From Huw Edwards to Johnny Vegas, male celebrities of a certain age are becoming half the men they used to be. What’s really going on, asks Sam Leith?
Should you be worried if your husband suddenly ‘does a Huw Edwards’? The newsreader recently hit the news himself when he boxed his way to a three-stone weight loss, and this extreme behaviour is being echoed across the land – with middle-aged men pounding the pavements in their jogging bottoms, doing lunges on the frosty grass in the park, frowning as they take instruction through their headphones from some voice on an app.
As a wife or girlfriend of one such, you could be forgiven for feeling a little disconcerted by your other half’s new-found enthusiasm for ab crunches and liquidised health drinks. Just over a month ago, you could see them piling an extra scoop of brandy butter on to their mince pies. Now they’ve come over all Mr Motivator and suddenly seem like strangers – to you as well as to the sofa. What, you may wonder, could be behind their pursuit of the body beautiful(ish)? Have they – horror – got their sights set on someone else’s body? Is an affair looming? Probably not. The good news is that all this vertical fell-running isn’t
(usually) a rehearsal for horizontal gymnastics. In fact, it’s all about them.
For men, by and large, physical fitness isn’t – as it seems to be for women – a matter of lifelong vigilance and day-by-day tinkering. It is, when we’re serious about it, a complete reboot. Essentially, we do sod all about our physical condition and then go bananas in middle age. We don’t tune up our engines, keep the oil topped up and submit ourselves dutifully for the annual service and MOT: we run the same old banger for years and then, all at once, when black clouds are coughing from the exhaust pipe, abandon it by the side of the road and splash out on a sports car.
Why? What I suspect is that most men run on fear. That’s why we’re bombastic and bumptious, why we feign overconfidence, why we respond so aggressively to challenges and slights. We fear death, ridicule and sexual redundancy – probably in ascending order from least to most. And those fears peak in middle age. Previously, we have done a good job of ignoring our waning physical powers. Now they are unignorable. Middle age brings it all crashing in.
Our parents are starting to look a bit peaky, if they haven’t already checked out. We notice that – while we’ve been boozing, eating pizzas and watching telly – our once strong bodies have run to fat. Between 35 and 45 – my God, I’ve watched it happen with my friends – the tum starts to bulge out over the waistline; a comfortable jowl appears; the hairline starts to recede. We hear, with sharp ears, the odd weight-related jibe in the pub. And we look at ourselves through the eyes of young women and see… nothing at all. We see a cipher, an agitation in the air. A dad. A dad who will die in carpet slippers and elastic waisted jeans he bought from a catalogue.
And that’s when – if the midlife madness strikes us – we set about going all in. Men in this condition don’t do yoga once a week, they do ‘hot yoga’, or ‘SAS yoga’ every morning between 4am and 6am before vaporising something horrendous involving kale in their Nutribullet. They don’t take up the odd Saturday morning jog, they do the Marathon des Sables or one of those Norwegian Ironman competitions that involve jumping out of ferries into freezing fjords. And all this, usually, from a standing start: not so much Couch to 5k as Couch to Commonwealth Games.
Personal trainer Jon Roberts, co-owner of Matt Roberts Personal Training, says there’s an emotional as well as a physical need being addressed here: ‘Men get to a certain age and want to prove they’ve still “got it”; prove they can still feel as young as they think they are,’ he says. ‘It’s sometimes said that cycling is the new golf – you know, they go out, they get the equipment and the apps that tell them how well they have performed. The good thing is that it satisfies your competitive side – there’s a sense of achievement when you take on a provable challenge that you can complete. However, if you don’t do the preparatory work first, if you push too hard and your ambitions are too aggressive, then injuries start to come in. Overtraining is really common.’
What’s striking is the completeness with which men so afflicted turn their bodies around. It’s not so much losing a few pounds as acquiring a whole new physique. Recent examples in the public eye include the deputy Labour leader Tom Watson, who when I first ran across him certainly looked like sausage rolls needed to be scared of him. Now he looks like a sausage roll would have him for breakfast. Or chef Tom Kerridge who, after packing in the booze and starchy carbohydrates, lost more than a third of his body weight. Or the aforementioned Huw, who lost three stone and looks like a refugee from a Welsh boy band. The grandfather of them all, of course, is the former chancellor Nigel Lawson, who slimmed down on a soup made only from cabbages and sorrow and ended up half the size of his own skin.
Even Boris Johnson has mended his Falstaffian ways, announcing that he’s given up his ‘late-night binges of chorizo and cheese’ and the ‘bathfuls’ of booze he once stowed away. Breakfasting ‘like some Georgian hermit on porridge with a luxury sprinkling of nuts’, he lost 12lb in two weeks and claimed before Christmas that he was on target to be less than 15 stone for the first time since his undergraduate days (isn’t that nostalgic benchmark psychologically telling?).
For many of us (Kerridge by his own confession included), booze is part of the story. For lots of men, middle age is when they realise that they are, if not an active alcoholic, at least within a trot to the offy of being one. And giving up the drink – as I can testify myself, having done so for much these reasons – has many unexpected consequences. In the first place, obviously, there are a lot of calories in drink: my own midweek cider intake was giving me between 20 and 30 teaspoons of sugar nightly. No wonder one old friend, after I packed it in, asked me, ‘Where’s the other half of you gone?’
