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In my twelve years as a personal trainer, and as someone writing this article in my thirties, my observation is that the challenges of this decade are far more to do with how we manage the growing pressures of a more responsible life than they are with any tangible descent of our hormones or metabolism. Indeed, I would say anecdotally that this anticipated decline is massively exaggerated and is all too often a self-imposed destination for many who believing they are fighting a losing battle.
Recent studies suggest that there really isn’t much holding you back from being in amazing shape throughout your thirties (and beyond), the extent to which you will be is up to you and is ultimately going to be determined by the quality of your decisions and how consistently you implement your exercise program.
What to expect from your body:
Let’s take a look at what actually changes in our thirties, recent studies have found that we only lose between 3-8% of our muscle mass each decade. Interestingly, whereas most people believe this to be worse as times goes on, these figures appear to hold up decade by decade until we reach the age of 60.
This process is called sarcopenia. The discussion around this should be nuanced, because the causes of sarcopenia are multifactorial, i.e. it's not simply age that determines what happens, because our activity level, nutritional intake and other lifestyle factors are going to play an important role too.
Remember the exception proves the rule. In my article about how to manage fitness in your twenties, I suggested that you use that decade to maximise your muscular potential. Assuming you accomplished that, maintained a healthy lifestyle and only lost 3% of your muscle between 30-40, then another 3% between 40-50 and a further 3% between your 50-60’s, would it not be possible then to arrive at 60 years of age with 91% of your muscular potential? I don’t know about you but I’d take that deal in an instant.
Of course, I’m being a little facetious, few people know how to go about maximising their natural potential for muscle, fewer still achieve it, but that’s the not the point. The point is that the rate of decline can be acceptable, even minimal if we make the right lifestyle choices.
Let’s also look at the other side of the coin - let’s say you never lifted a weight throughout your twenties, then fell in love with strength training at 30. Whilst you may not have acquired 100% of the muscular potential you would have had if you had found this passion at 20, that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t end your thirties with 10-20lbs+ more lean muscle than you started with.
Now all of that talk is a little muscle heavy, which is by no means everyone’s goal, though it does highlight my point that there is a small decline in potential occurring over this decade but the extent to which it actually effects you is largely in your own hands. There are of course some other subtle changes you are likely to experience in your thirties, which I’ll dig into shortly.
Now this is the real challenge we face with our thirties. Social and financial pressure really kicks in during our thirties, in the pursuit of our careers or to meet the demands of our growing personal responsibilities. We often sleep less, take on more stress, exercise less, and play less, and the combination of all of this generally leads to poorer food choices and less energy to get to the gym. You can see how quickly ground is lost and things can start spiralling out of control.
In fact it’s such a common downward spiral that I would be confident in estimating that 80% of my online personal training clients that find me in their 30’s resonate with the scenario above, and helping them out of that situation is always about broader lifestyle choices than the details or any one training program.
Let’s have a look at the steps we can take to get the best out of health & fitness through our thirties…
1. Psychological state management
One of the biggest tips I could give anyone in their thirties is that unlike your twenties, your energy levels are now a finite resource that need to be managed, not taken for granted. Again, this isn’t really because of your age, but because of the external demands and responsibilities that come along with this decade.
Managing your state means choosing the things that are right for you, and taking ownership of discarding those that are not.
There is only so much time any of us have so if we want to make the right things happen in our lives we need to be aware of and manage our own thoughts and emotions, what we can broadly consider our ‘psychological state’.
This means selfishly (in a good way) pursuing the things that keep you in a state of feeling good, it’s that simple. If you notice a certain setting, person, activity, food type, even career choice is consistently making you feel negative over time, it’s best to re-examine your relationship to it as soon as you can, easier said than done, but such is the way with difficult decisions.
Allowing your state to be negatively impacted on a regular basis is going to lead to lower quality thoughts and emotions, it then won’t be long before that starts influencing you to make worse decisions. It’s not uncommon in this state to start using food, alcohol or over-activity to null the pain of the gnawing reality of something in your life not feeling quite right in your life, and my advice is to explore what is making you feel that way, face it directly and cut this off at the pass. This type of action directed at your own self-interest may on the surface seem selfish, but for you to be the best version of yourself you need to pursue what is in your own judgement, good for you, the net effect is that all those who interact with the deliberate version of who you are get you at you best.
Managing your state keeps your mental and emotional well-being as a priority, which sets you up to feel good a higher proportion of the time, and will help you make better decisions this kind of 'state management' allows you to stay far more consistent with your health and fitness efforts.
- 2. Managing Energy Levels
In your twenties, energy levels felt like they were unlimited, but unfortunately it’s not the same through your thirties. Your body seems to have slightly less regenerative power, so second chances are less forthcoming, meaning we have to manage our energy levels as a finite resource. Again, I don’t believe this is all that much to do with age as such, but more to do with schedule and responsibility, you’ll be less likely to be able to get naps when you want, taking a day off will feel less guilt-free and you just generally have a lot ‘more on’ than you used to.
