Roger Federer’s retirement at 41 is a reminder of the body’s physical limits, and the need to get smarter about fitness. Roger Federer, 41, played his last ATP match at The O2 in London on September 24, 2022.
At the age of 41, Roger Federer, one of the greatest tennis players of all time—a fact even fans of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic wouldn’t sully with their arguments—has played his last ATP match.
“I’ve worked hard to return to full competitive form. But I also know my body’s capacities and limits, and its message to me lately has been clear. I am 41 years old,” Federer wrote earlier this month, explaining the reasons for his retirement from competitive tennis.
At this point, Federer has been a professional athlete playing at the highest level much longer than he hasn’t been one. A professional athlete playing at the top level has to be fit—working out, training and practicing the sport for hours each week. And Federer is smart enough to acknowledge that his body can’t take it anymore.
With the renewed focus on fitness, health and wellness of late, thanks to social media and pop cultural images and clips of stars like 60-year-old Tom Cruise flaunting his flat abs and chiseled torso in the second instalment of Top Gun and Nicole Kidman flaunting her bulging biceps at the age of 50, there is pressure even on people in their thirties, forties and fifties to adopt an active lifestyle.
The rationale is that even if one cannot get the flat abs ala Cruise or biceps like Kidman, adding exercise to one’s life would leave you in better health and more flattering shape than before. The idea is excellent to be sure but how you achieve your fitness and health in your forties, or for that matter, from your mid-thirties onwards, would determine whether you stand to benefit or end up with a debilitating injury.
The good news is that it is possible to be fit in your forties and fifties. And there’s no need to go looking for the fine print, here it is: You cannot be as lithe and nimble as you were in your youth and you need to know and respect your limits; like Federer you will need to listen to your body and accept that you need to slow down and only push yourself as much as it would allow you.
Shahid Lokhandwala, a 37-year-old businessman who shuttles between Mumbai and Pune, has been working out since he was in his twenties. He loves CrossFit, plays cricket and even runs a half marathon every year on his birthday. He smiles as he reminisces the days of his youth when he didn’t care what the workout was, he just went out and gave it his all and then some more. “I used to be fast. I was so much faster in my twenties. I could spend the entire day at work, hit the gym in the evening and kill a workout, then go out and have a big party and then go to sleep. The next day I used to be a new man. Nothing would be sore, nothing hurt. My body used to be as good as new as long as I had had enough rest and a few hours of sleep,” recalls Lokhandwala.
However, he cannot do that any more. Lokhandwala says he no longer takes his body’s recovery for granted and has also become much smarter about his fitness routine. “While I was faster in my 20s I can confidently say that I am fitter in my late 30s,” he says, adding, “I have come to realise what my body can and cannot do. I continue to do intense workouts but I no longer go all out. Nor do I lift very heavy weights anymore. Back in the day, I used to often try lifting very heavy weights but I know now that I don’t need to do that to be fit. There is no room for ego lifting in my training because that is stupid and would only lead to injuries. I have also stopped doing very complex Olympic lifts like the snatch and do other exercises for my shoulders that are a lot less risky instead.”
The other things that Lokhandwala pays attention to nowadays are warm-up and rehab. Not only does he make sure that he works out within his safe limits but he also makes it a point to warm up properly before any training session. “Earlier I could afford to be lazy about warming up and go straight into the workout at full throttle. But now, I never do that. I make sure I warm up properly before taking on the main workout. Also, I have started actively thinking about sports therapies and deep tissue massages as a part of my training regimen… quite like sending your car for service periodically, I visit my physiotherapist to keep my muscles and joints supple and injury free,” explains Lokhandwala.
Apart from warm-up, rehab and listening to your body, medical experts and fitness coaches also suggest proper post-workout stretching to make sure you don’t suffer from delayed onset of muscle soreness (Doms) and experience tightness in muscles after a workout. Suraj Juneja, a 43-year-old entrepreneur and investor from Kolkata, has been going to the gym since he was in college. He says while his approach to fitness and his appetite for trying out new workouts hasn’t changed at all in the last two decades, he has incorporated some changes in his training. “I still lift what I like and I still try out new workout routines and don’t let age come in the way of my fitness. However, nowadays when I do weights, for example squats or deadlifts, I know I’d suffer the next day if I don’t stretch properly. So, I consciously make an effort to remember to stretch properly for 15-20 minutes after a workout. That’s the one difference between working out in my 20s and working out now,” says Juneja, who these days does calisthenics thrice a week and lifts weights twice a week.
There is also great news for people who take up exercising late in life. Not only can you get in shape but also your quality of life improves and health complications stay away. Pepperfry co-founder and chief operating officer, Ashish Shah, started working out only when he turned 40. Like Shah, Gautam Rajda, a 48-year-old businessman from Kolkata, started working out only when he turned 39. It was a visit to the doctor then that triggered the change. “The doctor prescribed pills for cholesterol and I knew I didn’t want to turn to life-long medication as early as that. The doctor said the only option I had, if I really wanted to avoid the medication, was to start exercising, lose the excess weight and become not just fit but a lot more fit than I used to be,” says Rajda, who used to weigh in excess of 100 kg. Once he started working out, he hasn’t stopped till date. He lifts weights in the gym, does boxing twice a week and runs at least once a week. “The one positive side effect of exercising regularly is that I am the fittest that I have ever been in my life and I am saying that at a time when I am nearing my 50s,” says Rajda, who still doesn’t take any medication for any lifestyle conditions.
Rajda also makes it a point to get a full check-up done every six months so that any exercise-related problems and complications can be caught and addressed right away. Given the rise in cases of heart attacks among people in their 40s, Lokhandwala also makes it a point to consult a doctor if he senses anything is wrong.
As you age strength, stamina, and flexibility all drop significantly, studies have shown. However, many of these functional losses can be reversed through an active life and exercise, a 1994 study by Harvard and Tufts researchers found. All you need to do is be smart about your training and like Federer, listen to your body and respect the message it sends you.
Tips for training
- Train within your limits. For best results train at 60-80% of your capacity.
- Listen to your body; if it needs an extra rest day, take it.
- Don’t train if you haven’t had enough sleep or feel tired.
- Workout for yourself, not for the ’gram.
- Don’t compare yourself to what others do. Focus on improving from one day to the next.
- Get regular health check-ups to make sure all vitals are fine.
- Warm up before every session and stretch after.
- Deep tissue massage and other rehab therapies help you recover. Include them in your training plan.
- Train smart.
- Don’t exercise for your ego, do it for your health.
- There are no quick results, be patient.
Shrenik Avlani is an independent editor, writer and journalist, and co-author of ‘The ShivFit Way’, a book on functional fitness