Friday, November 7, 2014

Can you get fitter at 50 than you’ve ever been in your life?

What if it were possible to restore the body to peak physical condition? Author Margaret Webb finds out

Photograph by Daniel Ehrenworth 

This year, some 275,000 Canadian women will turn 50. How many of them will, like author Margaret Webb, grimace at the sight of themselves in the mirror, or avoid looking in one at all? Webb is a former varsity athlete who, over time, “starched” on the pounds, despite training for a half-marathon in her early 40s. At 49, she still smoked. And then there was the menace of menopause. “Nouns started dropping out of my sentences as fast as estrogen was leaking from my brain,” she writes in her new book, Older, Faster, Stronger. On one occasion, she forgot the word for bottle and asked someone to “pass the thing that holds wine.” A writer who forgets nouns? That didn’t augur well, and Webb still had goals for her career.

But what if it were possible to restore the body to peak physical condition? The question became the impetus for a year-long journey toward super-fitness in which she submitted to gruelling fitness tests, pushed herself physically to the limit, and talked to 80- and 90-year-old female track stars, all the while documenting it in her book, which suggests turning back the hands of time by 20 or 30 years is physiologically possible.

One stop in her journey was a visit to Greg Wells, assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Toronto. Wells coaches elite athletes and is an expert in the field of extreme human performance. Webb wanted to know whether her goal to get fitter in her 50s than she’s ever been in her life was insane. Not at all, said Wells. “If we had a drug that did what exercise did, it would be the biggest revolution ever, and would be promoted all over the world as the greatest accomplishment of humankind.”

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