This is a good thing and all part of the price of pursuing the kind of life you want to live, but just as with your psychological state, if you want to consistently be making the right decisions for your health, make sure you are managing your energy levels.
All of this means you’ll need to get proper sleep, rest and recovery from exercise, avoid overtraining and steer far clear of dietary ‘short cuts’ + low calorie quick fixes. Aim to navigate away from unnecessary stresses, don’t say yes to things that you don’t want to do out of politeness, or convention and listen to your body when it tells you it needs to rest.
- 3. Understand your relationship to stress.
What I’ve written above may come across as hiding from discomfort or perhaps aimlessly chasing feeling good all the time. It isn’t, and that’s not my suggestion either. The fact is that life is going to throw us curve balls, it’s in our thirties that we’re likely to experience at least a minor health scare or if not almost certainly will know a peer that does.
Life is going to give us stress, believe me, and if you load on top of that what it’s going to take to pursue your goals, and pursue personal development in your thirties, you are going to encounter resistance and you will have to shoulder periods of high stress. This is termed 'getting out of your comfort zone', and is a prerequisite to success in any field including exercise, that's built in, it comes with stress by design. You could perhaps even call it positive or ‘eustress’ but what you want to avoid is the type of stress that has not utility that will only tire you and expose you to risk.
It is prudent to build mental models and regular physical practices you can deploy to protect yourself from succumbing to the effects of stress.
Stress & The ‘fight or flight’ response
Firstly, stress isn't inherently bad, it’s part of our bodies natural defence mechanism. When we’re in a stressful situation we trigger what is known as the fight or flight mechanism which floods our blood stream with adrenalin (epinephrine) and cortisol, giving us hyper awareness, and the ability to flee or fight off a potential threat.
This process was all well and good a few thousand years ago when ‘stress’ meant a sabre tooth tiger was attacking us, because we either got out of the situation alive or we didn’t - it was a simpler time.
Cut to this version of ourselves in the modern world. We walk around worrying about paying our bills, or the boss breathing down our necks, but our bodies don’t know the difference - the stress still gets registered and those same hormones that helped our ancestors escape the Tiger could our flowing through our blood streams once more and could be very detrimental to our health.
The fight or flight mechanism is intended for extreme i.e life or death situations, as such it should occur temporarily and then diminish quickly once the 'tiger' is gone and calm can be restored. However, chronic stress (as we experience it) drips those stress hormones into our bloodstream like a dripping tap, and because this response evolved as a short term response, long term health processes like immune function, healing and reproductive function (i.e. things you’ll only need if you get away from the tiger) take a back seat which as you can imagine can have a big impact on your emotional and physical well-being. If the stress is not lifted, these functions may not be fully restored (ever wondered why your libido drops or you get sick more when you’re stressed?)
Not just that, but stress is linked to inflammation, and many of the biggest diseases in the modern world including heart disease, arthritis, cancer, and diabetes are linked to higher levels of inflammation.
I say all of that to drive home the point that we really need to take steps not to take on unnecessary stress. And also, to have systems and rituals in place to help you manage it. These could be as simple as keeping a list of the things that bring you joy as in the image abobe.
Yoga Nidra is a great way to practice what Dr Andrew Huberman has coined non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) a practice that has been shown in studies to aid in entering a restful state, reduce stress and anxiety and even speed up learning.
- 4. Consistency is everything.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make with a health & fitness program is to get caught up in an ‘all or nothing’ cycle of full on exercise and dieting and then allowing things to go to zero when life gets in the way. In my estimation, this is the single biggest mistake you can make with exercise, all of the heavy losses are taken when you allow activity to go to nil, if you are in that position right now, I have a guide for how to get back into exercise after a long layoff.
The solution to this is to establish a ‘fall-back plan’ or ‘minimum viable dose’ of activity that you ALWAYS maintain whether you are proactively pursuing a fitness goal or not, this way you hugely lowering any potential down side. Remember humans evolved to move, not necessarily to go lift heavy things in a nice air conditioned gym, that's optional, movement is not. I’m not saying that to be mean, its just a law of nature, it’s entropy. I.e. that which is not used will be taken away.
When you accept inactivity over an extended period of time, you’ll likely lose hard earned muscle, and fitness levels, not to mention expose yourself to health risks all of this compounds to make your eventual return to exercise a far harder route than it had to be and you’re likely to make worse short term decisions in pursuit of fast results (which in my experience never works)
- 5. Digestion is suddenly 'a thing’
One thing that you may have taken for granted in your twenties was your bulletproof digestion, unfortunately most people have encountered some kind of medium to long term digestive issue by the time they are 30. In fact, I would say that 70-80% of my inbound online personal training clients report some kind of regular digestive discomfort.
This could be due to a myriad of reasons; past medication use, bouts of food poisoning, poor diet, poor posture, bad food. Taking care of your digestive health is very important through your thirties, and getting out of regular discomfort can yield a significant increase in quality of life.
