Joe Biden’s never been the subtlest political messenger. Over the 47 years he’s served in public office – first as a US senator, then as a presidential candidate, then vice president, then presidential candidate (again), and now, finally, US president-elect – he’s built a reputation as plain-speaking and honest, if not exactly concise. As the man himself would say, no malarky.
True to form, it wasn’t difficult to work out what Biden was trying to communicate when he literally jogged to the stage for his victory speech in Wilmington, Delaware, earlier this month: “I may have won the race,” the canter said, “but if you think I’m out of energy, think again, kiddos!” Something like that, anyway.
It has been pointed out before, but Joe Biden is old. Formidably so. A little over a week ago, he celebrated his 78th birthday and, when he is inaugurated in January, he will be not only the oldest incoming US president in history but a full 23 years above the average 55 years of age for accession to the Oval Office.
For context, Biden is six years older than the Prince of Wales (who, incidentally, also hasn’t started the job he’s wanted all his life). His birth year, 1942, is closer to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln than today. He is older than Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison and the Slinky. And by the time Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – the New York congresswoman many view as the future of the Democratic Party – came into the world in 1989, Biden had already tried, and failed, to run for president.
Old, then. But equally, just look at him. Bounding around the nation, working all hours, yelling into microphones, occasionally challenging people to fights, finding the time for bike rides and all while being mostly coherent. At 78, Biden appears to be in the physical condition of a man half his age. What, then, are his secrets?
Luke Gray, a 60-year-old personal trainer whose Living Retreats fitness and wellness method has seen him work with company executives, A-listers and athletes, can spot a fit and healthy septuagenarian by outline alone; it’s all in the posture.
The first thing Gray noticed about Joe Biden on this year’s campaign trail is his ramrod-straight back. Unlike many people his age, there is no slouch, no gradual decline to a right-angle, and no obvious reduction in height from his late 20s.
“Postural alignment really differentiates between people who look great in their 70s and people that don’t,” says Gray, who reckons even a bent-double client can be ironed out and back to full height with six months of exercises.
“We hear a lot about doing work on your core, but the transversus abdominis [a muscle sheet that comprises the sides of your abdominals, wrapping front to back] really is what gives you support and keeps you standing straight. Biden looks so good and powerful when he saunters onto the stage standing so tall, it makes him seem like he’s in his late 50s.”
As you might expect from a man who challenged a voter to a press-up competition last year, Biden is confident in his gym regime (more of which below). But he isn’t shy about cardio, either. According to various reports, he is a keen golfer, owns a Peloton bike, regularly uses a rowing machine and, as was confirmed after the election, enjoys weekend bike rides with Jill, his equally fitness-addicted wife.
Gray, who next month launches Feelnoo, an online fitness programme aimed at the older demographic, makes sure that informal cardio is a part of all his clients’ regular schedules. It’s good for them, obviously, but it can help more than just physical health.
“Having good blood flow has been shown to stave off dementia so, whether my clients are 18 or 70, I make sure we do balance exercises to improve blood flow to the brain and encourage them to take regular cardiovascular exercise. It’s probably the first thing Biden looks at too,” Gray says. “Golf, walking – even if someone’s exercising with me, I want my clients to have additional cardiovascular exercises in their programme so that their heart, lungs and circulation stays strong.”
Recent presidents, not least Donald Trump and Barack Obama, have valued the golf course as a sanctuary. It was Trump’s one and only form of exercise (not ideal), but Obama, who regularly played basketball with his team or locals in the city he was visiting, recently wrote that a round was as much about finding space as fitness.
“Golf was a big help,” the 44th president told an interviewer. “The truth is, when you’re president, it’s one of the only ways you can consistently get fresh air.”
A rigorous gym programme
In 2015, Michelle Obama created a video for her fitness campaign, featuring an “impromptu” visit to the office of Biden, then vice-president. While supposedly taking a call, Biden had a meaty-looking dumbbell in one hand and told the camera “I do a million of these a day”.
The truth isn’t far off. Well, strictly speaking, it is far off, but Biden does do a lot of repetitions. We know this because in May, his former Democratic rival (now loyal ally) Pete Buttigeig asked him.
