Here's the weird thing about getting fit after 40

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We all know how the narratives about aging go: farewell, youth! It's all downhill from here! First things start sagging, then the neuroplasticity goes, then you get bitter, then the wheels start falling off, then you get miserable, then you end up with a bunch of tubes hanging out of you, and then you die.

Some of those things are true (sagging and death are guaranteed, so you better enjoy that elasticity and not-death you've got today!), but some of them aren't.

I am currently 43 and in the best physical condition of my life. Before you can ask what my special secret is, there is no special secret: I move around for joy as much as I can, with daily dancing and neighborhood walking, and then a couple weekly visits to the gym for weightlifting. I aim to eat mostly protein and produce, but sometimes noodles and cake. There's no magical system or anything.

I'm not a trainer or a doctor, so it's not really my place to advise anyone on the logistics of getting in shape after 40, but I am qualified to ramble about my personal experience of getting in shape in midlife, which has been both profoundly educational and surprisingly pleasurable. (I thought exercise was boring and miserable, but it turns out it can actually be really interesting and fun, if you focus on the experience instead of the results!)

The backstory: I have never been in shape. I was a theater dork in high school, a nerdy corporate party girl in my 20s, and a nerdy overworking biz owner / mom in my 30s. I went to a dance fitness class a few times a month and did yoga a few times a year, but I was never in shape, and I was usually in the zone of comfortably 20lbs overweight. Mostly, I just didn't really spend much time in my body — I preferred being in my head, thanks.

Then the shit-show of my 2015 happened (emergency surgery! turning 40! abrupt divorce!) and suddenly I was like "holy shit I'm middle aged and I have 50/50 custody and maybe I should use that kid-free time to care for my body for the first time in my life?" So I did some physical therapy to get over the surgery, and then I brain-hacked myself to dance whenever I felt anxious (which was every single fucking day), and then I started playfully trying things when they presented themselves ("Can you do a pull-up?" someone asked me. "Maybe," I said — and I did one! Then I wanted to try doing another one!), and now here I am in my mid-40s and my body feels SO GOOD.

After 40+ years of essentially being ignored, my muscles and my skeleton and my tendons are all like, HOLY SHIT! We can do WHAT? We can move HOW? We had no idea! We love this!

Now, for my friends who were fit in their youths, their 40s are bringing up some uncomfortable truths. Things a body does one way at 21, it may have to do differently at 41. If you were fit in your youth, then I totally get that there's a sense of loss around not being able to do the same things in the same ways that you could… and I guess I sort of get it: I can't pop pills and spend all night dancing like I could at 21. I also can't sit in a chair and work for 14-hours straight like I used to at 31. (It hurts my ass and my brain!)

But for me, getting in shape at this age… it's not like my body isn't aging in the same ways that all bodies age, it's just that I never got to experience what being in shape felt like in my youth, 'cuz I was too busy being in my head. So it's not like that typical midlife crisis narrative where I'm all, "Ooh, I'mma work my way back to my high school shape." I never had this shape, ever. My body never felt this good, ever. (…Well, I mean maybe that one time in '96 when I was coming up on two hits of MDMA and ate some mushrooms, but that was different.)

This means that my physical experience of being in my 40s boils down to "Holy shit, I have never felt this good!" 

"I have never felt this good!" is not what you're told your 40s are supposed to feel like.

This makes me wonder: what other common narratives around aging aren't necessarily true?

So wait, is there any advice here?

Again, I'm unqualified to tell you what to do with your body… but for my fellow midlife folks who have never been in shape, I have this to say: it is never too late. That feeling is a lie your mind tells you to hold you back so that it has something to worry about.

There is no age or ability limitations for getting into movement. Especially if you shift your priorities away from results (want to weigh X, want to do Y) and toward exploration (what can I learn? what can I try? what can I feel? what can I observe?), you get to learn super interesting shit! If you go in prioritizing the desire to explore your edges, you get to learn about new capacities in ways that are mind-boggling and confidence boosting and feel physically awesome.