Whilst digestive enzymes and other supplementation may be useful in dealing with food and even as is the case with glutamine, could aid in actually repairing your gut lining to counter leaky gut syndrome, your thirties is the time to really explore what kind of diet works for you.
This is a very individual pursuit. For instance, just because a food type is consistent with a certain label or way of eating that is currently in vogue, does not mean that it is by definition healthy, nor right for you. Often there is some correlation between lifestyle measures implemented by those following a given diet and the content of the meals themselves, that does not confirm causation.
For example, let’s took a look at a simple one, reducing refined sugar levels in your diet is generally going to be a good thing, but choosing ‘low sugar’ options of all your favourite foods is not necessarily an improvement, because perhaps the displaced sugar has been replaced with a chemical that could be worse for your health. So in this scenario, avoiding anything that needed to be labelled ‘low sugar’ to be seen as healthy, then augmented with chemicals to make it palatable was the mistake.
Not only that, that which is ostensibly healthy for one may not be well tolerated by another. For example Garlic, a reputable ‘super food’ for many due to it’s antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties and yet for others, will trigger days of discomfort because it's high FODMAP.
- 6. Defend mental & physical well-being
One of the lessons I’ve learned personally in my thirties is that one should defend a position of wellness as vehemently as you would try to heal a position of ill health. You never know when a big blow to your health by way of ailment or injury is coming. I’ve had friends perfectly well one day wake up with a life changing bout of arthritis the next, still others fine one week, and then in surgery the next, life will hand us bad hands from time to time, but by developing what we might consider a ‘health consciousness’ we can do our bit to remain in the best possible position to fight it, or perhaps be able to stay under a threshold for certain problems to rear their head in the first place.
Don’t wait until you are compromised. Second chances are less forthcoming the older we get, the road back gets longer and ground is lost faster, so its best to do all you can not to get yourself in that position. Then if fate strikes, you’ll be better poised to face it with a sense of surrender to what is.
The Practical Part
The Low down:
- 2/3 x weekly resistance training (de-load every 6 weeks)
- 2 x HIIT workouts per week
- Mobility & Activity every day
Think in longer training periods
Now that we’ve discussed many of the psychological and lifestyle elements you must face in your thirties, let’s discuss the practicalities of how to actually structure your fitness efforts.
Firstly, I think a mindset shift is useful with how you approach your workouts, if time is harder to come by, you may be low on sleep and stress has become a factor, we should ensure that workouts are deliberate and have an intended outcome.
This means taking a longer-term view of working out and training in 4-8 weeks cycles, book ended with a week of active rest or ‘de-loading’ period. This will enable you to restore energy levels, let the CNS rest and heal all those little microscopical lesions you’ve induced with your resistance work (sounds bad, don't worry its normal). Then return in earnest to face a new training protocol.
This is known as periodisation and key to both ensuring you get results over time and avoiding burnout. For example you might spend 6 weeks doing 2 x total body workouts at 3 x 15 reps, then take a rest week and come back to a new training phase which could be push, pull, legs at 4 x 12. For 6 weeks.
The important thing is long term thinking, knowing that you will be switching up training protocols after a certain amount of weeks. You should always Know what to track, keep variables like rest, speed, reps, and exercise order consistent so that you’ll have options for what to vary in future training programs, that's how you keep your body adapting to your training and build long terms success into your training regime.
The big difference in your thirties compared to your twenties is that your lifestyle is different, you’re busy, stressed and often tired, so you need to account for that in the way you exercise.
Leave the workout once the job is done
Avoid overtraining in your thirties by leaving the scene of your workout once the intended stimulus has been achieved - more is not better, don’t exercise for longer than 50 minutes unless you do endurance sports. The added time you would have given to more exercise is better distributed across a portfolio of other, lower intensity activities.
HIIT workouts should be wrapped up within 30 minutes ideally, again more is not better, adequate recovery and your body having everything it needs to adapt is better.
Working out is not enough
In your thirties you can be in great shape with an effective workout program, but that alone does not keep all of the dragons of chaos at bay for long. Many of us sit more, have more stress, and generally just don’t move enough so don’t think that just because you look in great shape and get that morning workout like clockwork means you aren’t also exposed to further risk through inactivity of the sedentary parts of your day. Still type of lifestyle can still lead to a lot of pain and postural problems that could keep you out of the gym, more and more studies are coining sitting 'the new smoking’
You can avoid these problems by embracing hobbies, sports, yoga or just more walking as often as you can, you might not ‘play’ as much in your thirties, but you have to keep moving, daily.
As you can deduce from what I’ve written above, I strongly believe the quality of your thirties will be determined by the choices you make over the course of those ten years, don’t buy into the hype that your fitness goals are no longer possible due to your age, there is absolutely no reason you can’t be in the shape of your life throughout your 30’s in fact I've helped hundreds of people achieve just that. Prioritise your health & wellbeing above all and you’ll end the decade in similar shape to the way you started it, only a little wiser.