By Susan Potok Harrison
An article from the NY Times made its way around social media and inboxes earlier this year, titled “What You Learn in Your 40s” by Pamela Druckerman. (She is also the author of the infamous book, Bringing up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.) In her article, she humorously talks about insights we gain by passing this milestone of turning 40.
As someone who recently had a week-long celebration of being firmly entrenched in that decade, I have spent much of this past year reflecting and ruminating about what age really means, observing those around me in similar straits, and how they seem to be rolling with it. We all hear that 30 is the new 20! 40 is the new 30! So many mindsets seem to want us to believe that aging is okay — because it doesn’t mean what it used to mean. The last time I checked, the year still had 365 days, comprising 12 months of a calendar. No matter how you choose to calculate it, if you’re 40 you’ve still lived approximately 14,600 days. And it got me to thinking, why are we all so obsessed with making 40 what it isn’t? Why not celebrate it for what it is, instead of trying to make it less than it is.
A few years ago I began a journey that I didn’t realize would take me where it did. After carrying healthy twin boys to full term, it had been 3 years and I still had 30 extra lbs to lose. What began as a weight loss goal became a personal archaeological dig: unearthing physical and mental traits I didn’t realize I had. Group fitness became a huge part of that journey. As someone who had been an avid runner and always eschewed fitness classes, I didn’t realize the incredible camaraderie and community I was about to experience. It was the beginning of the summer and my husband and I would be spending a lot of time on Long Island with our twin boys. After being directed by the fittest friend I knew, and doing my own research, I decided I would try Barry’s Bootcamp. I didn’t know the difference between a kettle bell and a medicine ball, the only burpees I had heard of were seeds, and I had never held plank for 30 seconds in my life. Yet, I was resolved. I was going to give it a go.
I remember everything about my first class … specifically, being told to run at a 7 speed on a 6% incline. After the first 20 seconds, I was clutching the treadmill sides for dear life, drops of sweat teeming down my face. The lithe, athletic-looking man running effortlessly next to me, shirt off, body glistening, said, “Honey – just so you know, studies have shown that you lose 30% of the efficacy of the workout when you hold on to the sides during an incline.” I managed some sort of barely audible whimpering acknowledgement, but in my head I was saying “Honey - just so you know, if I weren’t right here this second, I would be home sitting on my couch, eating a bagel with cream cheese. So it’s all good. I’ll take the 70%.”
From that first class, I became hooked. Immediately after the workout my mind was clear, my body was thoroughly spent and exhausted, and my clothes were drenched through. I was in love with this feeling! I became a regular at Patrick Frost’s 12:30 class in Chelsea, and I was in for a further surprise: Some of the fittest, most hardcore, and devout students I met were women and men in their late 30s, and well into their 40s. How could this be, I wondered – weren’t our bodies supposed to be on the decline, middle age malaise settling in, thus making it even harder to … stay hard? Why are some of these 42-year-old women lifting more than their 26-year-old counterparts? Sprinting faster, longer?
One of the answers could be simply that our stakes are higher. We realize the quantity of time we have left to “get fit” is shrinking. As we get older, we get less time – in every way. Scheduling personal items, especially as a parent, becomes a monumental task. As a single 28-year-old, you can wake up at 11 am, go to a noon spin class, have brunch with friends, run some errands, and hit up hot yoga at 6, before you go home to shower and out for dinner. As a 40-something mother of young children, your weekend exercise most typically involves shuttling said children to and from birthday parties, sports activities, and chess lessons. Fitting in a one-hour workout class on a Sunday afternoon means negotiating with your spouse for that free hour. Which leaves little wonder as to why time to workout becomes so precious. If I half-ass a class, I can’t stick around for the next one, or make it up later that weekend with something else – I’m screwed. I wasted my negotiated hour.
Another reason 40-somethings are defining a new class of “uber-fit” is, according to Natalie Raitano, 48, a dedicated Barry’s Instructor and a modern day cross between Raquel Welch and Sophia Loren, “We know ourselves better. We know what we need to do and what it takes to do it.” And she adds, “We have the discipline and commitment gained from years of experience to keep it consistent.” With each decade, something seems to diminish in our physical body: our metabolism is slower, our sleep cycles are shorter, our skin becomes less supple, and science tells us that after the age of 40, muscle mass declines 8 percent each decade. So the cold stark reality is that “mid life” is a time when we can no longer wave off taking care of our bodies. We have seen ourselves change through our 20s and 30s, and we have seen what it takes to “get back on track” after each indiscretion. What we put into our bodies as a 40-something has an almost instant result not only on the scale, but on everything else as well: our mood, our skin, our sleep pattern. The one counterbalance and arguably preventive measure to all of this is quite simply, sweat. A multitude of sins can be forgiven through a high intensity interval training class… that cheese soufflé or extra glass of wine the night before becomes pools of sweat on the treadmill the next day. Advice from doctors and fitness professionals alike is this: a regular and consistent cardio program combined with strength training is the new “apple a day.”
Patrick Frost, 26, Master Instructor at Barry’s, whose intelligent and creatively crafted classes attract all ages, yet have the reputation of being among the most intense, philosophically comments: “We live in a society that promotes youth and beauty, yet we forget that aging is one of the greatest gifts! The average 20-something takes their body and youth for granted. In your 40s, you have a greater sense of self and mortality. You realize it’s essential to exercise, not only for your body and heart, but also your mind. It is our self-imposed limits that hinder us in life. Age is just a number.”
It’s no surprise then that 40-somethings are filing in droves to gyms and boutique fitness programs around the city, and why we are crushing it. For us, fitness can serve as so many things: our physical accomplishment, our social outlet, our mood enhancer, our energy booster. It is our “me” time, our happy place. It’s an hour a day where we are completely left to ourselves, too busy sweating for even our thoughts! During that hour we are responsible to no one but the soul inside. It becomes quite a wonderful addiction. So getting back to that article in the NY Times, yes I have learned to wear black to lunch with the fashion editor, and never to buy jeans a size smaller “hoping” I will fit into them. But I have also found out: I can sprint at a 12.5 on a 6% incline, I can squat 205 lbs, and I can now hold plank in different movement variations for 9 minutes.
Further, I have learned I have a strong soul inside with the mental and physical fortitude to lose 30 extra lbs and keep them off. I have uncovered a true passion, and I’ve never been fitter in mind, body and soul. 40 is more than 30! And I can’t wait to see what the rest of this decade brings. I’d say that’s something to celebrate.
Susan Potok Harrison worked for 15 years on Wall Street and in Investments before she became a mother. She’s a die-hard Bootcamper who also loves trying new fitness programs around the city. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature and Theater from the University of Michigan, and an MBA from Harvard Business School. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and twin boys.