“Humans are extraordinary at compensating," says US mobility guru and coach Dr Kelly Starrett, when comparing fitness levels between 20- and 40-somethings. It's what allowed us to adapt and outlive the dodo. “We learn how to paper over cracks in our bodies,” he says. “But it’s this short-cutting habit that also risks leaving our bodies riddled with weak spots that can be painfully revealed as we hit middle age.”
Sure, you can run diversion tactics by splurging on a Harley-Davidson, getting a huge tattoo or running away with your work wife, but you'll eventually break down. Alternatively, you could repair those cracks in your armour before they lead to your demise. We’ve pooled 12 tests of your physical ability from experts in strength, cardio, mobility and old-age exercise to help you spot and address any issues before it’s too late.
With over 25 years of experience coaching Olympic athletes, beginners and everyone in between, Saucony ambassador Nick Anderson is an expert in covering the ground on two feet. Feel free to ask him any running-related questions on Twitter @nickandersonrun
1. Run a 5K as Fast as You Could in Your 20s
Tests: running efficiency, training intelligence
Getting older is all about getting wiser. Your physical peak might have long expired but your ability to problem solve and exercise smarter is your greatest strength – one that’ll let you keep up with your 20-year-old self back when your joints didn’t creak and your organs fully functioned. “The key is to allow yourself to recover completely,” says Anderson, who used to run 100-mile routes in his 20s but now substitutes the occasional road run for low-impact workouts on the cross-trainer or bike. “It now takes me two to four days to recover from a hard run,” he says. If it takes you much longer, a vitamin deficiency could be the root cause. For really tough runs, Anderson recommends using a sports drinks that include the key minerals sodium, magnesium and potassium to keep up with your younger self.
2. Power up the Everest-like Escalator at Angel Tube Station
Tests: leg strength, cardio
At 27 metres high and 60 metres long, Angel is London’s biggest escalator and the real-life answer to Gladiators’ travelator (were you to take it on in reverse – but don’t, you’re in your 40s). You need to be equipped with serious strength and stamina to scale it. Practise your politest “excuse me, please” to get people mistakenly hugging the left side out of your damn way, then start climbing. Bonus marks if you’re carrying luggage or a small dog.
3. Dispatch 18 Holes Before Lunch Without a Golf Cart or Caddy
Tests: strength endurance
Your handicap might drop as you get older but that doesn’t mean your physical strength should follow. If you neglect it and let vehicles and caddies do all the hard work on the golf course, though, it probably will. “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” explains Anderson. To help you make it to the 18th hole, Anderson prescribes a healthy dose of squats and power cleans. “They’re tremendous full-body lifts that strengthen all your lower body and core muscles,” he says. For squat strength, aim to lift close to your five-rep maximum for five sets. For clean power, go relatively light and lift dynamically for five sets of five.
At 72, Eddy Diget of DW Fitness in Oxford is the UK’s oldest personal trainer and former champion bodybuilder who can probably still lift you under the table – so to speak.
4. Sit Down Without Wheezing/Groaning/Sighing/Swearing
Tests: eccentric leg muscle strength, flexibility
Research suggests grunting and shouting can help you lift heavy in the weights room. It doesn’t, sadly, aid the daily chore of sinking into your seat. If you’re constantly groaning when you slump on your chair, it’s probably because you’ve got weak eccentric strength in your hamstrings and glutes. Improve this with slow box squats. Stand by a box or bench (or your couch) and lower for five seconds until you’re sitting. Pause, then drive up powerfully to stand. Start without weight, then add weight by holding a kettlebell or a barbell across your shoulders. Shoot for three sets of ten for effortless sitting technique.
5. See Your Penis Without the Use of a Mirror
Tests: waist size, healthy body fat
You’ve entered your 40s and your DiCaprio-rivalling dad bod is taking shape nicely. That’s fine, so long as under that belly-putty exterior is a machine firing on all cylinders. It’s not so fine if you can’t see your manhood anymore thanks to dangerous levels of visceral and subcutaneous fat ballooning your midriff to alarming proportions. Your BMI can be misleading and scales inaccurate, so to see if you’re reaching the danger zone, measure your waist size instead. NHS Choices deems you to have a high risk of health problems if your waist size is more than 94cm (37 inches) if you’re a man or more than 80cm (31.5 inches) if you’re a woman. To measure your waist, find the bottom of your ribs and the top of your hips. Breathe out naturally and wrap a tape measure around your waist midway between these points to find your measurement. Waist size can fluctuate if you’re bloated after eating, so measure before meals.
