Physical fitness in middle age can be a powerful protector against frailty, heart conditions, and more. In fact, regular midlife exercise might be the most powerful way to prevent chronic illness, a new study done at UT Southwestern Medical Center and the Cooper Institute shows. Researchers examined more than 18,000 participants with an average age of 49 and found that the more fit men and women were, the lower their chances of developing serious health conditions during 26 years of follow-up. Need more reasons to get moving? Fitness can help stop osteoporosis, another study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found because pre-menopausal women who worked out for as little as two hours a week maintained healthier bones than those who do not exercise. Research in the Journal of Neuroepidemiology found that regular exercise can help stave off dementia, too.
If you’re worried that you’re too late to the party to make a difference, you’ll need to come up with a better excuse for not breaking a sweat. You can make gains in your strength and cardiovascular health even when you’re in your sixties, seventies, and eighties, says Joseph Ciccone, DPT, CSCS, associate director of Columbia Orthopaedics Sports Therapy in New York.
One reason exercise is so good for overall health is that it can put the brakes on the gradual loss of muscle mass that starts once you hit age 40, explains Sheldon Zinberg, MD, founder of the senior fitness chain Nifty After Fifty, based in Garden Grove, Calif. “Starting at the age of 40, we lose between 0.8 and 1 percent of our muscle strength each year,” Zinberg says. “At age 60, it can accelerate to 1.5 percent a year, and by age 70, unchecked, it can increase to 3 percent a year.” Loss of muscle can lead to balance problems and, in turn, increase the chances of falling, he explains. Falls can result in moderate to severe injuries, such as hip fractures, and increase the risk for early death, a fact reflected in the cartoon Zinberg keeps in his office: It shows a doctor talking to a patient and asking, “What fits your busy schedule better? Exercising 30 minutes a day or being dead 24 hours a day?”
First Steps to Middle-Age Fitness
If you’ve never exercised, starting can feel overwhelming. The first step is to set a goal, Ciccone says. Determine why you want to start a fitness routine — to lose weight, get stronger, or improve your overall health. Once you have a goal, you have something to work toward, he suggests.
Next, check in with your doctor. “The older you are, the greater your risk for medical conditions,” Ciccone warns. “It’s smart to have a checkup first and to talk to your doctor about any pre-existing conditions that may determine what exercises are safe for you.”
To get the most from your middle-age fitness routine, Zinberg says, you need a plan customized for you. Consider hiring a personal trainer who can develop a regimen that meets your unique goals.
Another key is to start slowly and then build slowly. “The key is gradual progression,” says Ciccone. Don’t be surprised if, after your first workout — even a brisk walk — you’re sore. Some soreness is to be expected, he says. But if you’re so sore that you can’t move, you may have overdone it and should take it a little slower.
If you can’t do 30 minutes at a time, break your workout into 10-minute intervals. Any exercise counts as long as it’s sustained for at least 10 minutes at a time and is of moderate to vigorous intensity.
To build over time, slowly replace physical activities that take moderate effort, such as brisk walking, with those that require more vigorous expenditures of energy, like jogging.
As you progress, keep challenging yourself. One technique is called interval training — adding intense spurts at regular intervals during the workout. If you’re walking, increase your speed until you reach the next street sign, for example, and then drop back to your usual brisk pace until you reach the next sign; repeat the pattern for the length of the walk. If you’re biking, add some steeper hills to your path to raise your heart rate.
Getting Specific: Exercises for Your Health
A well-rounded fitness plan includes three types of activity: cardiovascular (aerobic) exercise that targets your heart, strength training that targets muscles and prevents the muscle loss that comes with advancing age, and flexibility training to keep you limber and preserve balance.
Options for cardiovascular activities include:
- Brisk walking
- Playing doubles tennis
For strength training, Ciccone recommends working out every other day (or every third day, when starting) — never on consecutive days. “It’s the rest, not the working out, that makes you stronger,” he says. “Working out breaks down muscles and the rest builds them back up.” Begin with whole-body exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups, or squats. Then you can home in on specific muscles and add exercises such as bicep curls and triceps extensions. Three sets of 10 repetitions is a good starting point, he adds. Although free weights and weight machines are effective, consider using resistance bands, which are lengths of stretchy material that work muscles without your having to lift actual weights.
Exercise choices that focus on flexibility include tai chi and yoga, but your trainer should be able to give you simple exercises and stretches to do.
Sample Middle-Age Fitness Plans
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer many suggestions for creating a weekly workout schedule. Here are just two options:
Sunday: 30-minute brisk walk
Monday: 30-minute brisk walk
Tuesday: 30-minute brisk walk
Wednesday: Strength training
Thursday: 30-minute brisk walk
Friday: 30-minute brisk walk
Saturday: Strength training
Monday: Jog for 25 minutes
Wednesday: Jog for 25 minutes and then do strength training
Friday: Strength training
Saturday: Jog for 25 minutes
Making Middle-Age Fitness Fun
Above all, make exercise for health enjoyable. If you pick an activity you like, you’re more likely to stick with it. If you find a partner to exercise with, you’re also more likely to continue your routine. Know that activities like gardening (when you’re digging and shoveling) count. Some exercise disciplines are motivational and do double duty — yoga increases flexibility and develops your muscles, as well as relaxes you and relieves stress. Pilates strengthens muscles and works on flexibility and balance, too. Best of all, when you choose workouts you like, the energy and sense of accomplishment you’ll get will serve as motivation to continue.