Keeping Fit After 40

Once upon a time I wanted to ‘look good.’ Now I just don’t want to die.
Stock photograph from Adobe Stock

In my 20s, my health goals were simple. In fact, you could hardly call them health goals. I just wanted to “look good” and get better at jujitsu, a lifelong obsession. Being healthy seemed like a nice and inevitable side benefit.

At 30, I had two kids, and had learned that the joke of men gaining weight during their wives’ pregnancies was not a joke at all. And so my goal in working out (something I figured I should probably start doing again) changed from “Look good” to “Don’t get fat.” “Get good at jujitsu” became “Maybe I should do jujitsu again.” (If you’re wondering what jujitsu looks like, imagine high school wrestling performed by people dressed in ninja pajamas who are ignoring many of the rules of high school wrestling.)

As 40 approached, I found I could no longer take things for granted. I’d made being active a habit again in that last decade, ate fairly well, and had even opened my own jujitsu school, but one day during a checkup, the nurse, as always, took my blood pressure. Until then, all I knew about blood pressure was it consisted of two numbers, and that mine was always good.

Until it wasn’t. It was high enough, in fact, that they prescribed me little pink pills (I’d always felt a little smug checking that “no meds” box on health forms). The words “stroke” and “heart attack” came up in the conversation — words, it turns out, that do nothing to help one’s blood pressure.

I talked to my buddy, a year younger than me, and it turned out that he had high blood pressure, too. He took the same meds — prescribed when he was a personal trainer, two days after he’d run a half marathon.

“My doctor told me you can’t outrun your genes,” he said.

Or, apparently, your age. In addition to struggling with blood pressure, I recently found out I had high cholesterol. My new doctor put me on medicine for that, too, but I wanted to try and lower it on my own first. I cut the booze down to almost nothing. I ate celery and Brazil nuts and took garlic supplements — all apparently good for lowering cholesterol. I worked out more. I was optimistic, but my numbers remained high. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising. I have a family history of high cholesterol. That doctor was right — there was no outrunning it.

And so, I take the pills. I eat better, drink less, and work out regularly — if differently than I did before. The words “stroke” and “heart attack” still rattle around in my brain (as does the looming number 45 — according to the Mayo Clinic, it’s the magical age when men’s risk of heart attack increases), much better motivators than looking good on a beach.

I asked one of my longtime jujitsu and fitness coaches for advice on training for longevity. He told me that I was asking the right question. So many of the workouts we do are designed either to mimic professional athletes — which we are not — or to look like people on Instagram, who don’t really look that way.

He put me on a program that’s easy to stick to and, according to some papers I’ve read, much better for me anyway, doing a variety of dumbbell lifts with long, slow reps. I ride a stationary bike, too, but not as hard as I once would have done. Turns out going slower for long periods, while easier, can actually be better for your heart. And I still do jujitsu. It’s great for cardio and gives me a social life, and outwrestling a 20-year-old never felt so good as it has since my last birthday.

I told my doctor about the lifting program. He’s a former wrestler, so he gets the jujitsu thing. We sometimes talk about our younger days (even though he’s younger than me — somewhere along the line, that became possible). He said the new weightlifting regime sounded good but was probably better for slow-twitch muscles, and didn’t jujitsu require training more fast twitch?

I said it did but that I wasn’t lifting to get better at jujitsu anymore. That instead, jujitsu was a part of my stay-healthy-and- don’t-die plan.

He nodded thoughtfully for a moment. “That’s a good plan,” he said.

This story is part of the 2023 Health Guide. Read more in our Digital Edition.