, just as she did with CrossFit. When she mentioned it, I thought she was crazy. Hours of running, climbing, slogging through mud, jumping from a high platform into a cold mountain lake, diving into an ice-filled cargo container, and being electrocuted? Why in the hell would you want to do that?
But, a few members of our CrossFit box were signing up as a team, so we thought we could at least have some fun with it.
I began researching the obstacles, studying the course, and developing strategies for attacking it. I read articles from people who had participated in past Tough Mudder events. I began training even harder on top of our regular CrossFit sessions to improve my pull-up endurance, grip strength, and running endurance. I was probably running an additional 15 miles each week, sometimes with a weighted vest. Yeah, I became that guy.
I did discover that the combination of a Paleo challenge and the intense training made me shed body fat like crazy. At one point, it was so low that I had visible 6-pack abs. I didn’t even have that when I was in my 20s, so I certainly didn’t think it would be possible in my late 40s. I briefly considered including a shirtless photo taken of me during the challenge, but I’m a bit shy and I also decided that it wasn’t quite appropriate for this platform.
I left CrossFit about four years ago, built out my own gym in my unheated garage/shed (fancy, I know), and have trained on my own ever since. I do a combination of powerlifting, bodyweight metabolic conditioning (metcons), and trail running.
I used to think that steady exercise was the solution to all of my problems. Want to get lose weight and get fit? Jog for hours! Now we know that isn’t the answer. For all of my training, in order to maintain intensity I mix in high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
For example, I love trail running and try to get in 5–10 miles each weekend. But, I don’t just jog at a steady pace for an hour or two. I mix it up with bursts of intensity and periods of recovery. Specifically, I sprint up hills, then jog slowly down the next hill or flat sections of the trail to recover. I repeat this over and over during my average 5 mile trail run.
“You can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet”
— Dr. Mark Hyman
I mentioned that I grew up in the Midwest, but now I live in California. Let me tell you, eating healthy in California is a helluva lot easier than it is in the Midwest. Whenever we travel back home to visit family, it’s a challenge to eat the way that I’m used to eating. It is especially difficult when you eat out at restaurants. The salad bar is typically my best chance.
So, my foundation of healthy eating wasn’t the greatest. My mother was actually ahead of her time, and an excellent cook. She fed us vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. We never had soda in the house.
This went off the rails when I got to college. But, despite my unhealthy eating habits, I was still pretty skinny, with a high metabolism. I could eat anything and not gain a pound. I would lift weights a little and drink protein shakes in a frustrating attempt to put on more muscle.
In my 40s, the majority of my initial weight loss probably came from this one basic change:
I stopped eating processed crap.
The pounds starting falling off because I cut out soft drinks, pizza, candy, cake, cookies, and snacks. I stopped eating out so often, greatly reduced visits to fast food restaurants, cut out processed foods, and learned to cook!
The biggest turning point for me came when my CrossFit box had a 90-day Paleo challenge. I’m not going to get into all of the details of what eating Paleo means and I’m too tired to get into yet another holy war over food. But, basically I ate:
- Lean proteins such as grass-fed meat, free range fowl, and wild-caught fish
- Seasonal fruits and vegetables
- Healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, and coconut oil
- NO grains, sugars, or dairy products
It wasn’t what I had thought of as a “diet” previously. I actually ended up eating a lot of food! It’s just that I was eating really healthy foods instead of wasting my time (and stomach space) with junk carbs, sugars, and bad fats. Traditional diets where you restrict your intake seem even more ridiculous once you discover something like this.
Is it sustainable or healthy in the long run? Again, I’ll leave that up to the professionals. I’m just a guy who lost weight and felt great for the first time in his life. Seriously. My whole life, ever since my teen years, was a mess of stomach pain and indigestion after eating. What 16 year old carries around antacid tablets? I did.
But, once I gave up grains and dairy, my troubles went away for the first time in my life. I’ve stayed away from them and almost all processed foods. I do enjoy things like red wine, dark chocolate, and the occasional sushi rolls with rice and french fries. My “foodstyle” is more Primal than Paleo these days (minus dairy). I’m not as lean as I was then, but I’m happy with how I feel.
It’s a lifestyle change
Lasting health and fitness only comes when you make a permanent lifestyle change. You don’t just “get back into shape.” It’s not some mountain you climb, reach the peak, and then get to bask in the glory of your renewed health for the rest of your life.
When you recover your health and fitness, you have to fall in love with the process that brought you back. It isn’t about a “goal weight” or a change in your appearance. It’s not even about your improved performance, how long or fast you can run, or how much weight you can lift. It’s how you live each and every day, and how each and every day is better now because of that consistent lifestyle.
For me, it meant that I could be the kind of parent who can run around, play with his children, and even climb walls with them (instead of sitting like a lump on a bench, drinking a soda, and watching them have fun). It is actually tremendously enjoyable to be able to do physical activities that you probably gave up a long time ago. I’ve been accused of engaging in childish behavior like the example below. I don’t care. I’m just happy to be alive, and that I can do this for as long as possible.
Will it work for you?
This is the story of my personal journey, and of how I regained my health. What worked for me might not be best for you. I have no idea what you current health situation is, or if you are dealing with any medical conditions.
If you are seriously interested in improving your overall health and fitness levels, I highly recommend having a conversation with your physician first. Make sure that you are good to go with the exercise and lifestyle changes you have in mind.
Start slow to avoid injuries, and celebrate the small wins. Don’t make the mistake that I used to make of going too hard, too quickly. As your fitness improves, weight comes off, muscles strengthen, and it will get easier. Walk, jog, run — and eventually, sprint.
When you’re ready to take things to a new level, find a trainer who can coach you to get you off to a good start. Learn how to exercise correctly to avoid injuries. Find exercises, workouts, and sports that you love. Do them every week. This isn’t for short-term gains and improvements. This is for the rest of your life.
In the end, I believe that it all comes down to:
- Being consistently intentional about how you eat to fuel your body appropriately with the healthy food it needs to perform. You don’t have to be perfect every day. But, the overall trend is important. No matter how hard you train, you can’t outrun a poor diet. This is especially true as you get older.
- Being consistent with the training and exercise you enjoy, multiple days per week. Maybe you could get away with being a fitness weekend warrior, but I’ve found that my body thrives with some consistent exercise at least 4 days/week. Don’t forget to intentionally schedule rest and recovery days every week as well. Your body can’t heal and grow without rest and sleep.
- Incorporating some variety and high intensity into your workouts. Your body has no reason to adapt and grow if all you give it is steady state exercise that never pushes you beyond your current limits. Mix it up to shock your system and give your body a signal that it needs to adapt.
I wish you the best of luck with your own journey back to health and fitness. It is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. It’s also one of the best investments you can make in your career. You’ll perform your best — and achieve your most ambitious goals — when your body is at its best as well.