5 Fitness Lessons You Need To Learn By The End Of Your 20s

dumbbell shoulder press

If I could go back to my years as a teenager and teach myself what I’ve learned about fitness throughout adulthood and my career, it would have been a complete game-changer for me. My life would be totally different. Of course, I probably wouldn’t have listened to my “future self” because I’ve always been stubborn. But you wouldn’t make that same mistake, would you? And hopefully, you also realize that it’s never too late to take some positive steps in the right direction – regardless of your age or condition.

Now, something I like to do is get around other men who are older than I am – and perhaps a few steps ahead of me in life – to draw some wisdom from them. That way, I’ve got a little heads-up of what may be coming down the road and what mistakes I should look out for.

In the same way, I’ve read a lot of fitness and training-related articles for middle-aged and older trainees. Things like:

5 workouts mistakes to avoid for the over 40 trainee
3 training lessons for 50+ athletes
10 tips for seasoned fitness veterans

And as I’ve read through these articles, the one thing that I take away each time is that it’s the YOUNG people who need this info and aren’t getting it (or aren’t taking it seriously). And that’s really too bad because you could save yourself a whole lot of (predictable) trouble if you just got some of the basics down in your formative years.

So, here are five fitness lessons I think most people should learn by the end of their 20s. Better late than never, right?

1) You’re not invincible.

You’re not technically “over the hill” until you hit your forties, but the effects of aging start much earlier than that. And if you’re not careful, you can feel and perform like you’re much older than you really are. Most people tend to notice things going downhill in their late twenties or early thirties – even the ones who are/were into fitness and athletics. But the effects of misuse and disuse can start much earlier, and these are usually the things that get the best of the twenty and thirty-somethings.

Misuse – using your body in improper, inefficient, and/or ineffective ways (e.g. poor posture, using poor exercise technique, eating poor nutrition, not getting enough sleep, ignoring pain or other symptoms, etc.)

Disuse – not using your body for the things it was intended (e.g. sitting down all day, not challenging your cardiovascular or musculo-skeletal systems, not engaging in natural movement, etc.)

It all starts to pile up, and eventually, things get bad. And you need a change. So, remember, you’ve only got one body. Treat it with respect and use it wisely. If you don’t, there will be long-lasting consequences. So, plan for the long term, and don’t do anything that you’re going to regret.

2) Your weaknesses and deficiencies will be greatly magnified as you age.

Sure, you might have been able to get away with eating a whole pizza and washing it down with a bottle of Coke when you were in high school, but you won’t be able to keep eating like that throughout your 20s without paying the price. And the same goes for depriving yourself of sleep or not getting enough physical activity. It might not have been a big deal back then, but it will be soon!

So, here’s a word to the wise: working on your weaknesses is time well-spent. Neglecting any of the primary domains of health and fitness will have consequences and they will increase with age, misuse, or disuse. So, if your diet is a mess, get that fixed, pronto. Or, if you’re stressed out all the time, learn how to manage it or make the necessary lifestyle changes to lower your day-to-day stress level.

Similarly, if you’re a weightlifter – if that’s your thing – then make sure you’re also including some form of cardiovascular training in your plan. And if you’re an endurance athlete, make sure you’re doing some strength training. Also, everyone should be performing some kind of gentle, restorative exercise regularly. My recommendation is daily. It could be joint mobility training, yoga, qigong, tai chi, or walking, among other things. This needs to become a part of your life before you “need” them.

And if you have any chronic pains or injuries, it’d be best to get that fixed now before it gets much worse. That “old shoulder injury” isn’t just going to go away on its own. And if you just ignore it, neglect it, or train around it and hope it stops bothering you, it won’t. It’ll come back and keep coming back – and probably worse – unless you allow it to fully heal and then rehabilitate yourself properly. That’s why it pays to take care of your body by training right, eating right, and not doing dumb things (like I have!). The details matter, and the little things you’ve been neglecting will catch up with you.

3) Six pack abs and a big bench press don’t matter.

The only reason anyone would need six pack abs is if they’re a physique athlete or a model. Because it’s their job. And outside of the sport of powerlifting, nobody really needs a big bench press max or the jacked chest to go with it. What everyone does need is good health, mobility, and basic functionality, among other things. That stuff is far more important than getting ripped or adding a few more pounds to your max bench.

So, take some advice that an older gentleman gave me at the gym awhile back. He told me, “take care of your legs and your heart because that’s the stuff that will matter when you’re my age.” In other words, take care of the stuff that will matter long term. Another inch on your biceps and chest is great and all, but there are other things that are much more important. And every little bit of attention that you give to the less important stuff is attention that could be spent on the more important stuff.

