How Tim McGraw Turned His Health Around

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 02, 2019
8 min read

Tim McGraw is an hour late for our interview and apologetic, but he has a good excuse. For the last 2 hours, he's been surfing along the coast of Monterey, CA, with his daughter Maggie's boyfriend. It's his first time on a board and another check mark on a bucket list of sorts, the embodiment of his 2004 hit song, "Live Like You Were Dying."

Unlike the song, that list might not include a bull named Fu Manchu, but McGraw did learn to pilot a plane and discovered a passion for spearfishing. Staying engaged and exploring new things is how he keeps his life in gear and avoids the doldrums.

"Everybody goes through times when they're not in the right spot," says the 52-year-old Grammy- and Country Music Award-winning singer. Ten years ago, McGraw found himself in the wrong spot, out of sync with life and in what he calls his "dark place." He hadn't fallen to the depths some hard-partying musicians plunge into with drugs and alcohol. He'd just been drinking a few too many beers and eating a little too much junk food out on the road -- lapses that had caught up with him to the tune of 40 extra pounds.

A reality check came when he took his eldest of three daughters, Gracie, to the movies near their Nashville home. As the trailer for Four Christmases, a holiday film in which he had a small part, flashed up on the screen, Gracie rolled her eyes. "She didn't have to say another word; the screen said it all. My face was inflated and doughy, and my skin looked tired and dull. It was a punch in the gut moment," McGraw writes in his new book, Grit & Grace.

"I felt like I was in a place in my life that I'd worked hard to get to. I had a great family and a great, supportive wife [fellow country singer Faith Hill] who was just killing it in her own right. And I wasn't capitalizing on the best part of my life," he says. "I wasn't taking care of myself as well as I should have been."

The realization that the path he was on might not keep him around long enough to see his children grow up hit him hard. "I wanted to be around to see what they became in life -- to see what their lives looked like, who they married, and the children they had," he says. "The way you do that is to take a look at yourself in the mirror and figure out how you need to prioritize your life."

He prioritized by making a commitment to turn his health around. No more drinking. No more junk food. Exercise every day.

McGraw was no stranger to physical fitness. He'd been a standout athlete in high school and had remained active throughout most of his adult life, aside from those recent lapses. Still, he knew better than to ramp back up too quickly. "I started just by walking," he says. "I got up every day and got my shoes on, and I'd walk out for 10 minutes and walk back. Gradually, I kept doing that and added time to it and then added more things to it."

As his fitness improved, McGraw became more aggressive with his workouts. He filled an entire trailer in his tour convoy with giant tires, sledgehammers, battle ropes, and barbells -- everything he needed to push his body to the limit. The result is a mobile gym so intimidating that his fiddle player, Deano Brown, termed it the "Gorilla Yard." McGraw opened up the Gorilla Yard to his band and crew, encouraging them to get in shape with him. It was piano player Billy Nobel's first introduction to serious fitness training, and he took to it quickly. "He came out and just really jumped right into it right away. Within 6 weeks, he'd completely changed his body," McGraw says.

The dramatic transformation he saw in himself and his crew moved McGraw to write Grit & Grace. While he doesn't expect everyone to follow the same path he did, he hopes his story will inspire people whose motivation needs a little jump-start. "Everybody's journey is different, and everyone is going to approach things in a different way," he says. "But I think if you can see someone else, it can help you navigate a little bit, and maybe help you know that you can navigate."

McGraw's toned physique is in sharp contrast to the soft-around-the-edges image he saw displayed 30 feet high on a movie screen a decade ago, but he wasn't aiming for brawn alone. Workouts had made his body buff, but he still felt stiff. To help him get more agile, McGraw called in the talents of trainer and former competitive martial artist Roger Yuan, the man behind many of the hardcore fight scenes in action films like 47 Ronin and Skyfall.