6. Get Busy at Least Once a Week
Tests: sexually active life expectancy, libido
It’s not the size of your boat, it’s the health of your seamen. That’s what matters, according (in slightly different words) to a paper in the British Medical Journal examining “sexually active life expectancy”. The study found men (and to a slightly lesser degree, women) in good health were more than twice as sexually active as those with poor or fair health and that you can extend your sexually active life by five to seven years from the age of 55 by simply being healthy. It also found 30% of healthy people aged 65-74 still enjoy sex at least once a week. It might not be as regular and vigorous as in your glory days, but you should at least be able to keep up with the pensioners. Don’t have the stamina – or libido? Cut back on booze and smoking to give your little general a fighting chance.
When not putting The Body Coach Joe Wicks through his paces as an S&C coach for Technogym or whipping the rugby players at London Irish RFC into shape, Tom Eastham is correcting office chair posture abuse at London’s W10 Performance.
7. Have the Co-ordination to Strike a Penalty Without Embarrassing Your Son
Tests: co-ordination, balance
Come on now. We're a nation of World Cup winners. OK, so you weren't born back in 1966, but the least you could do is pay Sir Alf's heroes the respect of never doing a Diana Ross. If you do, your kids will be put off football for life – like we suspect America was after her penalty debacle at the 1994 World Cup opening ceremony. If your foot-eye co-ordination and balance are off, fix them with Bosu ball toe taps to avoid tripping on your run-up. Stand on one foot on the soft side of the Bosu and tap the other foot forwards, backwards and either side on the floor without falling three times, then switch feet.
8. Carry Your Partner Over the Threshold (Heavy Breathing: Acceptable)
Tests: core strength, romantic inclination
Be a romantic and carry your loved one to bed at least once a month. Technique, as much as might, is important here. Bend your knees, keep your bum low and back straight and drive from your glutes. Once you’ve scooped your paramour into your arms, keep your core rock-solid so you don’t tip forward, and beware knocking their head against tight door frames. The Zercher carry, where you walk with a barbell in the crook of your arms, is the perfect acid test.
9. Deadlift Your Bodyweight
Tests: full-body power, core strength
If you can shift your own weight, lifting that of your partner’s should be a doddle. Aim to lift your own weight for five perfect-form reps. Here’s Eastham’s breakdown on the different options, from easiest to hardest.
- Raised box deadlift – reduces range of motion
- Sumo deadlift – takes pressure off lower back
- Switch-grip deadlift – increases grip strength
- Romanian deadlift – targets hamstrings
- Snatch-grip deadlift – challenges back muscle
Kelly Starrett is a physical therapist, coach and the author of Deskbound: Standing Up To A Sitting World and has revolutionised how everyday humans approach performance and their realisation of athletic potential. Here’s how he defines being in shape.
10. Touch Your Toes – or at Least Your Shins
Tests: flexibility, range of motion
“In your 20s you can get away with murder,” says Starrett. “Your engine runs a little bit hotter. In your 40s you need to be a little more conscientious.” That means you need to perform regular MOTs on your bodywork to keep your engine ticking. The minimum is to touch your toes, or at least your shins, without bending your legs. Next is to hold a ViPR tube in the front squat position and squat while keeping your heels down. Then it’s to press the ViPR overhead to full extension so your head is in front of your arms. Last is to drop into an overhead squat with the ViPR raised and your heels down. Use this as your regular warm-up to maintain your range of motion and mobility.
11. Do 30 Minutes of Activity Every Day
“The biggest mistake people make is boxing off fitness into time at the gym,” says Starrett, highlighting that physical inactivity is a bigger risk factor in mortality than obesity. “Staying fit and active is a 24/7 pursuit. It’s all the little bits of effort that add up to the whole package.” Consistency is everything – and the easiest way to achieve this is by swapping four wheels for two for your commute. You don’t have to go full-kit Lycra brigade, but working activity into your daily routine means exercise doesn’t have to compete with your work and social life for attention.
12. Drop into a Pistol Squat
Tests: mobility, joint integrity
Pistol squats aren’t easy, whatever your age. But with this test you don’t need to drive back up – just sink into the bottom of one cleanly on either leg. It’s a basic movement pattern for your ankles, knees and hips, similar to the action of stepping up on a high box, and one you should keep working at even if you’re not trying to impress your gym crush anymore. It’s like keeping your muscles, joints, ligaments and tendons thinking – sudoku for your skeleton – that’ll help delay physical senility setting in early.
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Sam Rider is an experienced freelance journalist, specialising in health, fitness and wellness. For over a decade he's reported on Olympic Games, CrossFit Games and World Cups, and quizzed luminaries of elite sport, nutrition and strength and conditioning. Sam is also a REPS level 3 qualified personal trainer, online coach and founder of Your Daily Fix. Sam is also Coach’s designated reviewer of massage guns and fitness mirrors.