Gyms after 55

Several years ago, my brother in law gave me a bicycle because I thought it would be a good idea to start riding to work (20ish km)as a time effective way to improve my overall fitness.  This cartoon from The Oatmeal pretty much sums up the results of this:

running oatmeal.JPG

Take away some hair, add a few years, and exchange long distance bike for long distance runner and you get the idea.

So this year I decided that I needed something new when I saw a picture of myself standing next to my brother and brother in law in Costa Rica. I saw that and thought “that will not do.”

I’ve never liked gyms, but had heard some good things about Orange Theory’s high intensity training (it only takes an hour!) and decided to look into it. My brother has been in the fitness industry for 20some years now, so thought he would be a good source of intel.

Me: “Have you ever heard of Orange Theory?”

Brother: “Yeah, they are popping up all over the place, seems like a good concept.”

“I’m thinking of joining”

Silence for a few seconds: “You know how they work right?”

“Yeah, HIT stuff, hooked up to a heart rate monitor, treadmill, rowing machine, floor excercies. Get killed for an hour then go home.”

“How long has it been since you did any upper body work?”

“Well, I bowl a couple days a week and then drink beer with my left hand, to offset the bowling. It’s awkward but necessary cuz I don’t want to look weird with one big arm. And golf for my core, that’s important. And I always walk.”

“Wow, that’s really unimpressive. Listen, you can see what everyone is doing there. You know how you are, and you cannot try to keep up with the kids. Or anyone else for that matter.” (I added the last sentence as it was unsaid, but he was inferring it)

“I’m past that man. I’m actually going with an ex-NHL player. I know can’t keep up. And everyone just watches their own numbers and doesn’t pay any attention to anyone else. I’ll be good.” Oh, as an aside. That was pretty much bullshit. I don’t try to keep up, but I am acutely aware of my buddy on days we go together. If you want to feel good about yourself DO NOT workout with an ex-NHL player who is 20+ years younger than you are. Just a bit of advice.

Anyway, I asked around a bit more, decided to try it, and went in on a sample visit on a referral from NHL guy.

The rest of this is a description of what it is like to be a 58 year old at a high intensity gym where there are really not that many people in your age group. They exist, but the odds of one being at your session is low.

I’ve been going to Orange Theory for 3 months at their Kensington gym here in Calgary. I love it there, and all the coaches and staff are really fantastic. And all are funny, which is a requirement for me. As a few of them might see this, here is my disclaimer. I will make fun of you below. In a good natured way. As a wise man said, I kid because I care.

The first time I went in there was a guy coming out of the gym. He was literally covered in sweat. I didn’t think anything of it really, but the coach said “that’s Martin Gelinas” probably to impress me. But I’m American, so really, not overly impressed with hockey players. I mean, you can’t get a cup of coffee in this town without running into one. My computer screen blocks the view of one in my office. Truly a dime a dozen. BUT I should have paid a bit of attention. The ex-professional athlete (who still looked to be in great shape) was covered in sweat. Alarm bells should have started ringing immediately.

I asked the staff if they had many people over 50 and they said, “oh yeah, lots” which I’m sure must be true because they wouldn’t lie to me and I’m sure there is no incentive to sign up members. After a few months I must admit I haven’t seen many of them.

So they take you on a tour and a coach tries to explain how all the machines work , basically crams an hours worth of instruction into about 5 minutes. I didn’t get much out of it except thinking “the rowing machine looks fun.” (This was incorrect) and that if I ever messed up getting off the treadmill everyone was going to have to do burpees. Since I wasn’t 100% sure what a burpee was, this seemed like a hollow threat.

So here is how it works. The workouts are about 1 hour long. In any given session you will spend around half time on the tread (or bike in my case) with the remainder split between mostly floor exercises and aforementioned rowing machine.  You wear a heart rate monitor and there is a big screen with everyone’s monitor displayed. 5 zones. Grey, blue, green, yellow, red each corresponding to a heart rate percentage range. Max is based on the old 220-your age for max. So my max is 162. Lets say you are 30. Your max is 190. Seems fair right? Those younger folks can work harder without, you know, dying. Goal is to spend between 12 and 20 minutes in the yellow and red zone.

heart rate zones.JPG

Here is where that age thing starts to kick in. If I’m at 135 BPM I’m kicking it in the orange zone, where 30 yr old is in the old blue. This could be good. I get to the orange zone faster and start earning those splat points (don’t ask me why they call them that). Problem is I’m NEVER out of the orange and/or red zone. 12-20 minutes in the orange and red? Try most all the minutes. Some in green. Blue and grey are abstract concepts. They do build in some recovery times. In theory anyway, because remember that max heart beat of 162? Well, when I’m exerting I get up to over 170. The monitor only goes to 99%, and I’m way over 100%. During bike sessions they will say, “back to base. Active recovery, get it back to the green zone.” Green zone? I’d take under 95% please! The coaches with their keen eyes notice this. Every single one of them have asked varying forms of “are you ok? because I’m looking at your heart rate and I’m afraid you are going to die. Which would really mess up my class.” I might have embellished that, but they do ask if I’m ok and I have to explain that my heart rate tracks high.

