Fit over 50: Dave Flanagan
Dave Flanagan is a 51-year-old journalist, writer and PR consultant, based in Kirkwall, Orkney. He’s been married to Shona since 1995 and they have a bass playing son, David, who is studying jazz at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. He is the author of Board, published by Fledgling Press, which records his efforts to learn to surf in his 40s.
I’ll let Dave tell you about his health and fitness.
Dave says: I came to fitness aged around 16, after years of being unable to participate in PE lessons because of a knee issue I’d developed following a childhood cycling accident. I’d also had eczema on my wrists since a very young age, which prevented me from swimming and contact with chlorine (on medical advice).
Subsequently, I was equipped with an exercise avoidance note from my mum throughout the bulk of my school years in Edinburgh. I didn’t have the greatest of diets either, with a very sweet tooth, so my puppy fat years lasted until I was about 15.
My fitness epiphany came when I tried hill walking with the Scouts in Leith. I found that I loved the outdoors and, before long, I began heading off on solo trips around the Pentland and Ochil hills, before graduating to multi-day, Munro-focused expeditions.
My legs got strong and my knee condition disappeared. I took up running and dabbled in martial arts before being introduced to weight training by a fitness mad maths teacher, who rightly guessed I would be better at pumping iron than doing equations.
Years later, I’m still lifting weights and, along the way I have competed in track and field, taught self-defence classes and taken up surfing and skateboarding.
I’m currently trying to get to grips with a set of gymnastic rings I bought last year – they’ve proved a revelation in terms of strength and coordination – and I’m trying to swim a bit more in open water. I still enjoy hill walking, too.
What’s it like being over 50?
I’ve not noticed any significant mental or physical changes now I’m in my 50s, beyond a few stiff joints on cold mornings. Indeed, I feel better than I did in my 40s, mostly because I’ve cleaned up my diet and eliminated as much sugar as possible. I no longer get the energy dips I did when I was in my 20s, 30s and 40s.
Recovery from hard training can take a little longer but listening to your body is key and I’ll take an extra day off if needed.
Hormonally, men begin to produce less testosterone in so-called middle age and it’s important to give yourself regular health audits in terms of how you’re feeling – physically and mentally. Exercise remains the best medicine though.
My health mantra in my 50s
Variety, consistency, commitment. Mixing things up stops you getting bored. Long-term consistency is more important than perfection.
Finally, when you do show up, put your heart and soul into it. Don’t be scared to push hard (providing you’re medically safe to do so, etc).
My 50-plus health tips
There are no quick fixes. Be cautious of gimmicky bits of gym equipment, programmes that promise all manner of gains in a short periods and weird diets.
Sort out your diet and your lifestyle. If you smoke, drink too much and eat a load of terrible food, then you’re going to struggle with fitness and feel terrible into the bargain. If you want to turn your life around badly enough, then ditch the fags and watch how much you drink and eat.
As we get older, our metabolism slows a bit and excess weight gets harder to shift, but don’t get discouraged. It’ll happen.
Keep it simple. You don’t need to join an expensive gym or buy thousands of pounds worth of equipment. I have a £8 skipping rope, which is one of the most effective pieces of equipment I own. Push-ups, burpees, bodyweight squats – they’re all free and require a small amount of floorspace.
Do it now. Not tomorrow, next week, or after Christmas. Don’t just do it before you go on a beach holiday, and then let it all slide when you get home. Be brutally honest about your motivation and reasons for wanting to get fit, then just get on with it.
Taking the first step is the hardest and, if you’ve never exercised, accept there’s going to be some discomfort along the way. It’s a process. Embrace it.
Defy the norm. Gyms are full of people after Christmas, but attendance tails off past January. Don’t be one of those rollercoaster passengers, training for a few weeks, doing nothing for months, then coming back to train again for a while. Consistency is key, not perfection.
Sometimes life does get in the way – work, family, illness, whatever – but if you maintain a good base level of fitness all the time, then you’ll be better equipped to deal with all manner of challenges.
Try something new and don’t listen to those who tell you you’re too old. I took up surfing at 40 and returned to skateboarding after 30 years. Both activities changed my life and I’ll give anything physical a try, hence the current focus on gymnastic ring training.
It doesn’t matter if you’re rubbish. Have fun and you’ll get fit without even noticing it. New activities stimulate the brain, too, and reconnect us with that exploratory physicality we all had as kids.
Embrace strength training. Add muscle and you’ll boost your metabolism, even at rest. It keeps your bones strong, it improves your coordination and self-confidence. Being stronger makes life easier and has cross-over benefits for a wide range of activities.
Stay drug free. I used to train in gyms where I’d be one of the few people not taking some kind of performance enhancing substance, something which always baffled me as I was looking to get fit and stay healthy, not just look huge. Now, in my 50s, I’m hearing a lot about men my age taking Testosterone replacement therapy. If it’s needed medically, fine, but I don’t accept the argument that you can’t gain significant muscle in middle age without taking steroids, hormones, or whatever else is out there. I’ve been a vegetarian most of my life and still get asked if I take drugs to make up for the mythical ‘lack of protein’ in my diet.
Give me a few examples of what you do on a regular basis (or at weekends/on holiday).
I try o surf as much as possible from the autumn through to spring, depending on work commitments and always aim to get four or five gym sessions done a week. These can vary from heavy weight training sessions, to lighter, more circuit based and bodyweight work. I frequently mix things up in the gym, doing bodyweight gymnastic ring work and heavy weights, or ring work and cardio- vascular, high intensity training. Other elements I bring into the week include punchbag work, hill sprints and skateboarding (a better workout than you might imagine). On holiday – usually in the West Highlands – the focus changes to hillwalking, swimming in the loch and training outside, whether that’s circuits, or stringing my gym rings over a tree branch. Sometimes, I just go for a walk.
Is there anything else you want to tell me on this topic?
Whilst I’ll always encourage others, particularly anyone in my age group, to get fit, the older I get, the more uncompromising I become in terms the excuses I hear. Yes, getting fit is hard, particularly at the start, but before long you’ll want to do it, rather than feel you have to. That’s the turning point, the Holy Grail, and with it comes all the benefits – more energy, better health, more self-confidence.
So, do it now. Go out and walk around the block. Do ten push-ups. Go for a short bike ride. Swim, play with your kids/grandkids/dog. If being part of a group helps motivate you, then check out activities in your area – walking groups, running groups, exercise classes. Everyone needs different forms of motivation – find what works for you then commit and form a new, positive habit.
Highs and lows of being in your 50s?
The best part of being in your 50s is just not caring what anyone thinks anymore. That frees you to go and try all those activities you’ve thought about for years, whether it’s skateboarding, surfing, mountain biking, kayaking, badminton, or playing the drums. If you’ve trained for decades, then that experience is worth a huge amount. You understand your body, you have countless tools at your disposal and you can shape and adapt your routine to suit your environment and circumstances. The low points? It hurts more when you fall off a skateboard.
To find out more above Dave see his website www.davidcflanagan.com.