Starting to stop exercising – people seem to do it at 41, but why?

A couple of weeks ago, a new study made the rounds: apparently people think they are “too old” to exercise at 41. A survey of 2,000 adults turned out that that’s the average age at which people think they aren’t young enough any more to exercise regularly. That seems… early! The Internet was surprised and unimpressed by this and other reasons people gave for not working out.

I couldn’t find the original survey and whether they did a breakdown by gender, but I have a hunch that this tendency is probably stronger in women than men. Where does my hunch come from? Admittedly, my own personal experience (fine, we have a small-n problem here), but even at a young age, girls move less than boys, and it gets worse for teenagers. So the gender gap in regular exercise is a thing.

For me, in my mid-thirties, 41 is still a few years – though not that many – off. For now, exercise is something that I make part of my regular routine. I normally work out at least 3 or 4 times a week, and try to aim for even more. But I see this play out in my own environment. In the races I’ve run recently, I’ve done well in my age group because my age group tends to be tiny. On my swim team, I’m the oldest women by a difference of about 10 years (!), whereas there’s a number of men my age or older. For full disclosure, there’s a group of older swimmers in our club – considerably older – that consists almost exclusively of women, so they do seem to bounce back at least somewhat. But it’s complicated. I can see how it can be demotivating for people to continue exercising when everyone else seems to be a lot younger, and if that’s the case, 41 seems a reasonable age to feel like you’re outside of the target group. And that’s even before we’ve discussed adverts for everything from gyms to sports clothes that are full of young, conventionally attractive people and make anyone who doesn’t look like that feel like an outlier.

Backside view of an elderly man in running gear with a race bib pinned to his back.
Photo by sporlab on Unsplash

Around 41 is the age when people are really feeling the crunch, too. It’s when people have children that still need them, parents that start needing them, and more often than not, professional responsibilities that weigh on them. It’s easy to see why people don’t have time or are too tired to exercise, which were actually the most common reasons respondents to the survey above gave. I don’t have children and my parents are independent, but some days between work and life admin, even I am feeling the crunch. Right now, if I had to add more responsibilities to my life, I would definitely have to scale back on my exercise routine, and I’m among the most privileged individuals around: white, affluent enough, educated, with a supportive partner, etc. It’s easy to see how people who aren’t as privileged as I am face much higher barriers.

That’s also why I think some of the Internet responses were a bit unfair and condescending. Yes, fine, it’s never too late to start working out and I reckon most people are hypothetically aware of the many benefits exercise brings. But that doesn’t invalidate their reasons for not working out, or make it a case of just bucking up, finding a running buddy and “doing it”, as a popular sports apparel brand would have it. The author of the Guardian article linked above in particular makes a point that he has a job and three children, but yet has somehow managed to fit in 10 ultra-marathons in the past three years. Good for him, but he doesn’t actually explain how he’s done it. I have so many questions. How many hours of sleep does he need at night to be functional? Is his partner also an ultra-marathoner – or even a regular exerciser at all -, and if so, how do they juggle taking care of the kids to accommodate each other’s training and race schedules? Does he, or his partner, have elderly parents who need them? What are his work hours? Does his partner work full time? Do they have household help? And so on.

I wish the people who write these articles would consider that not everyone might have the things that are necessary for making regular workouts feasible for adults in the middle of “the crunch”: time, the resources to buy time, and a social environment that encourages exercise. The thing is, it’s not just about individual choice, it’s about society and how its structures constrain us.

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