Also, you have an intolerably clear head and much more time on your hands. Activities – especially the endorphin-generating variety such as exercise – need to rush in to fill that void, even if only because pumping iron or pounding the pavements helps you drown out the noise of your own mind. Addicts usually need to get addicted to something else to get cured. For some that’s AA meetings, for others it’s 10k runs.
But even for those who continue to drink (and I have a friend who breezed through the finish line of the London Marathon and trotted straight to the pub, lighting a fag on the way), why such extremity? Here’s my theory. For many men – and to avoid sexist generalisation let us say that these are cultural rather than intrinsic differences – doing stuff is much more attractive than not doing stuff. That is, calorie-counting or moderation – the cottage-cheese-on-a-cracker-for-a-cheeky-treat way – holds no appeal. It is slow torture. It doesn’t plug into our deeply conditioned competitive instincts. Rather, you want to take a thing – be it paleo dieting or some physical exercise regimen – and do it to the extreme: you’re not counting how little of something nice you’re doing but how much of something nasty.
Also we love data. And we love kit. A persuasive case, to me, has been made for vaping replacing smoking so quickly, not just because it’s relatively healthy but because it has the side-effect of allowing the determined vaper to luxuriate in insider knowledge nerdery and waste hundreds of pounds on arcane technology. You can talk about ohms, and PG/VG ratios, and show off your rig to appreciative fellow vapers – especially if, the big losers, they’re still using a £15 vape pen from Budgens.
Likewise with exercise. If you take up riding a bike, it’ll have to be a 48-gear pro-standard carbon-fibre monster that weighs less than a banana, with pencil-thin wheels and an
arse-ravaging saddle. If you go to the gym you’ll be plugged into some expensive app, or wearing a device on your upper arm that records ‘reps’ and ‘anaerobic burn rates’ and so forth. You’ll want to produce data – data you can use to bore the pants off anyone who comes within shouting distance. The men who take up running are forever optimising their gaits with the help of computer-aided analysis in running shops, buying weird ninja-toed running shoes and comparing 10k bests. Half of them will be plotting their running time on complex spreadsheets.
My sometime colleague the journalist Toby Young, for instance, took up high-intensity interval training and became fanatical about measuring his BMI, and has written at length
about his debates with his children over rounding errors in the daily variance in his height, and his reliance on his Nokia Body+ scales and an app called MyFitnessPal with which he declares himself ‘obsessed’. ‘I started every year for the past ten years determined to lose weight,’ he says. ‘And every year I more or less managed it in January – and then put the weight back on over the following months. This time I wanted to really make it work. At the beginning of 2018 I was 13 stone and my BMI – BMI is very unforgiving – was 25, which was in the overweight category. I was determined to lose two stone – and I did.
‘The reason I took it so seriously is that I was 54, and I thought: I’m in the last-chance saloon. If I don’t go all in to get fit and healthy now, I won’t have another chance. I think a lot of middle-aged men feel like that. There’s a self-flagellating element to it, too, without wanting to sound too pervy. If you’ve let yourself go to seed, as most middle-aged men have, doing demanding physical exercise is psychologically satisfying, in part because it’s so painful – you feel you’re punishing yourself. Also, as you get to our age you feel less in command of your life. Your career is coming to an end, your libido is waning, your health is beginning to fail. Taking control of your body via strenuous exercise is a way of addressing this.’
But ladies, if you have observed this in your other halves, consider it a very benign form of midlife crisis. Wanting to feel attractive is not the same as wanting to have an affair. Not wanting to orphan your children before you reach retirement age is generally a good thing. And becoming a bit of a bore about deadlifts and anaerobic respiration, or spending more weekends and more money on fitness than seems strictly necessary, is surely preferable to the alternative – which tends to involve adultery, class-A drugs, stupidly fast motorbikes and/or lost weekends in Vegas. Me, I’m going for a jog.
STARS WHO MANNED DOWN
The chef, 45, has lost 12 stone in recent years by swimming, curbing carbs and going teetotal. He said, ‘I own pubs and I’m good at tasting. So I knocked booze on the head.’
Last year the three-stone-lighter comedian, 60, revealed the secret of his new slimline silhouette: ‘Eating broccoli and not much else. I’ve also been running a lot,’ he said.
The Hairy Biker chef, 61, slimmed down from 19 to 15 stone in 12 months. His method? ‘I calorie-count, knock the booze on the head then watch the weight come off.’
The MasterChef presenter, 54, lost three stone thanks to working out and smart eating. He suggests ‘cooking with meats such as chicken and lean mince, plus healthy, low-calorie veg’.
The comedian, 48, whittled his physique from 18 to 14 stone last year by changing his diet. ‘It took 15 months of walking past bread and cheese and everything I love,’ he said.
When asked how he lost four stone, the actor, 61, explained, ‘Lots of walking and watching what I put in my gob. It’s the scoff-less diet.’ He also cut out alcohol as ‘it’s riddled with sugar’.