"What he was challenged most by was flexibility and functional strength moves and using the body and core to generate speed, power, and economic movement," Yuan says. By practicing yoga postures, stretches, and animal-like movements (lizard and bear crawls, chimpanzee hops), McGraw became more pliable and gained what Yuan calls "a certain martial attitude with graceful transitions from one deeper stance to another, to be more athletic and have more endurance during the show."

Anyone fortunate enough to have seen McGraw perform in Tampa, FL, back in 2015 witnessed the fruits of those workouts. Toward the end of "Live Like You Were Dying," he crouched down almost to stage level, and while in that position, held a note for a full 10 seconds. It was a vocal feat he says he could not have done 15 years earlier. "I use my whole body when I sing. I use my legs. I'm trying to wring tone out everywhere to get my voice the way I want it to sound," he says. "I think I sing better than I have in my entire career. I know I can sing higher than I used to. My range is larger than it used to be. That comes from a combination of being fit and not having to try to find your wind in order to sing."

McGraw likens this performance power to his early years playing football, baseball, and basketball. "A lot of what I do onstage, I feel it's athletic," he says. "The whole buildup to the show is sort of like getting ready for a football game."

Being athletic is part of McGraw. To say it's in his genes wouldn't be an overstatement. His father, Tug McGraw, was the relief pitcher who helped the Mets and Phillies win World Series titles.

When Tug died from brain cancer at age 59 in 2004, Tim helped found a charity to honor his father's legacy. The Tug McGraw Foundation helps improve the quality of life for those diagnosed with brain injuries and tumors.

"They give us and the brain tumor community a haven for resources that might not be readily available," says Henry Friedman, MD, deputy director of the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke and special advisor to the foundation.

McGraw is the charity's honorary chair. He's seen firsthand how its wellness programs benefit residents at the Veterans Home in Yountville, CA. "You see people who come alive because of the interaction and the help they get," he says. "When I get a chance to visit, that really sums it up for me."

Giving back is a central tenet in McGraw's life, fostered in the small Louisiana town where he was raised. "It flooded a lot," he says. "When we would have a flood, my coach would gather up all the guys on the basketball team in the back of his pickup truck and take us to the cotton gin. We'd start putting sand in bags and taking them to communities."

Paying it forward is also his way of saying thanks for the many gifts he's received. "I've been so fortunate in my life," he says. "Everything good in my life has come from country music. I met my wife through it."

He's eternally grateful for his wife and the other women in his life, he says. "I don't think without my mom and my sisters and my wife and daughters that I would see life in the same way," McGraw says. "It's probably made me a more compassionate person than I was ever meant to be and a way more considerate person than I was ever meant to be. They lead me to see the good in everything."

Fame and success have brought McGraw big rewards, but they haven't totally shielded him from life's challenges. "Problems are problems, and everybody has them. … The water's going to run differently in everyone's creek, and the stumbling blocks or rocks are going to be in different places," he says.

Navigating the joys and successes, the heartaches and pain, has readied him to face the jagged edges he's encountered along the way. "Leaning into life and preparing yourself for that," says McGraw, "in a mental and physical way, is very important."

Have you let your fitness routine slip? Try these tips from McGraw and Yuan to help you get back into shape if you've been off the exercise wagon for a while.

Commit to your workout routine. When you're tempted to skip days, remember the reason you're putting in the effort, and it will give you the drive to keep going.

Move every day. Something as simple as a daily walk can set off what McGraw calls a "cascade of changes" that transform your body and mind.

Just breathe. Use your diaphragm and expand your rib cage to achieve maximum lung capacity with each breath. Properly oxygenating your body "allows for faster gains from exercise, lessens soreness from lactic acid buildup, helps recovery, and just starts you off in a better mood from the get-go," Yuan says.

Stretch. "That's one of the things everybody lets slip," McGraw says. "It's so important to your functionality, being able to stretch and loosen your muscles."

Sleep well. Your body can't perform at its best if you're chronically exhausted. Getting the rest you need and the time to reenergize yourself is what McGraw calls "recharging your battery."

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