I've also come to feel that as I age, taking care of my body should be my primary hobby. I'll go farther and say that I think that's a solid choice for anyone, regardless of ability, shape, or condition. I'm not saying you should look "fit" (because that's relative) or do XYZ every day/week/whatever (because that's subjective), but just that you should prioritize taking care of the body you have, while you have it. Finding the ways that you enjoy moving yourself around is part of taking care of a body.

I'm also certainly not saying that fitness will prevent aging — it's kind of the opposite! If you're in your body, you feel yourself aging every day. It's not that I take care of myself because I think it will keep the Grim Reaper away (spoiler alert: I'm going to get sick, feeble, frail, and then I'm going to die. That's actually the best case scenario, if I don't abruptly die in some sort of accident first.)… it's that by actually being present and feeling my body every day that I've got it, the human journey of declining ability and inevitable death can be way more interesting… maybe even pleasurable? Because I'm actually here in it!

As a bonus, when I inevitably do get sick (hi, two hospitalizations in a year with a tube down my throat for several days!), my body is recovering from a better baseline. And when I get really sick and die, at least I can be like, "Yeah, dude: I enjoyed the fuck out of this body while I had it. Nice work, body. High five. I'm out."

I've got another idea here, for those of you who (unlike me) were in shape in your younger days, who may be feeling the decline and feeling a sense of loss about it. First, know that feeling that loss is totally appropriate! Grieving the loss of your youth is important, yo. Don't avoid it. The sooner you really feel your mortality, the sooner you can find what comes after the surrender.

But here's a thought: Instead of focusing on the outcome, can you shift your focus to the experience? What else is gained by a daily physical practice other than setting a new personal record? What sort of community can you build through your physical practice? Can you shift your personal record goal-setting to "Where can I find new joy in something I've been practicing for years?"

Basically, can you try a new modality? What's your new edge? If your knees start to give out, can you try dancing? If your body starts to give out completely (and let's be clear here: the only thing you can count on in your life is the loss of your physical abilities!), can you focus on expanding a intellectual edge? An emotional one? A social one? A spiritual one? Breath-work? Surrender practice? I'm not actually sure, so I'd love to hear from folks who've got ideas.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this: aging comes with uncontrollable, unavoidable declines. You can try to avoid that truth or fight it, but the sooner you surrender to the reality of your own aging and understanding that seriously: YOU ARE DYING, then the more energy you have to enjoy the time you've got.

None of us can change the inevitability of aging and death, but we each have the agency to find the small ascents in the grand descent — the essence of the glory of youth is less about appearance or capabilities, and more about the sensation of growth and expansion, which is totally separate from age.

Find an edge, and start pushing it.

  1. This is wonderful.
    Watching and learning from your approach to a physical practice has been life-changing for me – a person who also spends a lot of time in their head and didn’t process enough through their body.
    Keep up the inspiring work! No, seriously PLEASE keep it up – I need the example!!

    • Thank you so much for this sweetness!! Ultimately, I don't know that my exact approach would work for anyone else (existentialism + dance + deadlifts + sometimes smoking weed and doing weird push-ups and laughing?) but I do believe that everyone has access to finding their own weird version of their own joy of movement and life.

      • Actually, this sounds like it might be the perfect routine for me .
        Great article, I'm about to hit 40 and my body is fragile and constantly painful and I feel 60. I know I have to get in shape urgently, it's good to hear you say it's not too late!

  2. People used to say of me: "she needs to come out of her shell."

    Turns out I had multiple of shells – and exercise was a biggie. Recently the 'you do you' approach has worked so much for me, as well as pretending like I *have* to cycle to work.

    I knew I needed more exercise to deal with extra stress at the moment – I got a dog! I've wanted one ever since we stopped renting – but affordability issues were getting in the way. Walking and playing with a dog is much more fun than forcing myself to go to a gym or walking by myself.

