The last gasp
"A lot of people reaching middle age are quite successful in their jobs and goal-oriented, and they apply these same principles to fitness training."
When did the midlife crisis become so sweaty? As my late 30s do a disappearing act, I thought it would be the time to cut loose with inappropriate cars, clothes and scalp carpet. Instead, the majority of my nearest and dearest have taken to exercise, and I don't mean walking the dog via the pub. I mean serious, athlete-level training regimens and born-again fitness zeal. I now know more marathon runners, yoga practitioners and gym bunnies than at any other time in my life.
Now don't get me wrong, I dabble in exercise, but I didn't so much see the light as have my doctor tap me sharply on the head with it. A recent full check-up held few surprises: liver function sluggish, cholesterol high. A few bike rides and reluctant gym visits and I'm back on track, but I have never sent texts like the one I received from a friend recently: "The swim was amazing. Seriously one of the best things I've ever done. Swimming 2.5km along the coast next to sheer rock cliffs looking over reefs
and schools of fish."
I now know more marathon runners, yoga practitioners and gym bunnies than at any other time in my life."
Fish? Reefs? Sheer cliffs? Why are my friends swapping late-night dancing in public fountains for early-morning beach swims, and exchanging elbow-bending for yoga? Is it the pressure of constantly seeing über-fit celebs like Madonna and Hugh Jackman? The rise of the cougar and its attendant pressure on both sexes to look better older? Or simply that we just want the energy to be more hedonistic longer than previous generations?
John Donaghey runs Human Design Health and Fitness and, with the majority of his clients aged 30-plus, he believes health concerns play a large part in the decision to hit the gym. "Sometimes these people's friends have had heart attacks, stress-related problems or panic attacks, so they don't want to end up like that," he says.
Anyone unconvinced of the benefits of exercise only need look at the statistics. Diabetes Australia says that 21 minutes of moderate exercise a day, combined with losing five per cent of body fat, can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 58 per cent. The National Cancer Institute in the US has shown that 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a day can cut the risk of colon cancer by 30 to 40 per cent and strongly reduce the occurrence of breast cancer.
But these moderate guidelines can't account for the exponential increase in ocean swimmers and marathon runners. Surely any sport that makes your nipples bleed is taking things a step too far.
"A lot of people reaching middle age are quite successful in their jobs and goal-oriented," says Donaghey, "and they apply these same principles to fitness training. These events make them train more regularly because they have a purpose."
Newly minted ocean swimmer Andrew Perrott, 37, general manager of an events company, was a heavy drinker and smoker who, in the past two years, has completed a handful of half-marathons as well as regular point-to-point swims at Bondi. He started running and swimming while wooing a particularly athletic woman, but it became a habit when he realised how bad his lifestyle made him feel.
"I reached my mid-30s and realised that I was still living like I did in my 20s," Perrott says. "I thought, 'If I don't do something about it now, this will become my life.' " One of his greatest discoveries was not just the health benefits but the positive effect exercise has on his overall lifestyle.
"Much of my excess living was done out of boredom, so I made a conscious decision to go for a run or a swim on a Wednesday night rather than drink two bottles of wine," he says. "The obvious health benefits are good, and vanity plays a part, but it's the mental reward that surprised me and ultimately keeps me motivated. If something is on my mind or I'm stressed, I go for a run and work through it; an hour later it's sorted."
Yvette Mayer, 39, chief digital officer at a marketing communications company, is a power yoga exponent and is training for a half-marathon. She finds that exercise clears her head, too, and the result is an increase in productivity as well as extra energy.
Mayer thinks being more mature can actually be an advantage. "With age come wisdom, determination and patience - all of which are valuable assets when training for distance running," she says. "I'm in a running squad that was developed specifically for beginner runners wanting to do the half-marathon. There are 20 in the squad and I would say 90 per cent of us are in our 30s or 40s."
According to Donaghey, one of the biggest problems facing those who get the health bug late is that they often forget that they have to walk before they can run 21 kilometres. "They don't have the body that they had when they were 20, so they shouldn't think they can do what they did then," he warns. "I interview new clients and they say they can run 10 kays. When I ask them the last time they did, it was five or 10 years ago."
Trying to launch into triathlons when the only sport you've been doing is channel surfing can result in overtraining, injuries or, worse, becoming demotivated by not reaching your unrealistic targets.
Manageable goals were paramount for Adrienne Smith, 41, a mother of two, when she embarked on a fitness renaissance. She had previously been a runner, but the sneakers had spent a decade or more in the cupboard. As 40 loomed, she took up running again as well as swimming, yoga and regular gym visits.
"I had always looked younger than I was, but I thought some dark magic would occur on my 40th birthday and suddenly I'd look my age - I could no longer rely on my good genes and good luck," Smith says. "And once I looked 40, I'd have to behave 40."
She started going to the gym, which had child-minding facilities, so she not only had physical benefits "but some space away from my toddler". Progressing to swimming laps she found the solitude - away from everyone and everything - addictive.
"Looking good at 40 ceased to be the goal. I relished feeling good again and having time to myself - which was funny, really, as I found myself up the duff again the night before my 40th birthday party."
The fear of ageing was also what motivated mother-of-four Tana Turnbull, 39.
"As a woman, when you hit 30, your metabolism just goes," Turnbull says. "You suddenly can't eat what you want, and you have to exercise or things change really quickly. It's pretty scary."
Like many new midlife fitness enthusiasts, Turnbull admits that her health took a back seat in her 20s. But about five years ago she decided to reduce the martini intake and ramp up the Powerade. She wanted to feel better but she also noticed "I had to keep up the exercise to maintain what used to be easy to maintain".
Now, Turnbull - a keen skier and snowboarder who boxes and does triathlons to keep boredom at bay - is trying to save others from a life with a pudgy midsection by training to be a group fitness instructor.
Ask these born-again exercisers what the hardest thing is about getting fit when they're older, and it's not the scale of their ambitions - whether it's running a marathon or walking the Kokoda Track - it's sticking with it.
"The whole bloody concept is a challenge," says Perrott. "I'm no natural athlete and when I was exhausted after running a few hundred metres or swimming one lap of the pool, it was very frustrating and depressing.
"I was close to giving up a lot at the start. But that soon changes once you see some progress. To be able to do something that seemed extraordinary to you a few months ago is a great feeling and I get a real kick out of that."
Getting fit when you're no spring chicken
1. Check with your doctor. If you've been inactive for a long time, you need to get medical clearance.
2. Be honest about your fitness level. Important things to know in midlife are blood pressure, resting heart rate, body-fat percentage and weight.
3. Start slowly and build up gradually. When you start exercising at 40, try not to expect results overnight; slow and steady always wins the race.
4. Schedule exercise like you would a meeting. Health is important, so make it a priority.
5. Be consistent and make it fun. When exercise is enjoyable, it doesn't seem like a chore and so you'll stick to your routine longer. Try weightlifting or boxing or even dance classes, or sign up for an adventure hike.
- John Donaghey, Human Design Health and Fitness