David Labouchere jokes about his current ranking among 8,000 registered Ironman triathletes in his age group worldwide. “I’m an elite old athlete,” says the 55-year-old Dubai resident from Britain. “I’m a world-class old man.”
Labouchere travelled to Hawaii in October for the Ironman World Championship, where he came 10th in the age 55 to 59 category. It took him months of punishing training and 10 hours, 13 minutes and 15 seconds to finish the notoriously gruelling event, which combines a 4-kilometre swim, 180km cycle ride and 42.2km run.
Labouchere took up the sport in 2009 after retiring from rugby, and still intends to win a championship – hopefully by the time he’s 60. “I’m in great shape, I do a ridiculous amount of exercise, I’m fairly careful about my diet, and I’m very careful about my sleep,” he says. “Being in great shape when you are older is very much about looking after yourself, recovering properly.”
After retiring from a career in the British military, the father of two grown children hit his stride four years ago by buying into the healthy cafe, gym and therapy centre Optimal Fitness in Dubai Studio City and, with his wife Caroline, proceeding to live life more fully than he ever did when he was younger. “I’m healthier and stronger and more energetic,” he says. “In fact I’m more, if you like, vital now than I was when I was 25.”
Enormous health benefits
While the fitness scene has exploded in the UAE – with more gyms, classes, races, influencers and trainers than ever before – the focus is often on people in their twenties and thirties. But right alongside them, sometimes lapping them, are men and women in their forties, fifties and beyond, many of whom are fitter than they were in their younger days.
The benefits of exercise for people over 40 are enormous, says Dr Lawrence Lear, a general practitioner from the United Kingdom who works out of the Up and Running Clinic in Dubai. The positive impact can be seen across the board: in controlling diabetes, cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lowering cholesterol, improving anxiety and depression and, in women, preventing osteoporosis. “There isn’t a drug on the market that could compete with it,” he says.
“In general terms, exercise for people in their forties to sixties is fantastic … I could go on all day, [and for] every single condition. Exercise just wins.”
'I will go on doing it for as long as I can'
Before Susanne Morgan moved to Abu Dhabi for her husband’s job 12 years ago, the 59-year-old British former nurse had been working overtime as a medical rep and had let her lifelong love of exercise wane. With the gift of time, she poured herself into activity. These days, Morgan is in top physical shape, working out every day at Bodytree Studio. She does the bespoke Bodytree Body classes, a challenging range, and on Wednesdays likes to double up by doing a barre and mini-trampoline class back-to-back. She also plays tennis with her husband three times a week, walks, and sometimes has sessions with a personal trainer to lift heavier weights.
Intense exercise was a lifesaver in helping to alleviate some of the downsides of menopause, including hot flushes and sleepless nights. Morgan also stopped eating sugar and cleaned up her diet, switching to fish, lean meats and eating salads daily. “To be honest, I do what I do because I love it,” she says. “I get up at 5am, I dry-brush my skin, I have a cold shower, I drink lots of water and I get my gym clothes on and I go off to my class … The feeling afterwards is just amazing. I will go on doing it for as long as I can and I don’t even think about it.”
Does she get tired? Sure, she says, “but I know that younger people feel like that, too”.
There’s nothing that mentally separates a fit older person from one who isn’t, she points out. “People say: ‘It’s alright for you Susanne, you do all these things,’” she says. “But I have to work hard at it.”
The risk of burnout
Exercise can be a great way for women to combat some of the challenges of menopause, agrees Dr Lear, not least of which may be anxiety. The way it helps release the body’s natural endorphins works like a natural antidepressant, he says. One caution he offers to the over-forties fit set – male or female – is the risk of burnout from ultra-intense and sustained levels of exercise. The training for an Ironman or marathon can simply be too much, particularly if people are stressed in other areas of their lives, says Dr Lear. “They can actually get quite ground down and exhausted because they are working long hours and are getting up very early to do their training protocols,” he says.
Dr Rosalie Sant, a gynaecologist obstetrician at Primavera Medical Centre in Dubai, also sounds a cautionary note. “Extreme sports after 40 pushes the body beyond what it should be doing and can lead to injury – so the planning of exercise has to be very good,” she says. And since women in their forties are already experiencing hormonal fluctuations, “extreme sports will disrupt the body even more”, she says.
Ovarian cysts and irregular periods can be issues, as can a drop in oestrogen production that ages the bones, cardiovascular system and skin. “It is like an early menopause,” she adds.
The metabolic stress from heavy workouts can also lead to higher levels of cortisol, lowering the immune system and leading to fatigue – a situation that is further complicated for women when other hormone levels are in flux.
Adjusting your workout
Jennifer Chalouhi is a 44-year-old personal trainer and mother of three in Dubai who has been heavily into fitness since childhood, when she learnt that it was a great stress reliever. Lately, though, due to changing hormones, she has been having to adjust her workouts and those of her similar-aged clients. “They come in with the same stories: ‘I’m stressed, I’m tired, I can’t balance anything,’” she says. “Everyone in their forties is complaining of the same thing.”
Chalouhi has been doubling down on good nutrition and making sure to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Exercise-wise she has been returning to foundations – stretching, breathing and lifting less weight. Still, her workout schedule is intense by anyone’s standards: “Stretching three times a week, cardio three times a week and once or twice a week full-on strength training, where I’m lifting weights or doing push-ups or handstands,” she says.
The most important thing for women in their forties to remember is that their exercise regime should be fuelling them – not wearing them down further. “We want to do it all, we want to be superwomen, because we know we can,” says Chalouhi. “But then we realise, let’s be realistic, we can’t put on so much load. Then something has to falter.”
'I am fitter now than I've probably ever been'
Even as he was recovering from tearing his anterior talofibular ligament in early November, Simon Pepper donned a 9-kilogram weight vest and continued putting in hours and hours in the gym. At 42, the father of two who lives in Abu Dhabi says his endurance levels are at an all-time high. Although he always loved exercise, it wasn’t until he moved to the UAE four years ago that he found out what he was capable of, mentally and physically. “I am fitter now than I’ve probably ever been,” says the marine engineer from the UK.
Not only has Pepper physically transformed himself, but he has become a true athlete, too. He’s a global ambassador for Spartan, having competed in more than two dozen of the arduous obstacle courses. Last spring he landed a campaign for Under Armour, with his image splashed in and outside of the sportswear company’s stores across the GCC for months.
In a Spartan race in the Philippines, Pepper not only came first in his age group (40 to 49), but he was also second overall. And about two years ago, he managed – briefly – to make the top 100 of the elite category in the world. And six weeks after injuring his ankle, he was back to Spartan racing.
“They say age is just a number,” says Pepper. “It totally is.”