    • Yep got my first dog at 33. Turns out I need to hike 3 hours a day in the woods as much as she does. Majorly awesome life shift. I’m in way better shape now.

  3. For me, this post illustrates just how different your experience of life is depending on what was thrown your way. I appreciate your enthusiasm and the insistance on pushing of boundaries. I read through a filter of bitter sweet envy and yet you still touch me.

    For me aging has been the exact opposite. From very athletic and fit through a near fatal car crash, my journey has been about learning to respect my new physical boundaries. Finding joy in smaller things and gratitude for the things I can still do. Accepting that I can not follow my kid and friends. Learning how to preserve what still works of this beat-up bod.

    We definately share the sentiment of needing to do stuff NOW because who knows what tomorrow brings though. I thought I would share this different perspective.

    • Thank you so much for sharing this, Sonya. You're right that we both share an appreciation of being in the present and enjoying what you've got, while you've got it… but if I'm understanding you correctly, it also sounds like we're similar in some other ways, too: we're both finding new edges.

      Some of the edges are different (you're respecting the physical boundaries you've been presented with, finding joy in smaller movement) but some of them seem quite similar (gratitude practice, acceptance and surrender around limitations).

      Part of what's so interesting for me about the midlife transition is recognizing that the things we built our egos on in the first half of our lives just sorta stop working, or get taken away from us. For me, it was my ability to think myself out of my problems… I over-relied on my brain in the first half of my life, and let other aspects of myself atrophy (body, spirit).

      Part of my personal crisis / midlife transition was recognizing that my favorite tool (my brain!) wasn't going to save me (and in fact was threatening to do me in — anxiety is a bitch!). This sorta forced me to attend to the aspects of myself that I'd neglected, which has lead to finding a sense of strength in what I had perceived as my weaknesses.

      In some ways, it sounds to me like you may be doing something similar, just on a different front.

      Regardless, thank you so much again for sharing your perspective. I appreciate it so much! Lots of love to you.

  4. It's so important to take care of our body because is the only one we're gonna get. A lot of people think that working out is just to look good but they forget that also makes you feel good and it's amazing for your health.

    • Yeah, the real problem with working out to "look good" is that thanks to body dysmorphia, there's no THERE there! Thanks to cultural factors and inherited body image issues, there's no good enough, and so it can lead to chasing an ideal and never getting to a destination. (Which is a quick way to start hating movement! "I only move to look good… but I never feel like I actually look good enough… so why bother with movement? Fuck this!")

      For me, when I made my goal "feel myself inside my body," it was easier to find "success" and contentment. Did I feel my bones inside my skin today? I WIN! Did I feel my heart beating and myself sweating? I DID! *waves teeny trophy around*

      When I frame it that way, then superficial body changes become bonuses instead of the whole paycheck… it just all feels more sustainable.

  5. I love this so much!!! Thank you for writing this article, I had a serious "aha" moment while reading it.

    Like you, I wasn't ever particularly in great shape. I'm not a big workout fan. I'm currently 38, but the best shape I was in was from 31-34 and it's because I was dancing a lot.

    Up until reading this article, I could never figure out why I was so easily able to stick to going to dance class three times a week for those three years when I've never been able to stick to another workout routine in my life. I thought maybe it was just because going to burlesque class was more fun than going to the gym, which it was. But I tried going back to class after a break and couldn't get back in to it.

    Reading your article made me realize that when I originally started dancing it was because I had gone through a horrible break up and I decided I needed to do something different, I needed to meet some new people, I needed to get my confidence back, and I needed to move a bit more.

    I didn't go into it thinking I needed to lose weight (even though I did) or reach a specific physical goal. It was more about using movement to heal my spirit than my body. Healing my body and getting in great shape was just a wonderful side effect.

