“Our muscles take us through life”

The good news is that we can affect whether we are old, or just getting older. On the other hand, it takes training. Fitness pioneer Werner Kieser on the significance of weight training for a longer self-determined life.

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(Picture: Kieser Training)

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You opened the first of your 159 fitness studios 50 years ago. You’re 77 now. Do you still exercise there yourself?
I like that, “still”! The older you get, the more important exercise becomes. I work out two to three times a week. 

At age 65 you could press like a 25-year-old. How fit are you these days?
I broke my upper arm this past spring and my entire upper body had to be virtually immobilised for five weeks. I’m almost back to my condition before the accident now, but I won’t be able to tell you my maximum capacity until the end of the year. I expect it’ll be around what I pressed at 40. 

Do you actually like working out?
You have to go to the fitness studio the way you take your car to the carwash. Working out is part of personal hygiene and physical maintenance; two sessions of thirty minutes a week are enough to get an effect. It isn’t fun, and it isn’t exactly pleasant. But it’ll make you happy – and that makes all the difference.

“Life is meaningless – that is, unless you, and no one else, give it meaning.”

The body is the secret to happiness?
Absolutely! We need intact bodies to be free for other things. We can only be happy if we don’t need to think about our bodily health. 

And it doesn’t make any difference if we jog, swim or work out? Or does it matter to the body how we keep it in shape?
Categorising “working out” as sport makes about as much sense as mixing up chewing and dental care. Working out ­­– comparable with oral hygiene – needs to be thought of as a preventive measure. It goes like this: “Once you’ve got yourself in shape, then you can afford to do sports."

We are growing ever older. When do our muscles reach their peak performance?
Long-term studies have shown that muscles (along with bone density) start to degrade as early as age 25 – that is, if you don’t do anything about it. While you are reading this interview, thousands of cells in your body are dying, while thousands more are being born. By working out, you can promote the birth process at the expense of the process of decay. And that goes for muscles as well as for bones. And incidentally, you can also do something for your brain.

“Working out isn’t fun, and it isn’t exactly pleasant. But it’ll make you happy.”

How’s that?
Muscle work produces myokines, which are like hormones that cause long-term changes in mental condition. At age 62 I embarked on studies in philosophy and the history of science, in English, and completed them at age 72. While developing a group of companies. I would never have been able to do it without regular workouts.

When should a person start working out?
Ideally, a workout should be integrated into the life of a small child, so as to ensure proper development of the musculoskeletal system. Of course, at that stage workouts look a bit different. At the onset of puberty, however, methodical weight training should begin. My theory is that most of the problems typical of adult life, such as back and knee pain, would thus disappear, or at least be shifted into old age. 

One of your books is entitled Gesundheit kennt kein Alter ("Health has no age"). Are you promising eternal youth?
No. What I do maintain is that growing old is one thing, and getting weak is another. Many of the so-called aches and pains of old age actually arise from a loss of strength. Muscles can be trained into great old age, as studies of 86 to 96-year-olds have shown. But what do we do? We shelter our elderly to death!

Will a person who works out live longer?
I can’t really say whether a person who works out will live longer; I do know without a doubt that he or she will live better and with greater self-determination. As we get older we do not just get weaker, we also usually get heavier. Weak and heavy is not a great combo: it means you are putting ever more stress on yourself. It’s our muscles, after all, that carry us through life. Our internal organs are really nothing more than the “servants” of our muscles. And if they don’t get used, then our internal organs will get run down as well, and we will fall ill.

“I can’t really say whether a person who works out will live longer; I do know without a doubt that he or she will live better and with greater self-determination.”

How do you experience ageing and physical decay? As a permanent defeat?
On the contrary, ageing most certainly has its advantages. The pressure to perform vanishes, you’ve achieved your goals in life, you can pay more attention to the areas that you never had enough time for – in my case philosophy, literature and music. 

You sold your company at the beginning of this year. Did you fall into a mental decline when you retired?
No, because after all I had begun planning the change of generation early on, preparing it and making sure it went off without a hitch. Those extracurricular interests of mine always kept me from getting joylessly consumed by business. So I was spared a burnout, or what I would call the fear of irrelevance.

Is old age something to strive for?
That’s a matter of taste. As long as you enjoy life, you’ll be able to get joy from old age as well.

You once said, "What we call life consists in the postponement of death." Aren’t you calling into question the meaning of life?
Life is meaningless – that is, unless you, and no one else, give it meaning.

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Fitness entrepreneur and author

Werner Kieser (77) founded Kieser Training AG in 1967 and built it into an international corporation with 159 fitness studios in eight countries, 115 of them in Germany. In 2017, Europe’s most successful fitness trainer sold his business. Kieser, who trained as a cabinetmaker and has studied philosophy, has a puritanical line on working out: pure weight training with no distractions. “The high priest of strength” (FAZ) and the “Pope of muscle” (Tages-Anzeiger) is the author of many books, among them Die Seele der Muskeln (“The soul of muscles”, 1997), Ein starker Körper kennt keinen Schmerz (“A strong body knows no pain”, 2003), Gesundheit kennt kein Alter (“Health has no age”, 2005) and Die Entdeckung des Eisens. Stationen meines Lebens (“The discovery of iron: stations of my life”, 2008). He lives in Zurich.

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