Image by Patrick Demarchelier
I arrived at the spa as a newly minted 40-year-old woman.
I left as a 24-year-old.
Let me back up.
Earlier this summer, I turned 40. My mom wanted to do something special for me, to mark the occasion. We decided to hop on a train up to the Berkshires to Canyon Ranch’s New England location, in part because after I graduated from college my mom treated me to a weekend at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts. The symmetry of returning to this bucolic destination spa now, with two decades and two kids under my belt, seemed sort of fun. Plus, I wanted to take advantage of their “Discover Your Fitness Age” testing –if only to motivate me to work out smarter, better, harder. (Those two decades and two kids can poke holes in your time, energy and resolve.)
I arrived at my session with exercise physiologist Heather Giordano with a strained calf muscle and an achy lower back and hips. During the two-hour session, she assessed my aerobic capacity, my muscular power, my body fat, and my proprioception. The results of the testing in each category yielded a variety of ‘ages’–which reflected how my numbers compared to the general population at large.
We started with the calipers. (Is there a more terrifying sentence in the English language?) And when you look at how my body fat scored, I’m your basic 40-year-old made up of 26% body fat. There’s definitely a bit too marbling, as it were, around the tummy (thanks, kids!) but overall I’m still in the healthy zone. Whew.
In the aerobic arena, my huffing and puffing on the treadmill (and ignoring the discomfort on my left calf) yielded better results than I would have thought. Based on how high my heart rate got at various intervals and then how fast it went back down, I have the thumper with the oxygen capacity of a 20-year-old.
While I’m not going to dispute the digits, somehow the fact that I generally put in close to a 10-minute mile these days doesn’t jive with that assessment. Then again, the testing was just a handful of minutes long, and I was able to grit my teeth and do what I needed to do. And in that way, my body is able to perform pretty well! (Also: I hope that means that should I ever need to outrun an assailant, my 20-year-old self would kick in?)
Next up, “muscular power.” Into the weight room, where I was able to grimace and grunt through 15 (VERY) assisted pull-ups. Again: I clocked in at 20 years old.
At this point in the assessment, I was already composing the text to my husband about how he should feel lucky to be sleeping with a co-ed.
Since I was able to do the hardest exercise option in the section, Giordano didn’t even bother with the other tests she might have run if the pull-ups were too hard. (i.e. Squats, bench press, bicep curls.) Good thing, because after the pull-ups, my arms were quivering.
Finally, proprioception, which is a fancy way of saying, “how likely am I to take a spill and break a hip?” The technical definition, says Giordano is all about your ability to move in space and maintain your balance. Same same! The agility test on this one had me start from a standing position and see how far I could jump without landing on my ass. My goal: to jump farther than I am tall. Spoiler alert: I am five feet tall. Which isn’t a lot. But thank goodness everything is relative, and so the fact that I could fling my body 110% of my height gave me a fitness age of 25 for this section. Not too shabby.
Each of the four sections counts for a certain percentage of the overall calculation. Aerobic is 40% of the total score. Body fat is 20%. Muscle power is 30% and Proprioception is 10%.
Giordano hit me with the digits and pronounced me…24.5 years old. (Just in time for my quarter life crisis?!)
The truth is, I felt conflicted about these results. On the one hand, I felt like a superstar and patted myself on the back for doing something right over the last decade or two.
On the other hand, I had this feeling that for me, such a great result might actually allow a bit of complacency to creep in. After all, the last decade has not been my MOST fit (again, the kids have a lot to do with that) and I still managed to shave off so many years. What kind of motivation does that give me to ramp it up?
But in talking with Giordano about my results, and asking about some of the persistent aches and pains I have – aches and pains that put me FIRMLY in the field of a woman in her 40s, I might add – it became clear that the changes I’d need to make to feel better, look better and sure, maybe even chip off a few more years, aren’t all that drastic. And it’s those first two we talked about even more at length.
My consistently tense and sore muscles aren’t something they evaluate for; sure, I can suck it up and breeze through testing, but for me, adopting a real strength training routine that uses more than just my own body weight can have a twofer result. I will shave off some body fat and replace it with lean tissue. The imbalances caused by postural issues, too much sitting, and areas of weakness will all fade away.
So while I was able to crow to my husband that I am the twenty something he’s dreaming of, I actually left Canyon Ranch with more than just a temporarily plumped up ego and super clear urine. (Thanks to the multitude of beverage stations, stocked with lemon water.) I left with clear idea of how I am doing and how to get better each area.
Even if you don’t have the chance to get tested, chances are you know if there are weaknesses in your body. Here’s how Giordano recommends you can improve in each category:
Body fat: This one doesn’t exist in isolation from the others. To improve your breakdown of fat and lean muscle you need to improve your diet and exercise? That means eating the correct portions and good quality food to help you to lose fat, while doing aerobic exercise to increase the calorie deficit and strength training in order to maintain lean body mass.
Aerobic: The answer is simple, although might not like it. You have to work out a bit harder than you currently are, says Giordano. Monitoring the heart rate during exercise is one way to determine if you are working hard enough, she says, but you can also just use the rate of perceived exertion test. Trust yourself. You know how hard you’re working, so be honest.
Muscular power: Working the big muscles of the body with big powerful moves will give you the most bang for your buck. Nothing fancy required, either. Go back to basics, says Giordano. Squats, burpees, deadlifts, planks, and pushups are some of the best moves ever. Add hand-weights to certain moves wherever possible to increase the load.
Proprioception: Anything that forces you to move your body through space in different directions (up, down, forward, backwards) will help. Jumping rope is even great. Yoga can help with balance, and don’t forget about our old friend Step aerobics, to work balance, agility and coordination.