There are 3 types of workouts, Endurance , Strength, and Power. And a combination called ESP days. My definitions are E (exhausting), S (shattered) and P (punishing). Maybe ESP is Extra Special Punishing? I’m sure there are people who can tell the difference between each but whatever man, they are all hard.

The bike/treadmills are basically spin class, running class type of stuff. Base/push/all out efforts sometimes with, sometimes without hills.  Since I’ve spent a bunch of time riding, I’m surprisingly good with this and find it easiest to regulate my effort.

The floor is another beast. Remember that bowling, golf and beer drinking as upper body exercises?  Turns out, they are not. Shocker, right? For most of the under 40 crowd (we shall call them assholes from now on), they tend to recover on the floor, particularly doing arm or leg exercises as opposed to the jumping around and over shit exercises.  Me, a big nope on the recovery. More orange and red for Rick! And my weights are embarrassingly light and I never finish all the exercises, again, great for the ego (though in fairness I have progressed substantially since the beginning). I’m pretty much bad at all of them, but I save a special place in my heart for:

The Core Blast. I hate the core blast. First off, I hate the coaches who demonstrate the core blast in all their super fit “look what I can do” glory. Oh, lets just jump on the floor, suck our non existent bellies into our well proportioned back and do some motion that is impossible for a regular person to do at best, and anatomically impossible at worst. And then say, “do 15 a side” with all their bubbly enthusiasm. A side? A freaking side? Is this a freaking joke? How many days do I have? Then they show the next core exercise, then the next. Wonderful.   First off, I can’t do a core blast as I’m missing the key ingredient. A core. If they had a gym for people my age it would be called “Core Theory.”  Then, to add insult to injury they give you the “alternate version.”  As I think has been mentioned, I have a bit of a competitive side, and would rather die than do the alternate version. Which leads me to my favorite part of core blast. Coaching. Listen guys, I know you are trying to help. And I know technique is the most important thing (no I don’t). But as I’m giving pretty much every ounce of effort I have, trying to perform an exercise while missing the actual muscle set being targeted, I might not be always the best at receiving your helpful advice on how to properly perform something I can’t perform properly. Don’t take it personal.

There is also a fixation on squats and variants thereof. Pop squats, jump squats, situp on bench to jump squat, pop squats with ball, pushup on bench to squat (like an evil burpee-I know what they are now and not a giant fan). So I know everyone comes to the gym to get fit. And I know there are some ulterior motives for some of the younger set to target specific anatomical features. But enough with the glutes already people. Nothing is making my butt look better. Just sayin.

Upper body exercises are funny to me. After a good bike day, or the ubiquitous squats, my legs will certainly be sore the next day. Not so much the upper body. I have a theory: if you have no real muscle left there is nothing left to tear down, therefore no pain afterwards. And while they are getting stronger, the process is slow!

Then there is the rowing machine. Ahh, rowing machine, how I hate thee. You sit there all rowy and benign looking when in truth you are nothing but pure evil. You give a false sense of hope in the beginning only to gleefully leave your rider in a state of utter exhaustion and despair at the end. There are many ways we are tortured on the rowing machine. All out blasts of 100m, some 200, 400, 800 etc. Basically each has it’s own particular charm, with the differentiating feature being how long you are going to suffer and at what intensity. At 100m the suffering is short but intense in the last 15 seconds. At 800m it is much longer (like 500m of it!) but not as intense. But like the core blast, I have a special place in my heart for “4 Minute Distance Row”.  I’m going to paraphrase a few coaches here:

“So we are doing a 4 minute distance row. Remember how far you get. The goal here is to row at a level you can maintain for 3 minutes, leaving 1 minute to up the intensity level. Spines straight like you are playing a piano, then 60% legs, 20% core (uh……), and 20% arms. Legs, core, arms, arms core legs. 3, 2, 1 go.” There are many problems with this. The obvious core problem. The fact that once all brain function cease after about 2 minutes the sequence “legs, core, arms” starts to morph into any and all of the permutations. Which makes you look silly. But the biggest problem is this: How to figure out what you pace is for a 4 minute row. You can see all the stats of the machine, with stroke rate and power being the biggies. I’m sure there are people who have this pegged. Me? I go out too fast, even though I try not too, every single time. Coach after one minute “keep you power up”. I’m trying. After 2 “everybody is looking great, keep that power up”. (SHUT UP) “Arms core legs, legs core arms” (Is that even english, starting to sound like Charlie Browns teacher now). At the three minute mark “ok everyone, pick it up” Pick what up, exactly? My dignity? Self-worth? If you mean pace, are you out of your ever loving mind? And cranking up the Guns and Roses ain’t helping either. I’m just hoping this one minute doesn’t seem like a geologic age. I’ll take a millennium for $200 Alex. And I dare you to come within striking distance of this handle. When the 4 minutes hit, they say “remember your distance.” You look at the number but your eyes won’t focus and really, they make no sense anyway. Heart rate? 180 (“Rick are you ok?” Honestly, do I look ok? Is there a puke bucket?)  You sit there panting like a long haired dog in the Texas heat, wondering who all these people are and they say, ok, back to the floor. Let’s go.


