World’s fittest man says if he could get in shape, so can you

January 30, 2004
Original Article

It wasn’t that long ago that Joe Decker, the “world’s fittest man,” hid his flabby white gut and “man breasts” under a T-shirt every time he went swimming at the beach.

Those were days when Decker, now 33, liked to party hard, then binge on 50 chicken wings, chased by several pitchers of beer, maybe followed by pizza.

They were the days before he ran a 135-mile race in the desert, or finished the Raid Gauloises, an extreme adventure race that took him 520 miles across the Himalayas.

And that’s why this “average Joe” thinks his fitness plan resonates with others: “If a knucklehead like me can do it, anyone can.”

He’s written a book for ordinary people, “The World’s Fittest You: Four Weeks to Total Fitness.”

In person, Decker, who met us at the Bellevue Bally’s Total Fitness recently, is an energetic man. At 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, he’s muscular and sculpted, but not an obvious he-man.

But he says fitness isn’t about looks.

“The guys are always sizing me up because I’m not ripped like they are,” says Decker, who lives in Rockville, Md. “I don’t care about aesthetics. Fitness is not standing there looking good in the mirror with a shaved chest.”

Nor, says Decker, is it about one discipline, such as benching the most weight or running the fastest race.

It’s about being well-rounded in all areas of fitness — strength, cardiovascular endurance and flexibility.

He says people can have fun with fitness by finding a variety of activities they enjoy. By changing workouts constantly, recent research suggests, your body won’t become used to the same routine and will better respond to different stimuli.

“Boredom is the No. 1 cause of people quitting programs or not working out,” Decker said. “So I tend to play games with myself.”

In the gym, he might spend 15 minutes each on a stationary bike, then a rowing machine, elliptical trainer and treadmill. Or, he might do intervals, changing pace from easy to hard repeatedly.

Decker has a simple acronym for remembering the elements of exercise: FIT, the Frequency, Intensity and Time put into a workout.

He tells readers upfront that being fit takes effort and can’t be achieved by supplements, pills or eight-minute workouts. Nor should people focus on looking perfect, an unrealistic expectation.

“I’m not promising that you’re going to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Cindy Crawford,” he said. “You’re just going to feel better and look better.”

His well-rounded book offers specific workouts, ways to assess your fitness, workout logs, weightlifting photos as well as healthy menus and recipes.

“If you want to be here as long as you can and enjoy this life that you’ve got, then you’ve got to take care of yourself,” he said.

During the week, he eats lean proteins such as chicken breast, egg whites, beans and turkey, along with fruits, veggies and unprocessed grains such as brown rice, oatmeal and fiber-filled breads. Decker avoids super starchy foods, but eats a normal ratio of about 55 to 60 percent carbs in his diet.

On the weekends, he relaxes, recently enjoying pizza, beer and chocolate cheesecake on a night out.

As a child, Decker was physically active, but chubby, and he gained more weight after a football injury. When Decker joined the army, he couldn’t run two miles and failed the military’s physical fitness test. The army put him on a restricted diet and extra exercise.

After three years of service, Decker spent two restless years in college, before he wound up bartending in New Orleans and living a party lifestyle. He was overindulging on food, overdrinking and overweight.

“I had actually thought about suicide — whether it was subconscious or conscious,” Decker said. “Because I was so unhappy with the person looking at me in the mirror.”

Decker returned home to his parents’ Illinois farm and got cleaned up. He turned to fitness to stop his destructive habits.

“It actually saved my life,” he says. And Decker, in his all-or-nothing way, went full throttle, admitting, “I’m all OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder).”

He got in shape at home, using an old weight set. Within a few months he trained his body from walking a few blocks to running a 5K. He went back to school for a bachelor’s degree in exercise science.

Always eager for a new goal, Decker challenged himself to run a marathon, then worked up to a 50-miler.

At the Badwater 135, a 135-mile race up a mountain in Death Valley, Decker hit a wall. He had almost five gallons of water sloshing in his belly, because he didn’t have the right electrolyte balance to absorb the water. Overheated, dehydrated, nauseous and pained with a headache, Decker staggered through the 130-degree temperatures at only mile 40.

He came close to quitting, but he’s a glass is half-full type: “I just can’t give up on myself,” he said.

Friends ran to the store for a canister of salt and he felt better after downing a small handful. He finished the race.

Decker went on in 2000 to run the grand slam of ultramarathons, a four-pack of 100-mile races.

Always hungry for another way to push himself, he heard about Guinness’ 24-hour physical fitness challenge and began training.

In December 2000, he broke the previous record in the challenge.

“It makes me tired every time I talk about it,” he said. “I didn’t do it for my ego or to call myself the world’s fittest man. I’m about experiencing different things in life.”

Decker has kept his own list of “little goals” since he was 18.

To date, he has crossed off some major items — writing a book, reading classic literature (recent title: Upton Sinclair‘s “The Jungle”), running across the Sahara, skydiving, attending Carnivale in Rio.

His to-do list is an interesting mix, as varied as his fitness activities. He has almost finished his pilot’s license. He wants to learn another language, play piano, climb Everest, swim the English Channel, run with the bulls in Pamplona and earn a master’s degree in history.

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