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In-Your-Face Fitness

Drummer Neil Peart's body is finely tuned instrument

The drummer for Rush cross-country skis, swims, cycles and does yoga.

July 25, 2011|By James S. Fell, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Neil Peart often plays three-hour shows on tour with Rush. A fit lifestyle keeps him going.
Neil Peart often plays three-hour shows on tour with Rush. A fit lifestyle… (Andrew MacNaughtan )

Cue Simpsons-Comic-Book-Store-Guy voice: Best. Band. Ever!

If you're a good drummer, it's a physically demanding job. To be the greatest, you must follow a training regimen that goes beyond the lighted stage.

A recent reader's poll in Rolling Stone magazine proclaimed my fellow Canadian Neil Peart of Rush to be the greatest living drummer, and I, many drum magazines and TV's "Family Guy" agree. Accordingly, I endeavored to snag an interview with a man who rarely gives interviews. I wanted to discover how a rocker — a career not known for promoting health or longevity — can keep his body a skin-smashing machine after 37 years in the same rock trio giving calorie-combusting concert performances that would blow the lumbar discs and ventricles of lesser men.

Getting to meet Peart might be cool too.

The stars, planets and concert tickets aligned. According to Rush publicist Meghan Symsyk, I hit the "trifecta" needed to qualify for 15 minutes of Peart's time before the June 30 concert in Vancouver, Canada: I'm writing for his current hometown paper, I am Canadian and I wanted to talk fitness.

Road trip!

Leaving at an hour so ungodly it would make Linda Blair's head spin around, my best friend, Craig McArthur, and I commenced a 600-mile, middle-aged-men-in-minivan voyage fueled by weapon-grade coffee and an all-Rush soundtrack. Arriving in Vancouver, we checked into a Ramada of dubious quality in an area where I worried about the safety of my 2009 Toyota Sienna.

After freshening up and working out the kinks of the road with a stroll about the city and "the best lasagna in town," I walked to Rogers Arena for the interview, fretting over the possibility that Peart might not actually have a fitness regimen.

But he did not disappoint. The man, it turns out, is a workout warrior, and he credits this with giving him the endurance to drum the way he does.

I arrived early and was brought to a waiting area backstage where the door was left open and busy people walked by doing their jobs like it was no big deal. Promptly on schedule, I was escorted to Peart's dressing room, and as he stood to greet me, offering a large right hand for me to shake, I noticed he dwarfed my 6-foot frame.

Knowing time was tight, we commenced the interview quickly, with a momentary detour to talk about shoes. I have my preferred runners, and it turns out Peart has his favorite drumming shoes: light, comfortable and with little bumps on the soles that act as suction cups to give just the right amount of grip. We're both believers in having the right tools for the job.

I started by asking him if he was active as a child.

"I had spindly little ankles, and growing up in Canada, I couldn't skate," he said. Just FYI, being able to ice skate is kind of a big deal in this country. "I was no good at any sports so was very much a pariah through those adolescent years."

I identified with this: I'd been a teenage spaz who was always picked last for teams and so am painfully aware of the subdivisions in the high school halls between the cool kids and the misfits.

I found exercise later in life — and so, it turns out, did Peart. What's more, he said, "It was actually drumming that gave me the stamina to get into sports later. I started playing drums at 13, and when I got to the international touring level … I got interested in cross-country skiing, long-distance swimming, bicycling … things that require stamina, not finesse. I'm still no good at ball-and-stick games. If I go play golf with the guys, it's intended to be a joke."

The depth of his interest in fitness became apparent when he started to talk about the difference between slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers. Fast-twitch fibers are the ones that generate massive power and are used in feats of strength. Even though Peart beats his drums like they're a rented Hyundai, the force he generates is not to a degree that activates fast-twitch fibers; it is almost exclusively the work of the smaller, fatigue-resistant slow-twitch muscle fibers. Unless he decides to bench press his drum kit.

"Stamina is the force that drives the drumming; it's not really a sprint," said Peart, who is 46 years older to the day than my 12-year-old son (see what I did there? I made you do math). "The stamina aspect is great because you don't lose that with age so quickly. I know there will be a day when I just can't do it, but at 58 years of age it hasn't come yet. I can still play as fast and as powerful and as long as I ever could."

To keep up his stamina, he said, he has to pretty much never get out of shape. More of us need to think this way. So often people want to lose weight for a high school reunion or a beach vacation — and then commence gaining it all back as soon as they hit the buffet line or start ordering poolside margaritas. Such short-term motivation is a far cry from the superior approach of keeping a fit lifestyle close to your heart all year round.

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