With a hat on and under the right light, Jon Stewart still gets carded. The 52-year-old from Utah attributes bartenders’ youthful suspicions to good genes. But watching him conquer the Denver finals course on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, you also have to attribute it to his ripped frame.
The rock climber and father of five became the oldest competitor to qualify for the finale of the NBC show filmed in Las Vegas. On September 15, he will tackle Mt. Midoriyama —an obstacle course considered one of the toughest in the world – along with 11 other competitors, many of them half his age. We spoke with Stewart to hear more about his training regimen and secret to staying young, even after being alive for more than half a century.
Men’s Fitness: I have to ask, how old do people usually think you are?
Jon Stewart: A lot of times I do get carded. I do look pretty young, like late 20s or early 30s. Occasionally they think I’m in my 40s but no one ever guesses I’m in my 50s.
MF: So how do you stay in shape and maintain that youthfulness?
JS: I’ve always been active and it’s been important to take care of myself. Anytime I exercise, I feel good. I come back feeling younger. I love doing that hard sweaty exercise because I feel great. About 20 years ago I started rock climbing and bouldering. I love to be outdoors climbing on something. You totally lose your stress from the world – all your daily rigmarole – you just focus. You are so intense, it’s exhilarating.
MF: What do think about when you climb or workout?
JS: Your mind just kind of clears and you just think about nothing. Life is good. This is good. I feel like I belong outdoors and so when I’m out there on that rock I feel like I am one with the rock and it’s just awesome.
MF: So after you found out you were going to be a contestant on American Ninja Warrior, how did you start preparing?
JS: The first time I found out I was pretty dang excited, and then it's like 'What am I going to do to get ready?' I had already built some obstacles but I thought, 'I have to step up my game and start getting in better shape.' I started running a couple times a week to get lean. I started doing quite a bit of pullups, weighted pullup variations, and pushups, which I always do on my fingers.
MF: You build obstacles in your backyard?
JS: I work in construction, so that wasn’t a problem; I have access to materials. As soon as I saw that I was on [ANW] I started hanging stuff and building stuff. I had to make everything a little bit tougher. I had to build a salmon ladder that has 18 rungs on it to make it harder than the show. That’s my philosophy.
MF: The salmon ladder that you built is 30 feet tall. It’s an obstacle that uses a loose bar and pegs to climb while doing pullups. Why build it?
JS: That’s what happens when the wife goes to her sisters for three or four days. She was just like ‘holy crap,’ and then right after the initial awe of it she says ‘OK I don’t want you getting hurt on this thing.’
MF: What was it like to build this monstrosity?
JS: It was terribly exhausting. I started one day and got it on some palates and the next day I stood it all the way up. It was the best workout I’ve had in a while. After I got it set up, I had to put some ropes on it for safety, so I spent about three or four hours doing that, then I gave it a go. I made it all the way to the big gap at the top. Even to this day I have to be pretty fresh to make it to the top. It’s hard. It’s like doing 40 pullups.
MF: Now that you are into the finals in Vegas, what sage advice can you offer the younger competitors?
JS: It would be that you have got to have a strong desire to vary things. Don’t just lift weights; do some CrossFit training, pullups, ropes, running, jumping on things. I always do pullups on my door jam to like, do things that aren’t normal. Try to vary it up and grab and hang on things.