The last time my hands were sweating this much (not to mention my feet) I had just finished another stationary slog on the treadmill. Now I was about to find out if the hours in the gym had paid off – or whether they’d been a façade of fitness mostly spent chatting, checking emails and listening to music on my headphones.
I was poised daintily on a device that resembled a common bathroom weighing scales, but was about to reveal so much more about my lifestyle, exercise and eating habits.
These were special scales that the Irish Pharmacy Union has distributed to branches nationwide, in conjunction with Operation Transformation. They reveal your metabolic age – or in simple terms, how old your body thinks it is.
Nervous, much? I had no idea what was about to be revealed and whether I was going to suffer the same ignominy as the Taoiseach who apparently prefers a run to a rump steak.
Pharmacist Sarah Breslin was doing her best to put me at ease as I removed my shoes and socks. I had neglected to have my pedicure this week. Unperturbed, she gamely punched in numbers and explained how the machine was about to send a very mild electrical signal around my body. This would help measure key indicators including my BMI, body fat, muscle mass and total body water.
But there was one number I really cared about more than most. As I stood on the scales, my metabolic age about to be revealed, it felt like my life hung in the balance. Well, not exactly – but certainly my mood and my self-confidence for the rest of the day. As a man pushing 40 with a busy job and two young children, there are times when I feel like both. And not 12 hours previously, the nation had watched agog as it emerged that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was actually 53 years old.
Yes, the same Leo who enjoyed his 40th birthday bash a few weeks back and who is proud to be the youngest Taoiseach in the history of the state, having taken office at the tender age of 38. Has Varadkar been fooling us all along about his birth date? No, instead he was being measured as part of an Operation Transformation special on Wednesday evening, which revealed the ‘metabolic age’ of well-known personalities. ‘Fitness fan’ Varadkar, who can be seen happily jogging along in lycra when a world leader happens to be in town, seemed as shocked as the audience were when he heard the news.
“Surprised to hear that, kinda wondering about the science,” he said immediately. But there was no spinning this one. The number was stark – 53.
A press release from Operation Transformation explained the science, just in case. Metabolic age is based on the amount of energy or kilocalories we burn a day before activity, compared with other people in our age group. Muscle burns more than fat, so the fitter and healthier you are, the better and lower your metabolic age. An older metabolic age may mean there is work to be done.
Now, I’m no ‘fitness fan’ as such. The gym can be a gruelling and painful place, but I do try to get there as much as I can. Like many people, my results have varied. As a teenager. I played rugby and was too young for pints, but the college years were marred by too many social events, late night kebabs and marathon movie sessions on the couch. My three chins enjoyed the graduation… but the photos aren’t great. Luckily, Facebook hadn’t been invented yet.
In my 20s, I lost weight again, as I fell into the daily routine familiar to many office workers: work, gym, eat, bed, repeat. Then the 30s hit: an increasingly stressful workload and two babies. This was perhaps worse than the college days: late nights, early mornings, and yet no time or energy to exercise. The weight was coming back on, and I was shocked a couple of years ago to be told my body fat was above 20pc.
Since then, I’ve made a really conscious decision to carve out more gym time, so it was with some trepidation that I stood on those scales in Life Pharmacy on Hanover Quay in Dublin city centre. I felt I’d made an effort, lost a few pounds and felt fitter. But I also spend long hours at the desk, enjoy a good takeaway and am a sucker for craft beer. Many of my fellow gym-goers now seem effortlessly young and dedicated. As I careened towards 40, was I merely fighting a lost cause?
Time seemed to slow down as the results filtered back through. Weight 80.6kg, BMI 23.5, Body Fat 15.7pc. Were they good or bad? I had no idea. Then, the moment we’d all been waiting for. Well, I had, anyway – 24.
Never had a number such significance, at least since The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy revealed that the meaning of life, the universe and everything is 42. I had the metabolic age of a 24-year-old. For each of my long, gruelling years on this planet, my body had barely aged seven months.
“Take that, Leo!” I shouted before feeling unnecessarily smug – and a little bit guilty for what An Teesh had gone through. After all, the purpose is not competitive body shaming, but to remind us all that through good diet and exercise, we can hopefully buy ourselves a few more healthy years.
“Yours is really good, but we want to remind everyone that they can make changes and bring their number down,” said Sarah. “You can’t change your real age, but you can change your metabolic age.
“Leo Varadkar loves running and that’s great,” she said, before pointing out that everyone can benefit from weights and resistance exercises as well, in order to increase muscle mass. And, genuinely, part of my smugness was because I had felt it could’ve gone either way and was beyond delighted youth hadn’t abandoned me just yet.
Photographer Mark Condren had been much more confident than me when we strode into the pharmacy. Mark is a similar age to me, but a great runner and avid hurler, so I was impressed when his metabolic age came back at 28.
But for now, I have bragging rights. “Does this mean we don’t have to go to the gym for another 16 years?” I asked.
“I’m celebrating with chips and curry tonight,” laughed Mark, which is not exactly the purpose of the test. We weren’t the only ones eager to find out “the truth” as Sarah revealed that over 20 people had availed of the test before 11.30am that morning. As we packed up to leave, the lunch-time rush began and about a dozen more people strolled in from nearby offices, some looking nervous as they awaited their own results.
Mr Varadkar can take comfort from Sarah’s parting remarks – that the metabolic age is more of an “indicator” than a definitive test of fitness. But I’ll take any “indicators” I can get at this stage. I might even get a T-shirt printed.
And if it encourages us to see the benefits of exercise – or motivates others to try and make some changes to their lifestyle – it can only be a positive thing.