    I've been trying to find that magic bullet of a workout routine for the last 4 years and have yet to find something I can stick with, but I've been approaching everything I try with the mentality that I need to lose weight and get in better shape. I've been too goal oriented about it.

    Time to reframe that and say "It's time to get my body moving for fun and for my soul". THANK YOU!!!

    • Oh wow, thanks so much for sharing this! Although I don't think you've been "too goal oriented about it" — it's just that your goals have been results-focused instead of experience-focused. I say this mainly because I'm totally obsessed with goals… it's just that I try to make my goals about the experience/sensation/journey instead of the results/outcome/destination.

  6. Yay! I'm so glad you wrote about this.

    I think you already know this, but your fitness journey has been a major inspiration to me. I was always the indoor kid while my sister was out running and jumping and playing all the sports. My physical identity was "weak and afraid."

    I never had a consistent movement practice until I found pilates at age 35, which woke me up to how good it feels to have a body, but I didn't seriously start getting strong until this past year when I was majorly curious and inspired by your Studio Haaay posts! Now at age 39, I'm feeling my best. I'm stronger than I've ever been in my life, I'm less afraid of trying new things, I trust my body more, and most importantly, I finally feel a connection to how my body feels, what it wants, and a commitment to taking care of it. My evenings have transformed from vegging in front of the tv with pasta and wine to trapeze, ballet, kettlebell, pilates, and stretching. I started working with a nutrition coach and devouring library books to learn how to fuel myself as an "athlete" (WUT. It still feels weird to say that!) and have successfully increased my muscle and bone mass (important for aging women!) while losing weight.

    For me personally, goals really helped. I wasn't in tune enough with my body to "feel" it, if that makes any sense, so I wasn't really able to get the most out of exploration for the experience itself. It made me look around and wonder why it clicked for other people but not for me, which was frustrating. I needed to set goals for myself (1 pull-up, front splits) and then explore different ways of achieving those goals to see what body "language" made most sense to me. I also had to learn to walk away from people (even professionals) who were not supportive of my goals (you're too old, that's too dangerous). Now I'm at a point where I have enough basic tools that I can play around a bit more, but my personality type is always going to need some structure around my activities.

    Thanks again for sharing your personal journey – it has been a gift to me!

  7. I was a very athletic person in high school and college – playing multiple sports. I continued to do so after college, playing volleyball until about 3 years ago when my oldest entered high school and my life became too busy (I just turned 42 this fall).

    I have come to realize the multiple benefits that I used to get from being active like getting out the stress of the day, working up a sweat, spending time with my team and having friendly competition. I can feel my muscles tightening up and now realize that I carry stress in my neck, shoulders and back. I miss exerting myself and pushing my body physically. My older sister, who was also an athlete in school, is having issues with her joints and muscles now and I can't help but realize that if I don't do something for myself then that will be me in the next 5-10 years. I also have a father who suffers from a Parkinson's type degenerative brain disease. Exercise is a big component to keeping him mobile and his brain healthy – and there is always the thought lurking that this disease could have been passed down to me genetically.

    So my goal in the next couple of weeks is to find a yoga class to keep my body stretched and my joints moving. The saying, "If you don't use it, you lose it," has never been more pertinent to me than at this phase of my life.

  8. Thank you for acknowledging the journey of the used-to-be-fit folks. It's a very weird place to be in, and mourning is a really great description of that feeling. It's really rough when people don't see that struggle, or worse- invalidate that it exists.
    I recently took a yoga class in the middle of a weekend long roller skate thing (a big physical challenge for no-longer-fit me,) and the instructor asked how I was feeling after. I told her that yoga was a challenge for me, since it really brings to light all of the imbalances and weaknesses in a body that was once very strong. She told me that yoga practice would always tell me the truth, and that sometimes facing that truth is really hard; How important is was to not get stuck in the loop of what used to be; and to focus on what is today and move forward. No one had ever presented it to me that way and I really appreciated hearing it.

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