“I like to think of myself as pretty fit, I was the command fitness leader for my military unit, I exercise a lot, and the campaign trail beat the hell out of me. [But] whenever I saw you, you always had a spring in your step…” Buttigeig told Biden.
The older man then grabbed his phone and explained that “every day I get a schedule sent to me” by a former colonel in the US Army with a different workout. He then read that day’s routine: five minutes on a rowing machine, 30 minutes on the bike, 2×23 bicep curls (45lbs or more, go heavy), 23 crunches, 2×23 tricep pull-down cables, 23 more crunches, 2×23 seated hammer curls (35lbs), 23 jumping jacks, 2×23 tricep skull crushers, then 23 jumping jacks.
If you noticed that all those exercises added up to 46, well done. Biden will be the 46th president. The day before this was leg day, with a similarly gruelling set of exercises.
A lot of people include weight training in their workouts in their younger decades, but stop in middle age and focus solely on cardio. This is wrong, Gray says, there’s never a time to stop.
“By using weights, you’re not only strengthening the muscles so that the tone of the muscle makes him stand strong and feel strong, but it also improves his bone density, which is an absolutely critical point for anyone who is nearly 80.”
A lifetime of good practice
A refrain you sometimes hear from older people who aren’t particularly fitness-minded is: “Well, everyone I know who has dodgy knees/hips/back also did loads of exercise when they were younger, so…”
Gray recognises that cliché, but Biden – who was a keen athlete in high school and college, playing American football and baseball – is an example of how taking appropriate care can mean that a lifetime of regular fitness means you’re able to start a new career at 78.
“We can all overdo it but, if the muscle is flexible, you shouldn’t have problems. It’s why we do a lot of flexibility work with older clients. Years ago there wasn’t the sports science around we have now, knowing we have to stretch before and after training,” Gray says. “Looking at him, and knowing he is comfortable with a lot of exercise, Biden’s routine is clearly established over a long time. Fitness cannot be something that you think, ‘For the next week I’m going to get fit, then I’ll take a month off’, because the people who get results make it part of their life.”
A… bit of work?
We know Biden’s had the odd operation over the years, including after a brain aneurysm in 1988, but he may have gone under the knife a few more times than he admits. There is much speculation about how his hairline has changed, then changed back, a few times over the last three decades, for instance, and mutterings about just how smooth his skin looked by the time he hit the campaign trail ahead of the 2020 election.
Experts believe Biden may have had a full facelift, an eye lift, a neck tuck, Botox injections, fillers, new teeth and as many as three hair transplants. That and a frequent splash of “man tan”.
“You can tell that he’s had perhaps two or three hair transplants”, said Nadeem Uddin Khan, director of Harley Street Hair Clinic, when talking to The Telegraph last month. “I would wager that the first was done in the late Eighties, and wasn’t as refined, and he’s had at least one update. I think it could be a little more natural. Because of the nature of the design, it looks a little outdated – older methods would see hair in bigger clusters instead of more spread out. Now it’s a little more refined.”
Add all that to the fitness regime and very fine well-cut suits and Biden can look decades younger.
And the rest
Gray “would love to know what supplements Biden’s on”, which he means out of genuine curiosity rather than any conspiratorial suggestion he’s doping (as Trump seemed to be saying before the election). A good mix of multivits is helpful for anyone in their 70s, he says.
So too, of course, is a healthy diet. Biden, a lifelong ice cream and pasta fan, has his calorie intake monitored for him in high office. It comes back to that other thing, which can help so much with staying fit for longer. What was it, again? Oh yes, money.
“Biden’s fortunate – he’s got the income, the finances to be able to take a trainer and have somebody with him every day, so he’s able to put aside some time that’ll give him the necessary energy and strength to get him through the long days,” Gray says.
But, he says, in taking one of the world’s toughest jobs at almost 80, Biden is “the poster boy” for anybody middle-aged or older hoping to keep working. Like Boris Johnson. “Yep, he had a trainer for a minute, didn’t he? He could definitely work a bit harder, and that would give him a little bit of longevity, like Joe.”