Whether you've maintained an exercise routine for as long as you can remember or you're a bit removed from your peak level of fitness, one thing's for certain: Your body isn't the same at 40, 50 and beyond as it was in your 20s and 30s.
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But so what if you wouldn't be able to compete with your 20-year-old athletic self: It's possible to be fit and healthy at the age you are now, even if your body has changed.
One of the key differences between your older and younger athletic selves is that your goals have likely changed, says Holly Roser, CPT, owner of Holly Roser Fitness Studios, who regularly works with clients over 40.
"You may not be wanting to get in a bikini at this stage in your life, but you may still want to look good in your business suit, or for someone's wedding or to simply feel good when participating in running or cycling events," she says. "As you get older, your goals will likely change and lean more toward lifestyle choices rather than appearance."
Not only that, but as you get older, it's important to consult with your health care provider about specific conditions that are also more common with age, such as osteoporosis or sarcopenia (loss of muscle). From there, you can figure out what to zero in on as you reach certain age group milestones.
1. You May Need to Tailor Your Workouts to an Existing Injury
Plenty of active and otherwise healthy people find that they're more susceptible to overuse injuries with age, Roser says. These sidelining pains might include runner's knee (pain usually in the front of the knee that hurts when squatting, running or walking), rotator cuff tears, herniated discs and plantar fasciitis, and can be the result of doing certain movements — such as lunges, plyometrics or stair-climbing — too often.
"I typically see these injuries from those in their 40s and 50s who are taking group fitness classes like boot camps," Roser says. "Because many are not actively working on correct posture during these moves, a sedentary lifestyle where your shoulders are coming forward while working all day long can cause an increased risk of injury once you get to that workout class."
How to Do It
It may be time to seek out small group or one-on-one personal training, Roser says, to help determine what workouts best fit your individual needs and how to tailor them to any specific injuries.
A trainer can help you pinpoint why you're feeling sore after every workout, say, or which of your stiff joints need more mobility work. They can also help you aim for goals and achievements within a timeframe that's realistic and attainable.
"Clients over 40 often love having the camaraderie and community, as well as the friendly competition that group personal training can bring," Roser says (even if it's virtual for now). "A customized program can provide a healthy and positive environment to get you in the mode of pushing yourself and feeling stronger."
Roser's second choice is individual personal training, which can allow you to build a relationship with the trainer who is customizing everything specifically for you. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many clients can find these services online, which usually means there's an added bonus: lower costs.
Debra Atkinson, a medical exercise specialist, certified strength and conditioning coach and founder of Flipping 50, recommends not seeking out just any trainer, but one who focuses on older clients and works with them on a regular basis. You can look for a medical exercise specialist through an organization such as MedFit Network, she says, which offers a directory of trainers who specialize in aging.
"Entry-level trainers aren't experts in exercise and aging, or exercising through menopause and other conditions," she explains. "If you're going to rely on a trainer, it's important to ask: 'Is what you're planning to do with me based on research about someone just like me?'"
When it comes to cardio workout, go back to basics: Walking and swimming burn calories and build strength while being a little gentler on the joints.
Atkinson also recommends boxing or kickboxing. You don't actually need equipment like gloves or a bag. "Boxing is low-impact and works the core and arms," she says. "It's also great for the brain when you're learning new moves and putting combinations together."
2. You Have to Focus on Quality Over Quantity
A common misconception Atkinson runs into is the idea that you need to exercise less and with lower intensity as you get older. This isn't necessarily true, she says. What's most important, she says, is making sure each workout is a quality session — and that you're still eating plenty for fuel.
"Exercise is supposed to give you energy to 'do life,' to be more productive at work and active with your family, not just be better at the gym," she explains. "We are conditioned to think the way to lose weight after 40 is to exercise more and eat less, which will make you more tired. This is like having one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake. This strategy won't work for weight loss because your metabolism will slow down."
How to Do It
Hone in on quality workouts, such as short strength sessions with heavy weights versus an hour on the elliptical, and eat more nutrient-dense foods before and after, such as a banana and whole-grain bread with peanut butter.
3. Cardio Alone Doesn't Cut It Anymore
Strength training can feel overwhelming when you're not sure what to do, and you may have found that just doing cardio was enough to help you stay fit and energized in your 20s and 30s. But strength training should be a priority — especially as you age.
Not only will weight-bearing activity like strength training help preserve muscle and bone health, it can also help lift your metabolic rate, according to Roser.
You'll also burn more calories because of the afterburn effect and as you develop more lean muscle mass, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). This is key because your metabolism slows down as you get older, making it harder to lose weight even when you're focused on your goal, Roser says.
Atkinson agrees, adding that all adults, even those well into their 70s and 80s, should be doing strength training even if they're not doing much cardiovascular exercise.
How to Do It
Roser recommends two to three weekly strength sessions. Aim for 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps of around nine exercises with comfortably challenging weights. She suggests following the order below, she says, to progress from your bigger muscle groups to smaller ones:
Barre workouts or Pilates often aren’t sufficient for building muscle. Consider them supplements to your strength routine.
4. Consistency Is More Important Than Ever
Back in your 20s and 30s, you were probably able to take a break from exercise here and there and not really notice much of a decline in your stamina or muscle tone. Missed exercise sessions add up more quickly as you get older, though, according to the ACE.
No matter your age, though, it's important to maintain an exercise routine if you truly want to make physical gains.
How to Do It
It's common advice because it works: Try scheduling your workouts as appointments in your calendar, Roser says. You might also try making exercise a social event. Meeting a friend for a walk, for example, helps keep you both accountable.
"Adults often settle into habits, so it's better to just expect that a part of your day is to move," Atkinson says. "You'll have days where you're just trying to be an active person and move around in general, and then there should be days that are designated exercise days where you'll be getting out of breath or lifting weights."
5. You Have to Pay Even More Attention to Nutrition
The days of eating whatever you wanted with abandon are often behind you once you hit 40 and 50. At this age, it typically takes a little more care to plan a balanced diet.
One macronutrient to pay special attention to as you get older is protein. "Protein is the building block of muscle, and you'll need protein at every meal to be able to synthesize [muscle] and prevent muscle loss," Atkinson explains.
How to Do It
Aim for between 46 and 56 grams of protein a day, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Make sure you're eating a nutrient-dense snack before a workout, Roser adds, like whole-grain bread with peanut butter or a homemade granola bar.
"Even a half-cup of pasta with meat sauce one to two hours before a workout is a great option to keep you fueled for your workout so your blood sugar is stable," she says.