This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain
A couple of weeks ago, Sachi returned from the post office with a grin on her face. She said, “Oh, do I have something for you.” This piqued my interest and I waited for the prize to be revealed. She dealt out the mail like a card dealer, slapping bills and brochures onto the table until it was finally revealed: my invitation to join AARP.
We both laughed, and mine was only a bit performative. The day had finally arrived. I was turning 50 and there was no going back. I put the invitation in the recycling bin and assumed AARP would be in touch again soon.
Entering my fifties is cause for a bit of reflection. Multiple people have asked what the birthday means to me, or what plans I have for my fifties. I leave them mostly disappointed, as I don’t have much to offer. I don’t plan to start running marathons or take up pottery. Those may happen, but it’s not my intention right now. I’m probably still riding the high of moving to Orcas and building Flattop. For now, I’m not itching for change.
When I think about the next decade, I mostly want to remain mentally and physically healthy. Age comes for all of us and my hope is to (at least) maintain the status quo. After all, the arc of aging is long and bends toward incontinence. To keep one’s head above water is a constant struggle.
Louis C.K. has this great joke about how a doctor’s advice changes once you get over 40. He limped on a sore ankle for a month and finally went to the doctor to get it fixed:
If you’re over 40, by the way, the doctors give up on you. At 20 they would have fashioned a new ankle out of acacia wood, but for me, it was:
“Yeah, your ankle’s worn out!”
Is there anything I can do?
“Well there are stretches…”
Will that fix it?
“No, you just do that now! You do that until you and your shitty ankle goes away.”
My friend Rachael sent a text on my birthday with a similar sentiment:
Happy birthday, Lee! Welcome to the over 50 club. Special privileges include: sore knees, mystery back pain, the need for a nap during the day, and going to bed early.
I wrote back to say that this was also a major part of my forties. And it’s all true. Naps have never felt better. Some form of low-grade pain or soreness is usually present and I accept it as part of life.
Alas, I am thankful to be here, right now. 110 years ago, in 1913, the average life expectancy for men was about 50 years. Today it’s 76 years. Given my relative health and lifestyle, it may be more like 80.
This is cause for hope. Each year that passes represents a year of advancements in medicine. We could be on the verge of new cancer treatments, new vaccines, new therapies. I’ve lived through 50 of these years and believe the next fifty will be marked by scientific discoveries like the ones that kept my ancestors from getting smallpox and polio.
I sometimes visualize my age and future advancements in science on the same track. We’re on a collision course, creeping slowly toward one another. The older I get, the closer science gets to curing whatever will eventually do me in. Each year time passes and I get inexorably closer to both death and potential saviors.
My hope is that science is advancing toward me faster than I am degrading. In the future, it could move down the track, toward me, in leaps and bounds. In this context, I just need to stay on the track long enough for these advancements to reach me. The sooner the better.
So I am hopeful.
I heard once that your forties are the best decade because you finally get comfortable with who you are and care less about what people think of you. That feels right to me. I care less and less every day. Or, more aptly, the comfort I feel with myself grows every day.
What I am most thankful for at this stage is the people I’ve come to know and love. First and foremost is Sachi. I can’t imagine life without her. We’ve been fortunate to find a group of friends that we’ve come to consider family. All things being equal, this is the fountain of youth.
In approaching 50, I noticed how my outlook changed. For my entire life, the future seemed practically infinite. My age wasn’t a factor. I had plenty of years to reinvent myself or find some new life direction.
Lately, my thoughts have subtly and unexpectedly shifted from infinite time to a single question: how much is left? Let’s say it’s about 30 years. That feels substantial. 30 years is a long time to do virtually anything I want. I’ll never be a starting quarterback, but 30 years feels like a luxury and I’m doing what I can to appreciate it. I know that soon I’ll look around and say, “Remember how it felt to be 50, with so much time?”
Maybe that statement is a bit extreme. I love feeling healthy and being active, but I’ve always struggled to maintain the kind of exercise that I need: regular, full-body, and sustainable for years. The closest I came was working with a personal trainer for a few years in Seattle. It was twice a week and I dreaded it every time. What kept me going was the standing appointment, the feeling that I was doing something good for my body, and friendship with my trainer, who sometimes brought me pork belly he smoked over the weekend.