And here’s a little heads-up: your priorities will change not only as you get older, but as you move into different seasons of your life (e.g. going from high school to college, from single to married, parenthood, etc.). Obviously, this will be different for everyone. But there comes a point for most people when things change drastically, and the stuff that used to matter doesn’t anymore. For example, a lot of young men tend to care about looking strong and tough throughout their teens and 20s. They want to be the top dog. So, they focus on things like building muscle, getting six pack abs, and increasing their bench press. Then they “grow up,” for lack of a better term. And all of a sudden, that stuff doesn’t really matter as much as it used to. You start caring about things like feeling good, avoiding pain and injury, performing at your best, and being a good example for others. Things change.

4) Trying to “wing it” isn’t going to work.

I’ve said this many times before, but it bears repeating. If you’re not intentional about your health and fitness, you’ll never achieve much of anything – and certainly not excellence. Said another way, you just won’t look, feel, or perform all that great. You need well-thought out goals and a well-thought out plan to achieve them. Then you’re either “all in” or you’re not in at all.

Winging it is like playing the lottery with your health and fitness – the odds are greatly against you. So, get into the habit of setting goals and working towards them with a good plan. It pays to start doing this right from the start.

5) It will never be easier to get and stay in shape than young adulthood. So, get the habits you’ll need for the long haul down by the end of your 20s.

In a perfect world, we’d learn this stuff in P.E. class at school and have it down by the time we reach adulthood. In my opinion, every high school graduate should have a basic understanding of how to maintain good health and fitness. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work like that anymore. A lot of young adults leave for college, the workforce, or the military not knowing how to cook an egg, pick something up off the floor with good technique (e.g. deadlift), or how to set and achieve fitness goals. This is a massive failure of physical education.

As a result, most people have to learn this stuff themselves, and that usually happens in your 20s and 30s when you realize that you’re not invincible. Or, it just doesn’t happen at all. And we all know where that leads.

So, make it a goal to have the basics of good health and fitness down by your 30th birthday. By then, what you eat, how you exercise, and your other lifestyle habits are going to start to matter a lot more. You won’t be able to get away with the things you used to. So, make the decision that you’re going to do whatever it takes to succeed, and then get a head start on the rest of society.

Final Words

Having a long-term perspective and approach to health and fitness is invaluable – and if you ask me – it’s essential to success. So, even if you get a late start, it pays to do things right. And if you do, then you can be in great shape after a year or two of consistent, focused work – regardless of your age. And if you keep it up, you’ll keep getting better and better until you eventually enter the realm of mastery.

One last thing: you can either learn this stuff the easy way or the hard way. It’s your choice, pal. So, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

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4 Responses

  1. This post is awesome and I mean it. I am 32 and am just now, after many years of trial and error and a lot of waste of energy and time, reaching maturity in terms of being and keeping myself fit on a long-term basis. It took me years to realize that not being moderate when it comes to physical living is a huge mistake and a path to ill health. For example, I have run half-marathons, covered more then 80 miles by bike on many occasions, for what? To prove to myself that I can push my body to its limits? Was I trying to meet athletic standards or what?

    Nowadays, I do bodyweight exercises for 30 minutes twice a day. I jog either twice a day for 15 minutes at a fast tempo or go for just one 30-minute jog every. One day I do calisthenics, and another jogging.

    However, there is a form of exercise that I still cannot maintain moderation in, and that is walking. I walk every day, averaging between 1-3 hours. Walking is the only exercise that you cant overdo, at least in my opinion, and its meditative side and the relaxation it provides are priceless.

    • Hey Bata,

      I’m glad you’ve found a system that works for you! And I agree – it’d be pretty hard to overdo walking. The more, the better, IMO (for most people).

      Something that a lot of people don’t think of is that there are definitely tradeoffs between focusing on performance or health. And I think that these days, too many people allow their health to slide in pursuit of performance or aesthetic goals.

      The cool thing is that even if you’re focused on health and longevity, you can still attain high levels of fitness over the long term if you go about it the right way, but it takes patience, among other things.

      Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is absolutely true. I wish I listened to advice like this when I began training … I am one of those people that has changed their attitude to training very recently after learning the hard way. At my age (I’ll be 16 in a month), it’s often hard to take a step back from hard training, but now I know how important that is.

    I’m competitive in physical things, and one of those things is my strength and performance for my sport. I spent a large period of time lifting hard, and I did achieve many goals, but I lost sight of many important things – Such as my overall health. I currently have a lower back injury (not a serious one, though) and a knee issue I’ve had for a while. These both could have been prevented.

    I urge anyone out there reading this to remember to prioritize their health over performance benefits … If you lose sight of your health, you’ll strongly regret it. Articles like this need to be a lot more popular.

    • Thanks for sharing, Chris. Even with your injuries, your perspective gives you an advantage that most young people don’t have. If you keep the long-term in mind, you’ll be much better off than most. And remember, it’s never too late (or too early!) to start doing things right.

      Unfortunately, most people don’t think of this stuff until it’s too late. So, I agree with you that lessons like these need to be more accepted and shared in the mainstream. I’m not going to hold my breath, though. I’ll just keep writing :)

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