Trying to get back in shape is frustrating at any age; but it can be even more discouraging when you're older and wondering whether it's even possible. Rest assured, getting fit after 50 is absolutely possible. It may not be as easy as it was when you were 20, but the rewards will be just as great — if not more so — in your later years.
Getting in shape at 50 requires both cardiovascular and strength training exercise and a healthy diet.
Get the Right Mindset
No matter whether you've been sedentary for two or 20 years, you're never too old to get back in shape. If you have extra weight to lose and you've lost muscle tone, regular exercise can help you reach your fitness goals. The key is to make a plan and stick to it.
Even if you heave health conditions, physical limitations or are recovering from illness, you can exercise to improve your fitness. But your program might look a little different. Healthy or not, it's always a good idea to check in with your doctor about resuming a workout program. She can give you the "all clear" or help you devise a program that meets your individual needs.
Lose Extra Weight
The first goal of a fitness program at any age is to shed excess fat. Being overweight or obese in middle age increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, certain types of cancer, kidney disease and osteoarthritis. It can even increase your brain age by a decade, according to a 2016 study in Neurobiology of Aging.
Lots of factors contribute to weight gain. Some of them, like the natural slowing of metabolism that occurs with age, are beyond your control, but the most common cause of weight gain is simply eating too much and not exercising enough. To begin to lose fat, you have to turn those tables around so the calories you burn each day are greater than the ones you consume.
Revamp Your Diet
Your diet plays the starring role in how easily you put on or take off weight. You can increase your activity level, but if you're still getting too many calories or eating unhealthy foods, you won't lose weight. So before you lace up your gym shoes, take a look in your refrigerator.
According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, it's not about having willpower or limiting certain type of foods — like carbs — it's about the overall quality of your diet. Low-fat or low-carb diets miss the point and, in the long run, don't work better than simply eating a diet including fresh, high-quality foods.
Choose the Right Foods
If you've been eating a lot of processed foods that are low in protein and fiber and high in fat and sugar, just making one simple change to fresh foods can make getting fit after 50 so much easier. While reducing your overall calorie intake below your calorie expenditure is the goal, you probably don't need to sit around counting calories. Just be sure that your diet is high in lean protein and dietary fiber.
These two nutrients are highly satiating and they affect appetite so you can feel satisfied without overeating. In fact, a 2018 study in the journal Nutrition found that when adults increased their protein and fiber intakes they were able to lose fat even without restricting calories. Set a goal to get at least 35 grams of fiber from vegetables, fruit and whole grains and .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight from lean meat, fish, beans, eggs and tofu each day.
Including more healthy foods in your diet will help you naturally crowd out the less healthy indulgences that cause weight gain. These include sweets and sugary beverages, fried foods, fast foods, processed foods and refined grains in white bread, pasta and rice. Limit these foods as much as possible.
Become More Active
Regular physical activity is crucial for getting fit after 50. Exercise helps you burn calories and fat and helps you build lean muscle mass. Health.gov's Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans says that adults who exercise regularly reduce their risk of chronic diseases, improve their sleep and emotional well-being and boost their cognitive function.
When you're physically active, performing everyday tasks becomes easier and you have more energy to achieve your fitness goals. Plus, a 2019 study in the International Journal of Obesity found that, when people were more physically active, they naturally made healthier food choices and were better able to regulate their food intake.
Get Enough Aerobic Exercise
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that all adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise each week. Moderate-intensity activities include brisk walking, recreational swimming, biking at a pace of less than 10 miles per hour on level terrain, playing doubles tennis and doing active forms of yoga such as power or vinyasa yoga.
If you choose, you can do more intense cardio exercise but for half the time and get the same benefits. Intense activities include jogging or running, swimming laps, bicycling faster than 10 miles per hour, jumping rope and hiking uphill.
To get even greater benefits, gradually increase your cardio activity to at least 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 150 minutes of vigorous activity each week. Continuing to increase the amount and intensity of your exercise will help you burn more fat and become fitter more quickly.
Regain Muscle Mass
Gaining lean muscle mass will also help you control your weight. Muscle mass is metabolically active, meaning your body has to burn calories for energy to build new muscle mass and maintain existing muscle mass. According to Paige Kinucan and Dr. Len Kravitz, muscle accounts for as much as 20 percent of an adult's total daily energy expenditure. Having more lean muscle mass is especially helpful to combat the age-related slowing of metabolism.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults strength train all the major muscle groups twice a week. Whether you do body-weight exercises at home or go into the gym to lift weights, do at least one exercise each for your arms, shoulders, back, chest, abdominals, glutes, thighs and calves. Do enough reps or lift enough weight that you fatigue the muscles. Start out slowly and gradually build the intensity as you get stronger.
- NIH: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Health Risks of Being Overweight
- Neurobiology of Aging: Obesity Associated With Increased Brain Age From Midlife
- Piedmont Healthcare: Why Metabolism Slows as You Age
- Precision Nutrition: Calories In vs. Out? Or Hormones?
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Food and Diet
- Dr. John Rusin: Why Low-Carb Diets Don't Work for Long-Term Goals
- Nutrition: A Nonrestrictive, Weight-Loss Diet Focused on Fiber and Lean Protein Increase
- Health.gov: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition: Chapter 4. Active Adults
- International Journal of Obesity: The Influence of 15-Week Exercise Training on Dietary Patterns Among Young Adults
- Harvard Health Publishing: Preserve Your Muscle Mass
- University of New Mexico: Controversies in Metabolism