We had an elliptical trainer at home in Seattle that came close to being the right thing, but it didn’t stick. My body doesn’t react well to regular running and biking (road or stationary) isn’t my favorite either. I’ve realized that one of the culprits in this struggle is boredom.
As Flattop was being completed, we wanted to use the move as a reason to establish new habits. New house, new routines, we’d say. Sachi’s doctor said the best scenario was to find an exercise you can do every day for the rest of your life. Rain or shine, young or old. Then, make that a part of your day. Even for 10-20 minutes. This was the goal. One of the reasons I’m sharing this review is because I know many people have a similar goal.
I started looking at home exercise equipment and rowing machines seemed to check a lot of boxes. Rowing is one of the best full-body workouts, working legs, core, and arms in a style that’s low impact and high cardio. But the question remained: would a rowing machine end up being another way to collect dust?
What I found is that rowing machines, like exercise bikes, are innovating. Peloton exercise bikes have become popular, in part, because they come with a touchscreen that is internet-connected and offers a library of workouts with real trainers guiding you. Your account tracks your progress and allows you to compete with others.
Rowing machines are learning from Peloton’s success. A new class of machines now comes with built-in touchscreens and a library of workouts. These options are relatively expensive and often come with a monthly subscription fee for access to the library. We wondered: does the library of workouts matter? Will we end up watching a TV show instead?
It was impossible to know without giving it a shot. We looked at NordicTrack, Echelon, and Hydrow, which all do similar things. We ordered a Hydrow because the reviews said it had the best workouts and a money-back guarantee.
NOTE: I do not earn money or have formal relationships with Hydrow or any other exercise equipment. This is just my personal experience.
The Hydrow machine arrived eleven weeks ago and the results are in: I’ve found my exercise. Since it arrived, I’ve used the rowing machine at least 5 days a week and the Hydrow app even more. For the first time in my life, I actually look forward to workouts and feel confident that I’ll continue to do so. It’s become a habit.
Why has this worked for me? A few reasons:
The Workout Library
I cannot imagine rowing without the workouts. There are about 3,000 rowing workouts that are filmed on the water, in a beautiful location, with an athlete rowing a boat along with you. The system is designed to create a rhythm where you match the rowing strokes of the trainer. As long as you keep up with them, you’ll get the workout you want, whether it’s a slow jog, a sprint, or a marathon.
Most of the workouts I do are twenty minutes long and are organized into intervals. Rowing along with a person in a boat creates an immersive experience that feels like you’re training with them in Miami or Lake Lucerne. The commentary during the row is part reminders of proper form, part location information and part personal stories. This does a lot to prevent boredom.
The training team matters more than I expected, too. It’s about a dozen athletes and you get to know them over time and see them as individuals. They pick the music for each workout and fill the spaces with stories and anecdotes from their lives. They are world-class athletes, including Olympians, who are leaders of the community and chief motivators. Like personal trainers, they are positive, encouraging, and enthusiastic. They celebrate that each day you row is a win.
Space, Time, Noise
We keep the rower in the office, where it’s out of the way and takes up little space. It uses magnetic resistance, which is smooth and quiet. There’s no prep to get started, you just sit down and start rowing. In and out, including a shower, in thirty minutes. Rain or shine.
Because Hydrow is internet-connected and each person has an account, it tracks your workouts: how many, how far, how many calories, average strokes per minute, etc. This matters more to me than I expected. As my form has improved, I’ve seen it in the data and that improvement keeps me pushing.
The Other Workouts
In addition to rowing, Hydrow has yoga, pilates, and strength + mobility libraries, all of which are filmed in the same fashion: outside in beautiful locations. I now do yoga 5-6 mornings a week.
You can choose to be competitive, or not. During each row, there is an on-screen leaderboard that you can show or hide. It compares your rowing speed to everyone else who has completed that row. As you row faster, you overtake other rowers in the leaderboard, and I pay attention.
Needless to say, I’m a fan of Hydrow and the new class of smart exercise systems. For the first time in my life, I feel like I have an exercise option that I can do for many years. I can’t imagine going back to exercising alone.
I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.