I CAN recall quite vividly a conversation I had back in my teens at a gym where I regularly used to train. During that exchange I said to whoever it was, “my goal is still to be training when I’m 50.”
Back then 50 seemed ancient. When you reach 50, you still feel young at heart – or at least I do. So now, if asked the same question about why I train, I’d add that I hope to still be lifting weights and working out when I’m 70 – if I get that far!
And without the lycra shorts!
Longevity has never been my aim. But for as long as I am alive, I want to be in good health. As the saying goes, “the idea is to die young as late as possible.”
Sports, athletics and training has always played a significant part in my life. Thank God I discovered it.
Growing up, I never got into excessive drinking or smoking or drugs because (a) it didn’t make sense to me (b) I took my sport (boxing at the time) seriously and (c) I valued my health enough to not want to subject my body to abuse (ironic considering the sport I chose).
It wasn that way from the beginning. As a child and young person I had a sweet tooth. I’d spoon sugar straight from the sugar bowl and spend my pocket money on chocolates and fast food. Then, over time, I realised the relationship between food and health and human performance and that to have any advantage, I needed to make the right choices.
So while many of my friends were dealing with peer pressure growing up, I was always largely excused. I was in training. That was my escape.
Amongst my peers I was always known as the one who didn’t drink. I designated myself the driver on nights out, which again gave me an ‘out’. When out on the town and, inevitably, asked why I didn’t drink alcohol as though I was someone from Mars, I always felt confident and comfortable in saying it didn’t interest me, that I didn’t ever feel the need for it and wasn’t fussed on the taste.
Without thinking about it too deeply, I cherished being well far more than I did the experience of getting drunk or intoxicated or out of my mind. It wasn’t that I was ever a sick child and scared of being ill again. Quite the contrary. But maybe I saw enough sickness and drunkenness and hangovers around me to make me decide ‘I don’t ever want that’. And the occasions when I was unwell or injured, I remember the feeling as being less than enjoyable.
Let’s face it, being unwell is pretty miserable. Why would I choose that?
As you get older, it becomes more important to stay ‘fit’. The odds begin to stack against you.
We only have one body, which has to serve us for a lifetime. It’s senseless to destroy or weaken or abuse it.
It’s difficult enough as it is, with the best intentions in the world, to remain impregnable against the cascade of attacks on our health. There’s no way to fully avoid all the pitfalls of living in a modern world. But we can limit the damage.
Life can throw curve balls at you at any moment. You have to be ready. I know that the stronger and healthier I am, the better I can respond and the greater my chances of survival.
We have an epidemic in western and First World culture of people crumbling and dying from over-consumption of food and, more precisely, foods deficient in nutrients and laced with toxins and substances we’d often prefer not to know existed. This epidemic is made worse by a consumer culture driven to make life as comfortable and convenient as possible which, consequently, has resulted in populations of individuals becoming ridiculously inactive, physically.
The advent of the technological age now threatens our children and younger generations, many of whom no longer aspire to play freely in the fresh air, but instead would prefer to be fixated, with limited movement, looking at devices that provide all their entertainment.
Additionally, we walk mostly on concrete, wake up to alarm clocks, work in artificial light, live in heated and air-conditioned buildings, wear our feet in tight shoes, over-use prescriptive drugs for illnesses which, largely, can be avoided, find ourselves continually filling the space of every spare second of the day (thus increasing stress levels), all the while no longer really needing to employ much energy or guile to locate, collect and prepare our food in the way we were originally designed to.
It’s not a mystery why many of us are ageing well ahead of time. And so many people look and seem helpless to protect themselves.
It’s easy to fall into the trap. Although I have always been active and gone to the gym or trained at least four-five times a week since I hit puberty, I was for much of my adult life – without even realising it – what they call “active sedentary”.
If I knew at 18 what I now know, I’d have possibly made some different choices in life and career. For instance, I worked as a journalist for more than 20 years in the heart of London. My job required that I commute by train practically every day. I sat at a desk for hours in an office and on a train and in my car. Now the idea of being pinned to a desk all day doesn’t appeal at all. Back then, though, I never gave it a second thought.
I believed, as many of us still do, the one hour or so of exercise each day could offset the endless hours perched on and hunched in a chair in a soul-less building and away from the elements we were supposed to be in contact with. It can’t.
I travelled the world, meaning I spent hours glued to a seat on aeroplanes, breathing cabin air, going across time zones, disrupting my internal body clock, all of which steadily takes a massive toll. The experiences I had may have seemed priceless, but they most likely came at some cost.
It’s all a trade-off. But is it a fair exchange if you don’t know all the risks – if you’re not made aware, for instance, that sitting at a desk for years, as our children do in schools, is likely to wreak havoc on your posture and body later in the life? We still don’t know – because it is a relatively new invention – the full impact of how our addictive mobile devices are affecting us.
Trying to uncover the truth within the war of information isn’t easy. Those that feed us the ‘facts’ have ulterior motives or a strong bias. Sometimes you have to dig and we’re all too busy to do any digging, so we listen to conflicting opinions and messages, wind up confused and, consequently, do nothing.