I saw a guy yesterday who went out way too fast and was noticeably dying at 2 minutes (I felt like shit, but at least thought “I’m kicking that guys ass!”) At 3 he his giving it everything to hang on and held out to the 4 minute point. He, like me, did not give any extra at 3 minutes cuz once you are at all ya got, there ain’t no more. And he finished like a champ. When the coach said “rack your handles” he threw his at the soul crushing evil that is the rowing machine. He is my new hero.

Which brings me to my final topic, the coaches. I often wonder what they are thinking. There are typically 12-20 of us they are trying to motivate and after several sessions with any coach, you kind of know their routine (and I am in no way mocking here, just the way it is). They all have their musical tastes and it ranges from music of the day to 80s Rock and Roll and everything in between. At the beginning, everyone is all bubbly and happy. 1/2 way through there is still the odd high 5 and muted enthusiasm and by the end most of us are thinking “I dare you to come closer and say ‘can you give me more’? They are relentlessly enthusiastic. And knowledgeable. And sometimes mildly annoying.  But always helpful even when some of us (at least me) can be a bit unwilling to accept that help.

As I’ve been told many times on these things, I don’t know when to stop. So I’m going to try to stop. I went in to this thinking I would do 3 months to give it a fair shot and see if my ego can handle not being able to keep up anymore. 3 months is fast approaching, and I have no intention of stopping, even though this fully applies:

The Oatmeal Exercise Response (with bad words) 

At 50 it’s even worse than this. And it is tough on the ego, but the results outweigh it.

In reality, I have lost about 10 lbs, without any real change in diet. Weights are going up. I actually spend significant amounts of time in the green zone (except on the stupid rowing machine), though still more than I’d like in orange and red. I recover much, much more quickly. I have really noticed that on the bike and I am able to maintain more power with less heartbeat, both on the stationary and real bikes.  I have legit added distance to my driver on the golf course. I’ve played for 45 years now, and adding distance at 58 is pretty hard to believe after about 10 years of getting shorter every year. Hasn’t helped the bowling, but I can drink with my right hand now instead of being all awkward with the left.

So even though I spent a bunch of time telling you why it sucks, it doesn’t actually suck at all. It’s hard but very rewarding. It is a kick to work out with a huge age disparity, boys and girls mixed together, though sometimes it looks like a junior high school dance.  There is a lot of good natured ribbing that goes on, which makes it even more fun, particularly when you are dying.

To the coaches and staff, thanks! I truly enjoy what you’ve created. I’ve tried a couple of different OTF gyms and like them too. But you guys are by far my favorite. With the possible exception of eye rolling kids and Guatemalan’s with attitude.

Oh, and if you ever again think “mayhem” is a good idea I will hunt you down. I’m serious.

4 thoughts on “Gyms after 55

  1. Thank you Rick, I’m 57 and going through the exact same experience, only with the added twist of being in Quebec and not understanding French. The workout is a constant state of confusion, not understanding if I’m doing a 5 minute or 30 second all out. On the bright side the instructor’s repetitive enthusiasm is not an issue. Like you I wanted to hate it, I wanted to make fun of it but I continue to go because unlike other gyms this one works.


    1. Thanks Tony! Didn’t know my little screech made it to Quebec. I can’t imagine not knowing how long the all outs are, it would be like torture. You could just purposely misinterpret “all out” to “walking recovery”! Probably decrease the usefulness of the workout, but it would be like your own silent protest.


  2. I will soon be 66 and was so excited to meet another member in the same decade!

    Every drive to OTF is self talk ‘will just take it easy today…it’s enuf to just get there’. Within seconds of class start, I am working hard…and my goal is to work hard and get less than 20 splats! And self talk on the way home is along the lines of ‘I did it, again’!

    Grateful for OTF!


    1. Hey Linda! I have yet to be under 20 splat points, I think my min was 23 when I did a recovery workout after a charity bike ride (200 km over 2 days). But it’s certainly getting better. The trend is down because my recovery is so much faster. Congrats on keeping at it! Brutal but worth it.


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