When two friends raced ahead of him on a mountain walk,Pat Fitzpatrick felt ‘over the hill’ at 52. He needed to get fit — fast.
I got a fright in the Comeragh Mountains last November. Two friends and I were doing the Coumshingaun Loop Trail, a fairly vertical, 400-metre ascent to the top of the horseshoe-shaped cliffs, around a handsome lake.
Every few minutes, the mist would lift and give us a peek at the most underrated view in the country.
The only thing breaking the silence was me, panting and wheezing and crankily asking the other two to slow down. I was so light-headed that it was hard to keep my balance at 700 metres above sea-level.
But that precariousness wasn’t what gave me a fright. The shock was that I felt like I was over the hill, metaphorically.
I’d flown around a less-demanding Comeragh hike six months before, when another friend of mine had played the ‘slow down lads’ old man part. Now, it was my turn.
I blame my friend Séamas. He grew up herding sheep during the summer in the mountains around Bantry, and is a human goat. Séamas set the pace, as we headed towards the summit on Coumshingaun, and I tried to keep up, because I’m a man and we can’t help these things.
There have been other breathless moments. On their walk to school every morning, I push the children on their scooters up a steep section of Tory Top Road, in Ballyphehane, Cork, which usually involves me struggling to catch my breath outside St Joseph’s Cemetery. Say what you will about God, but he’s got a good sense of humour.
Our next Comeragh climb is in a few weeks and I don’t want to be the old man again. (Ageing isn’t a problem, as long as you have a friend who’s ageing faster than you.)
But I have neglected my aerobic fitness. My weekly game of squash and the odd hike aside, I just don’t get out of breath often enough these days.
That’s a problem. I sit for a living, and, according to a report by the American Heart Association, a sedentary person’s risk of a cardiac event is 50 times higher than a person who exercises five times a week. (I’m not exactly sure what is meant by a cardiac event, but I know I don’t want to be on the guest list.)
Exercise, in this case, is defined as 30 minutes of moderate activity, but I want more than that. I want to get the benefits of what is now referred to as LLE (life-long exercise).
A recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that people in their 70s who have decades of exercise behind them have the same heart and lung capacity as healthy people in their 40s.
The extra exercise needs to be something I can fit into my schedule. I can’t go running, because I banjaxed my back.
I can’t go to a gym, because it would waste too much time. I need a decent aerobics routine I can do at home.
I head into meet Ray Lally, aka The Happy Fitness Guy, at Club Vitae, in the Clayton Hotel in Cork city.
He’s the fitness instructor and personal trainer there and has worked with elite sports stars like soccer player Stephen Ireland and Limerick hurler Graeme Mulcahy.
Ray is positive without being patronising, and even said that my trainers were better than his. This shouldn’t matter to a 52-year-old man, but it did.
He starts by measuring my metabolic age, an advanced way of gauging fitness, using the same test 40-year-old Leo Varadkar did recently on Operation Transformation, where the machine told him he was 53. Leo seems to spend a lot of time jogging, so I worried what the test would say about me.
The result was 53. Does it say this to all the guys? And is Leo just jogging for the cameras? Anyway, Ray says we’ll take the reading again after a few weeks of his exercise programme, and, hopefully, my metabolic age will have come down.
I ask him why I felt out of shape in the Comeraghs. Basically, he said, my heart rate was raised and my poor cardiovascular fitness meant my muscles got tired quickly.
The challenge is to raise my muscle exhaustion threshold, so I can go for longer without feeling distressed. I start doing a series of floor-exercises, such as squats and step-ups.
One of these is standing on a single leg, and it becomes clear that my right leg isn’t just next to my left one, it’s also next to useless. Ray tells me that most of us have a dominant leg, and he’ll include a set in my work-out to build up my weaker right one.
He throws me a few tips, as I lie on the floor doing clams (see details in the sidebar). Ray tells me I’m better off doing 4 x 30 minute walks at the start, rather than heading straight out the door for a two-hour hike. He says if you are building up to a longer walk, wear your hiking shoes, rather than runners, when you go out for a short stroll, so you get used to the extra weight. If the walk involves a climb, make sure to work on your step-downs (see sidebar) to build up your knees for any arduous descent.
On the day of the big hike, eat porridge for breakfast, with chia and flax seeds. Pack water, nuts and seeds for snacks (the fats will give prolonged energy release) and bring a banana or two for natural carbs, along with dates (if you can hack the taste). And, yes, you can have bag of crisps at the end.
We move on to the wobble board, sometimes known as the balance ball. This is like half a ball topped by a base that you can stand on. You’ll buy one in places like Aldi for €30. It can be used for a variety of exercises to improve balance, co-ordination, and core strength. The minute I try and do a squat on this thing, I can feel myself getting stronger.
So I bought one on the way home and use it as part of my workout now, whenever I can get it back from the children.
So, how do I feel? I’ve had two stints in the gym with Ray and a couple of sessions at home, and I feel amazing. I reckon I’m getting a few extra metres up the hill during the morning scooter push with the children, before breathlessness steps in, but that might just be wishful thinking.
In a way, that’s not the point, or at least not the whole point. What matters is that I’ve taken back control of my fitness. Now, all I need to do is go up the Comeraghs without running out of puff. I’ll let you know how I get on in a few weeks’ time.
Working up a sweat
10 x star jumps
10 x squats
1 minute bouncing on the kids’ trampoline
5 x run up the stairs, walk back down
From seating position, stand up using one leg only, pushing heel and centre of foot into the ground.
Use book to raise height of seat if it feels uncomfortable. Repeat: 5 times on each leg.
From seating, stand on both feet, place one foot far forward bending knee, bend knee of other foot in
place. Repeat: 5 times on each foot
Facing stairs, step onto the first step with foot A, then slowly stand up and raise the opposite knee higher than your hip (foot B).
Pause, lower foot B to ground, then lower foot A to behind foot B,lower knee A towards the ground, step up through foot B and start again. Repeat: 5 times.
Lie on your side, resting head in one hand ‘mermaid style’, knees bent and resting together, slowly raise knee and lower it down without resting on other knee.
Repeat: 20 times on each leg
Standing by wall, raise your heels off the ground as high as you can, balancing with fingers against wall. Pause, and lower again without touching the floor. Both legs at the same time until you find it too easy, then one leg. Repeat: 20 times.
WOBBLE BOARD EXERCISES
Repeat each exercise below 5 times, then 4 times, 3, 2 and 1.
Hands on sides of board in pressup position, do press up, followed by bringing right knee to right elbow, then left knee to left elbow, stand up, lifting wobble board above your head and back down to press-up position
Balance on board and squat down and up slowly.
Bum on ball, legs out, hands on ground, bend legs out and back. Try without hands on ground later once mastered.