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Legendary Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman says that, in March, when the pandemic was just beginning, he decided he was going to get in the best shape of his life. Then he laughs, catching himself.
“When you say you're in the best shape of your life, usually what that means is that you're old,” the now 54-year-old adds with a chuckle. “You don't hear 20-year-olds saying, ‘I'm in the best shape of my life!’ But I feel really good. I think it's as healthy as I've ever been, physically, mentally and emotionally.”
If he is indeed in the best shape of his life—and he looks like he might be—that would be quite a feat considering that, in the 1990s, he won three Super Bowls in four years as the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. Forced to retire in 2000 because of back pain after a 12-year career, it’s not clear that Aikman has spent any time in the intervening years out of shape. (Thanks, in large part, to a workout regimen that, until two years ago, kept him working out 360 days a year.) Keeping tabs has been relatively easy given that he’s been on TV since 2001 as part of FOX Sports’ NFL broadcast team. Now the lead analyst, he’ll call this Sunday’s NFC Championship game between the Tampa Bay Bucs’ Tom Brady and the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, two quarterbacks who’ll eventually join Aikman in the Hall of Fame.
GQ caught up with Aikman earlier this week to see how he’s stayed fit into his fifties, what he’d change about his workout and diet routine in his 20s, and how he’s adjusted to exercise during the pandemic.
For Real-Life Diet, GQ talks to athletes, celebrities, and everyone in between about their diet, exercise routines, and pursuit of wellness. Keep in mind that what works for them might not necessarily be healthy for you.
GQ: I don't think I've ever seen you out of shape. Have you been in good shape since you stopped playing?
Troy Aikman: I've always worked out. I've always been pretty strict about it, and worked out pretty hard. So that hasn't changed. My diet has. I've gotten really strict since the quarantining started last March. I felt that people were going to go one of two ways: they were going to be in the best shape of their life or they're gonna be in the worst shape of their life. I decided that I was gonna be in the best shape of my life. So I've just tried to take it to a little bit of a different level for me. I'm eating a lot more fruits and vegetables, whole foods, and a lot of fish and lean meats. I feel really good.
When you say super strict, are there certain things you've cut out?
I love peanut M&M's—I've got a big bowl right here on my table in my office—and vanilla ice cream and oatmeal cookies. I haven't had any since last March. I cut out all sweets. I bought a juicer about that about a month ago, because I read how a celery juice was a big thing. I've been doing that each morning and I've really noticed a huge difference in the way that I feel.
How does it make you feel?
I've had a sinus issue for years. I've had a couple of surgeries. My doctor gave me a new antibiotic just a couple of weeks ago. I did that and it cleared up some of the issues within a couple of days. I didn't want to stay on the antibiotics. That’s when I was told about celery juice, that it might be a preventative deal going forward. So that's why I got the juicer and started doing celery juice. It's made a huge difference. I never really had an answer for it.
What a typical day of eating and a week of working out?
I do the juice in the morning. At lunch, turkey chili is my general go-to. And then in the evenings, I'll have a big dinner relatively early. Usually around 5:00. That's when I eat a lot of vegetables: broccoli, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, asparagus. And fish, things like that.
For my workouts, I lift four days a week. As for cardio, I'm 54 now and I feel like I may have been overtrained in the past. I'm trying to take more days off. It used to be, in a year—365 days—I would maybe take five days off from cardio. Then I started taking Sundays off during the football season before broadcasting games. I would just use that as a day of rest. I found it to be helpful. Now, I'm mixing in more days off and not beating myself up so much mentally when I do it. I’ve just read more and more about how you need to give your body a break, and rest is important.
I still go hard on the cardio but now I try a couple days a week of active rest. A four- or five-mile walk. I got into yoga the offseason before the 2019 season. I'm not good at stretching. I’m tight. And then I do all this training. So I got into that and I loved it. As good as it was for my body, it was even better for my mind.
