I was clinically obese at 50. Now at 58 I’m a world champion fitness model

When Chris Zaremba was 50, his doctor told him he was obese, but now, at 58, he has run four marathons this year alone. He tells Lucy Handley his story and shares his weight loss tips

“My life-changing moment came when I was 50 years old. I went to my doctor to talk about something else and he said: ‘Chris, I’ve noted that over the past few years you’ve been getting heavier and I think it’s about time you did something about your fitness levels because if you don’t you’ll be on a one-way trip to somewhere not very pleasant at all. You’re 50, you’ve got time to change things’.

At that time, as well as being McDonald’s best customer, various curry houses and fish & chip shops near where I lived and worked were able to increase their profit forecasts when they saw me around.

I was a massive pub-goer, being a big fan of traditional real ale – I couldn’t drink enough of the stuff.

I was just under 18 stone, and I’m 5’10”. My BMI was 35 which is in the obese range. At the same time, I had to see another doctor about a flying licence. And the medical examiner said ‘Chris, I can’t pass you, your blood pressure is too high, your cholesterol and blood sugar are too high’.

I had almost given up on doing things with my wife Jenny. Even just walking up a hill, we’d get a third of the way up and she would have to sit down for 20 minutes while I struggled up behind her. So I thought I’d have a more enjoyable fulfilling life with my wife if I started to improve my fitness.

How the fat loss happened

So the first thing to do was to lose weight which I did for the first couple of years. I started to do more cardio exercise and bought a gym membership.

I spent about two years eating less, and I lost quite a bit of weight and I also ate much better. You can’t get to the age of 50 without knowing what is and isn’t good and bad for you. I enjoyed seeing the weight come off.

When I was around 52 or 53, I went to LA to develop my flying licence, as by that time I’d got my health parameters back down.

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Chris aged 50

One day it was lousy weather so I couldn’t fly, so I decided to try Gold’s Gym on Venice Beach. I was doing my usual cardio and there was a big sign on the wall, saying: ‘Are you interested in personal training? Speak to reception’.

I’d never thought about personal training because I thought I could walk fairly quickly on a treadmill, do a bit of jogging, could use a cross trainer or bike but I’d never been anywhere near the weights area.

The trainer was Rob Riches who is famous in the world of fitness. He made me realise that lifting weights could get rid of fat: adding more definition to a muscle is all about getting rid of fat layers as well as putting on the muscle itself, and we had a great one-hour training session.

My initial reaction was to be a bit intimidated by having a younger trainer, Riches being in his 20s at the time, he’s a world champion fitness model. But he’s now one of my best friends, and I’m an ambassador for his sports nutrition company, True Performance Nutrition.

Rob said what I was doing wasn’t perfect as I had lost muscle mass, which you need as you get older. He designed a muscle-building programme for me to follow in addition to the cardio I had been doing. This combined approach was the second stage of my fitness activity, having moved on from cardio alone.

Rob also agreed to be my occasional personal trainer – despite the distance between us – so for the next three or four years, we saw each other every few months. His parents live near where we live in south east England and we went over to LA to stay with him.

At the time, I had a job selling software to banks in the City, which is a pointless job that brought the world to the edge of financial ruin a few years ago.

It became kind of obvious that my heart wasn’t in it and I spent more time writing articles for fitness magazines than I did doing my job. Eventually, I agreed a settlement with my boss and I did a full-time personal training course.

Fitness modelling in my 50s

The third stage was when Rob said I should enter a fitness modelling competition or a body building contest. But the idea of standing on the stage in front of 1,000 people in nothing but a pair of ‘budgie smugglers’ didn’t appeal.

But I did. Fitness modelling is a nicer version of body building, with bigger shorts and smaller muscles and it’s much more about a much more aesthetic look, a David Beckham-type look.

I won the Miami Pro British Championships for muscle model and fitness model in the over-50s age-group and I recently came first in the World Champion fitness model competition. Having got into it, I loved it.

How to lose weight and stop overeating with mindful eating

Now, as well as doing the fitness stuff, I’m also going into ‘normal’ things as well. I did my first 5k run in 2009 with Jenny and we recently did a triathlon. I could not have done any of these things a few years ago.

Not all my friends have welcomed it: they want the old Chris back, the one who was always down the pub, always up for a curry on a Friday night.

I’m definitely fitter now than I was at 28, absolutely. If I hadn’t done that I might have been six foot under now.”

Chris’s weight loss tips

• If you’re going to eat something that is less than perfectly healthy, make sure you have something that of really good quality, including bread and chocolate. Have one glass of really great wine rather than drinking a whole bottle of rubbish.

• Try not to eat for 12 hours overnight and if you can do moderate exercise in the morning before breakfast your body will start burning its emergency fuel reserve: your body fat.

• Having caffeine first thing in the morning helps you concentrate, gives you more stamina and helps your fat cells open up and release the fat to the bloodstream, so it’s an enhanced fat-burner.

• Work out your priorities. One of my clients said he had no time for exercise, but he still found time for EastEnders. But the fact that he’d seen it means he had time for exercise. I watch a lot less TV than I used to.

• Incorporate exercise into your daily activities. Exercise is any kind of movement and you can burn calories throughout the day. If you walk 30 per cent faster, you’ll burn 30 per cent more calories, and you’ll have more time. Or get off the bus one stop early and always sit on the top deck.

Read more about Chris on his website fitnessoverfifty.co.uk