However, doing something is better than doing nothing, even if it’s the wrong thing. Why? Because if you recognise you’re going the wrong way, you can always change course. It’s never too late.
For instance, about 12 years or so ago I made the choice to stop eating animal products. It was controversial in my inner circles. I’ve never regretted it for a second, though. I feel better for it. I’m not advocating it for everyone. But it was right for me and it still remains so.
I didn’t exactly go about it in the right way, however. But making mistakes is how we learn. Initially, being the only non-meat-eater in my family and amongst my friends, I was defensive of my choices, sometimes fiercely so. I think I offended some people.
I’m a lot more now of the thinking that everyone is entitled to make their own choice. But, armed with the information and feelings I now have, I’d have probably changed my eating much sooner.
Overnight, I went from being a meat-eater to raw plant-based. That was a shock for my body. I lost a lot of weight and fast (not that I wanted or needed to). I tried to say I felt good, but I didn’t – at least not always. I knew the food choices I was making were healthier, but not the healthiest. How I transitioned wasn’t the best.
After I heard people discussing and being concerned for my health because of the weight loss, I made a U-turn and then, in a more sensible manner after educating myself some more, eliminated the foods I no longer wanted to consume.
I’ve found more balance now with how and what I eat. It takes time. I know a lot more about it. I became informed. I’m not obsessed. I just realise it’s important because it affects everything. Much of our immune system begins in the gut. What we eat is therefore critical. For that reason it gets my attention and is a priority.
I feel healthier, stronger, fitter and more nourished and energetic than in a long time. I’m more flexible and mobile even if I am still lacking in flexibility and mobility. I’ve always got work to do, because the work is never over.
As gymnastics coach Chris Sommer says, “You’re not responsible for the hands of cards you were dealt. You’re responsible for maxing out what you were given.”
Had I known sooner about the philosophies of people like Sommer, I probably would have changed my approach to training a long time ago. I didn’t grow up in a world where, unlike today, information was at my fingertips or Youtube existed (technology does have its advantages!).
I did a lot of fumbling around to find a system and methodology that made sense and worked. I made a ton of mistakes. I did a lot of experimenting to figure out a way of eating that also worked and was sustainable.
Doing the Amazing 12 program and learning from Paul McIlroy about training and food has revolutionised how I approach strength and conditioning.
I read a lot and I’m considered in what I read. I listen for hours to podcasts on inspirational and from informative people. I’m a sponge for learning more from the many incredible individuals out there leading the way in that market of the world today.
I’m older now and don’t have the drive to compete like I used to. I’m happy with that, though. I wasn’t a world-beater as an athlete, even though I had aspirations to be. I’ve let go of that. I’ll leave it to the youngsters.
Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me greatly whether I’m first or last in something. It matters if I try my hardest and if I’ve executed a task with the standards I have set for myself and if I’ve made progress. I’m more at peace with any need to attract recognition for my achievements and exploits.
Of course, it’s nice to be applauded or revered, but it’s not essential or, for me, even required. What’s more important is how we feel about ourselves.
The real challenge is how to find equilibrium in our world with all the demands and distractions it places upon me and my well-being.
We are being bombarded by stressors from every direction. That’s why now the simpler things bring me the most pleasure.
I’m determined to be conscientious for the future of mankind and healthy, to serve and support my family, to be active and fully able to participate and play and interact with my young children for as long as possible. I strive to share what I know with others who feel there is something to learn from me and to help them to help themselves discover the promise that each and everyone of us has the right to.
The emphasis has shifted from what I can do for myself – as it does when you are younger – to how much of a positive impact I can have on other people.
And while I feel more selfless now, I still make myself a priority. That may be a paradox, but I’m of no use to anyone – in fact, I become a burden – if I’m not fighting fit for life and operating from a place where my essential needs have been met.
Life is, indeed, a journey of twists and turns and falls and delights and anguish and ecstasy and heartache. But it’s also an amazing place and with so much to explore and learn and experience. Sometimes I feel as if I will run out of time to fully appreciate and discover all I want to.
Many years ago my best friend, Bob Lesson, and I were in France on a beautiful sunny day and he said to me, “I’ve probably only got another 25-30 summers left.”
I’d never thought about my life in terms of summers. But, being a summer person, that’s one way of viewing how, potentially, little time remains and how precious each moment is.
I don’t know how, but I’ve been fortunate from when I was very young to be able to seek, find and go after what it is that really brings me to life. I almost have an inability to settle for less. I hope I don’t lose that.
Sure, I’ve had some jobs and periods where I felt listless, frustrated and as if I was heading nowhere, but the reality is that those moments served a valuable and essential purpose in getting me to and preparing me for where I did want to be. It nearly always does.
I’m far from perfect. But I try to work on my many imperfections. I’m patient because I have to be and because I know and have learned and understood that’s often how a process works.
If there’s one thing getting older gives you that should be really valued and cannot be ordered on Amazon, it’s experience.
Life should be a long and enjoyable journey. But, even when it’s not, I remind myself that change is constant and the most arduous paths eventually lead to some type of promised land.