I've been meditating for probably seven or eight years now, and been on a few retreats. I got away from it for a couple years but during the quarantine, I rededicated myself to that. Now I'm back doing that every morning. All those things combined just really helped me, as far as just being in a good place and feeling good.
I can imagine after a lifetime of working out seven days a week, it's probably hard to actually turn off the anxiety of “I need to work out.”
No question. You're totally right. When I wouldn't work out those five days, two years ago, I would not be in a good place. I’d think, “Man, I'm just kind of mailing it in.” You take one day off, it's going to turn into two days off. There’s that whole mental game. I've just gotten better at not beating myself up. It’s just understanding that, in the long run, this is maybe the most healthy thing I can do for myself.
If you could tell any of the four quarterbacks playing—well, actually, I guess not Aaron Rogers or Tom Brady—but if you could tell Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen, “Here's the thing I wish I'd done when I was younger,” what would it be?
Well, here’s the thing that I wish I hadn't done. I came into the league in ‘89, and I was 22. I was a bachelor and I didn't eat the best. I had pizza a couple of nights a week. I had Chinese food one night a week. I had another place for spaghetti and meatballs. I had it mapped out but those were my meals. Obviously, for a professional athlete, that's not real good.
We won the Super Bowl for the 1992 and 1993 season. In ‘94, we lost to the 49ers in the NFC Championship. I was so defeated after losing that game that I just thought, “I'm going to get in the best shape I can possibly get in.” So I really cut all that out. That’s when this whole thing kind of began for me. I did lose some weight when I cut back the fast foods and things like that.
Then I started jogging. Before that, I would do the workouts that were prescribed by our trainer or strength coach, but I didn't do anything extra. So I started running in addition to what I was already doing with the team and I enjoyed it. I did it that whole offseason, but I did it in season, too.
We'd be in training camp, in two-a-days, and the morning practices would end. And these weren't walkthroughs like they are today. I mean, they were real practices. So there were a lot of calories expended. And I would go run four miles in between practices and come back and practice that afternoon.
I was 27, 28 years old, but I did that throughout the rest of my career. I was way over training and I just didn't have any legs by the end of my career. At the time, I'm thinking, all this extra work that I'm putting in is really good for me. In hindsight, it was probably detrimental. I just got obsessed with it. That's the thing I would eliminate that if I had to do it over again.
My guess is that Mahomes and Josh Allen have nutritionists. They come into the league now, almost a corporation of their own where they just have a whole team of people that help them take care of themselves. It's a really positive thing. Tom Brady playing at 43 is amazing, but I think we're going to see a lot of quarterbacks playing until they're 41, 42, 43 years old in the future.
How is your back these days? Because you retired because of your back, right?
Sure did. It’s good. I quit playing golf four years ago, so that's helped. I'm not jogging as much. I got a Peloton bike, so I'm doing a lot more cycling, as opposed to running. I am going to pick the game of golf back up this offseason and another week. But the back is doing really well.
I know how competitive you are at Flywheel. How is your competitive streak on the Peloton?
[laughs] I've gotten now to where I don't keep the leaderboard up. I make it go away. So I'm not worried about that. But now I'm competitive on the calories that I'm burning, in getting to or surpassing that number. I know in a 30-minute class, I want to burn at least 600 calories. In a 45-minute class, I want to burn at least 900.
In fact, yesterday, I did 700 and something in a 30-minute class. It might've been a personal record. So I was pretty excited about that. I thought, “Man, it's going to be a good day.” [laughs] My daughters are here and I told them that I thought I got a personal record. I don't even think they heard me. They didn't react. These small victories are just for yourself. [laughs]
Did you turn off the leaderboard because you’re too competitive?
Yeah. It kind of goes back to where I just don't want to totally grind in everything that I do. And then I pull it up after I'm done and then kind of see where I'm at.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The 19-year-old star waxed on and waxed off to take on the Karate Kid legacy.
Originally Appeared on GQ