Authors of “Fit at Mid-Life” book urge others to try fit at 50 challenge

Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs.
Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs.
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We can sometimes forget that we won’t live forever, but when our age is about to click over from one decade to the next, many of us make big life changes, often committing to new health regimes with the hope of aging well, if not preserving our youth. The midlife decade birthdays – 40, 50, 60 – start to loom about a year or two before we get to them.

People like to view these milestones as calls to action. That’s when we start new diets or ramp up those occasional runs into more regular training. There’s even a name for these individuals: 9-enders. Studies show that when 9-enders run a marathon, they do better than people two years younger or older. The spectre of a new decade spurs them to train harder.

We were hired just one year apart (1992 and 1993) into the department of philosophy at Western University in London, Ontario. We discovered many similarities in our backgrounds and world views. Both of us had immigrated to Canada with our families as young children. We’d both gone to the US to do our philosophy PhDs.

We shared research interests in ethics and feminist philosophy. And we’d both been born in 1964, less than a month apart. Through countless coffees, lunches, walks, and chats in the department, we’ve had a more than 20-year conversation about dieting, fitness, and the social pressure on women to see these in relation to only one goal: getting thin.

But diets don’t work in the long run (sorry, they just don’t), and there are lots of other, more self-nurturing and empowering reasons to play sports and get active.

On the eve of our 48th birthdays, as 50 came into view, we set ourselves this challenge: by the time we turned 50, we would be the fittest we’ve ever been in our lives. We called it our Fittest by 50 Challenge (FB50, for short). To document our challenge and to invite others to join our conversation, we launched the blog Fit, Feminist, and (almost) Fifty.

We expected our friends and relatives to read it. We could not have predicted the blog’s impact. It started off small – a few hundred readers in the first month, a few hundred more in the second. In the sixth month, the blog registered over 20,000 hits. By the end of the seventh month, that had more than doubled, to over 44,000. We’d struck a chord.

Our challenge had begun when, right before her 48th birthday, Sam posted this on social media: “As I approach the two-year countdown to 50 (I turn 48 at the end of this summer) I’d like to set an ambitious fitness goal. Roughly, I’d like to be the most fit I’ve ever been at 50.”

A long thread of comments ensued. People had all sorts of views about what markers would make good evidence of “most fit”. Speed? Heart rate? Increased distance in running or cycling? Body composition?

Tracy joined in the challenge and we launched the blog to give us some accountability, with a more public goal. We wanted to write for a general audience of women and to offer them an alternative way to think about their fitness goals, divorced from the cultural obsession with looking a certain way. We were sick of that perspective, and we guessed we weren’t alone.

Physical activity is a tremendous source of joy for both of us. The blog attracted like-minded readers as well as those who were ready to try a new way.

Our cultural bias favours looks over physical strength, health, and fitness – and sets most of us up to fail. If you’re like us, you are tired of hearing about long cardio sessions and light weights. And you’re even more weary of the sea of pink that dominates women’s fitness: pink shoes, pink yoga clothes, pink running skirts, pink stability balls, pink dumbbells. Enough!

We are living proof that there is another way. It’s not easy to reject the strong cultural messages about losing weight and the obligation to diet that bombard us daily from all directions. Even when we become aware that dieting for weight loss isn’t working for us, it’s tough to resist the magnetic force of the idea that if we could just lose a few pounds, we’d be OK. We also need to get past the view that exercise and physical activity are joyless duties that we need to undertake to keep our unwieldy bodies in check. There are lots of good reasons to resist the mainstream view. Reason number one: Why miss out on the fun you could have? We can reclaim play in our adult lives. Reason number two: Medical and health research has shown over and over again the slim odds of losing weight and keeping it off over the long term. So let’s set that aside and look for other sources of motivation. That’s where fun comes into the picture.

According to Dr Michelle Segar, director of the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Centre at the University of Michigan, fun motivates us more. It turns out that people who work out for health and weight-loss reasons typically work out less than people who do it because it feels good. And an active lifestyle gives us energy and strength as we age and becomes a whole new source of fun and friendship.

As you read our book, you’ll notice three different things going on. One is the thread of our personal narratives – our stories of our individual experiences in undertaking our Fittest by 50 Challenge, each told from our own perspective. These are first-person accounts, told from the “I” point of view, and appear as distinct chapters at the end of each of the book’s four parts. The other chapters take up different issues in and aspects of fitness and paint them with a feminist brush. Sometimes we offer social commentary; sometimes we give overviews of the facts and latest research.

When you read those chapters, you’ll hear the voice of a unified “we”, but when we use our own experiences as examples, we talk about “Tracy” and “Sam” so you don’t get confused about which of us we’re referring to. Finally, even though this is not a how-to book, we do have tips, strategies, and thoughts that we’d like to share with you, things that might help you as you think through the pursuit of fitness in your own life. Most of all, if you’re frustrated with the dominant narrative about women’s fitness, we hope Fit at Mid-Life inspires you to join us and the many women we know who have reclaimed fitness on their own terms. 
Instead of viewing a 9-ender year – or any looming new year – with dread, we can use it to embark on an exciting challenge. Using fun as a motivator and setting aside the idea that the number on the scales is the most important thing, we can redefine fitness in our middle years. As women who have been bombarded with all sorts of messages about how we’re supposed to look, let’s use this time of life to challenge ourselves in new, exciting ways that defy expectations.

For example – is there a sport you’ve always wanted to try or a physical activity you’ve wanted to take up? Why not use your next birthday as an occasion to branch out and do it? You could even hire a trainer or expert for an intro session – it’d be the perfect gift from someone special, or to yourself.