As if we need to tell you that a 55- or 60-year-old body doesn’t have the same features as a 20- or 25-year-old model.
“As we age past 40, we lose muscle mass, our basal metabolic rate slows down, the bones naturally become less dense, our balance deteriorates, and our reflexes are less sharp,” explains Jai Sugrim, a 22-year veteran of the health industry who’s licensed by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the American Council on Exercise, the International Sports and Sciences Foundation, and the Jivamukti Yoga School. “This decline is accelerated tenfold in our 50s.”
That means your workouts and habits should also be changing as you age. “The great news is that the science of periodized training can remedy all of these effects and move the hand of time backwards with applied science,” insists Sugrim. “If you’re 55 or older, you can chart a course toward radiant health.”
Here are 15 ways you should be changing your workouts and lifestyle to mesh seamlessly with the new gears into which your body is shifting.
1. Do something. Phil Griffis, who owns his own law firm in Houston and will turn 55 in July (who also confesses that he’s spent way too much time researching how to stay fit post-50) has this bit of advice: “Just do something,” he says. “Every day. Don’t get hung up on schedules.
“Today it was sunny and warm, and I wanted to get outside,” says the recent ironman finisher. “So I went for a five-mile run. Tomorrow my legs will be sore, so I’ll probably swim. The next day, my wife might want to walk, so I’ll put on a 40-pound weighted vest and walk with her. Then the next day, there may be some surf, so I’ll go surf. Tonight I’ll work on mobility for 30 minutes. If you’re doing something every day, you can afford to do what you want to do.”
2. Do what’s best for you, not others. Your fitness routine should be based on your personal needs rather than what you see others doing or what you were doing previously, advises Justin Seedman, an ACE-certified personal trainer.
“If you haven’t been exercising, don’t go right back into doing what you were doing when you were much younger,” advises Seedman. “The workout you were doing back in your 20s in college may not be the best workout for you now.”
3. Don’t avoid anything, but ease into whatever you do. “There really isn’t any exercise this population should avoid,” reports Joshua Jordan, a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist who works with many in the 55-plus crowd in Northern Virginia. “Everything can be used during exercise, from deadlifts and squats to box jumps and overhead pressing.
“The key factor is graded exposure to these exercises,” says Jordan. “If you’re not familiar or consistent with performing these types of exercises, the load needs to be appropriate based on your fitness level. Many times, people get in trouble because they have a lapse in regular training, and once they return to training, they try to start back at their previous level of fitness. This leads to injury and eventually fear-avoidance because ‘this exercise’ caused them to get hurt.
“Be honest with yourself to determine the appropriate starting point,” suggests Jordan. “If you’re unable to properly assess your current fitness level, this is where a physical therapist, strength and conditioning coach, or personal trainer can come in handy.”
4. Get in your cardio. “If you’re in your mid- to late 50s, you should incorporate at least 20-40 minutes of cardiovascular exercise into your daily routine,” recommends Adam Splaver, a cardiologist in Miami Beach, Fla.
However, Splaver say you shouldn’t start an exercise routine until you have clearance from your doctor, and you should stop working out if an activity or movement doesn’t feel right. Stop and get professional advice before proceeding, he recommends.
5. Avoid long, slow, distance workouts. “Shun these workouts in favor of interval training unless you have enough time to train five or six exercise sessions per week,” advises Sugrim. “Long-distance running and cycling tax your muscles and tendons with repetitive stress and increase your chance of injury. And they burn calories only during the workout.”
6. Be sure your routine includes strength training. “It’s necessary to strength train because we lose muscle mass as we age,” reports Carol Michaels, a fitness consultant with locations in Florida and New Jersey who’s certified by ACE and the American College of Sports Medicine. “The good news is that you can reverse this muscle loss at any age. Muscles are metabolically active, which means they burn calories at rest and during exercise. Strength training helps increase your muscle mass.”
What exactly is strength training? It’s also called resistance training, and it’s an exercise using weights or your own body weight to strengthen and build muscle, explains Michaels. “The more muscle mass you have, the faster your metabolism. Therefore, strength training can help with weight loss. It can also decrease your risk of injury. It improves balance, agility, coordination, and energy levels.”
Michaels suggests strength training two times a week. “If you’re new to exercise and over 55, you might start with a very light weight,” she advises. “Try to do 10 repetitions. By the fifth to eighth rep, you should feel the muscle working. By the tenth rep, you should feel that you’ve worked the muscle but aren’t exhausted. By slowly using more weight, you’ll increases muscle mass and strength. You want to get the most out of your exercise session but not get injured.”
7. Focus on your balance. “I believe one thing everybody should work on as they age is balance,” says Jordan. “Balance doesn’t get worse because we age; it gets worse because we stop challenging balance as we age, and hence, our fall risk increases.
“Balance is something that can be maintained throughout your life by challenging your balance daily,” he says. “This can be as simple as balancing on one leg in the morning when brushing your teeth to performing single-leg squats and deadlifts to improve your dynamic balance.”
8. Work to build spine and core control. This is a must-have for a healthy low back and full-body strength, says Doug Barsanti, an NSCA-certified strength and conditioning specialist and personal trainer and owner of ReInvention Fitness in Santa Cruz, Calif.
“The job of the external torso muscles isn’t to flex, extend, or rotate the spine but to prevent it from moving in those directions,” he explains. “The body needs to be trained in the patterns it actually uses to stabilize you rather than training individual abdominal muscles.
“Training individual ab muscles does nothing to stabilize the spine,” he says. “That means no more crunches, hyperextensions, or twisting crunches. Better options are planks, side planks, and something anti-rotation like a Pallof press.”
Barsanti also suggests staying with exercises that require full-body stability like squats, lunges, hip hinges, and various pushing and pulling exercises.
“Everyone wants to work the big muscles that move you, but we also need to work the little muscles that hold our joints together,” he says. “Try to train on your feet as much as possible. Stay away from strength-training machines that don’t require the little stabilizing muscles to get involved.”
9. Avoid long, high-impact workouts. “Running on roads will toss three times your bodyweight in reciprocal shock from the blacktop right into your knees, hips, and lower back,” explains Sugrim. “Long ballistic workouts increase the risk of injury, so choose wisely. Ease into anything high impact if you choose to do it. In my 40s, I revisited the martial arts of my 20s but made sure to go really slow for the first six months of my training.”
10. If you’re not already, start doing yoga. Los Angeles-area yoga instructor Melissa Okabe says the practice builds bone density, increases and maintains your flexibility, enhances balance, and helps reduce stress.
If you haven’t been doing yoga, she recommends starting with a beginner’s class. “Don’t overdo it or compare yourself to your neighbor,” she advises. “Yoga is a personal practice. Try to feel and listen to your body; don’t try to do what your neighbor may be doing in class.”
Use props, she adds. “Props such as blocks, blankets, straps, and bolsters are there to help your body attain proper alignment,” she explains. “That helps energy flow more optimally though your body and will help your body open up more quickly with consistent practice. And don’t be afraid to use a wall or chair for added support, especially if you’re struggling with balance in the beginning.”
Be sure to let your instructor know if you have any injuries or medical conditions, and don’t get discouraged if the first class feels hard. “You’re working new muscles that probably haven’t been lengthened or strengthened in the past,” explains Okabe.
11. Don’t skip warm-ups or cool-downs. “In our 20s, many of us could get away with jumping right into our workouts,” explains Sugrim. “In your 50s and beyond, more than ever the warm-up and cool-down are crucial for avoiding injury and enhancing recovery.
“When we warm up by easing into the workout’s higher intensities, we give the bursa sacs, located in each major joint of the body, an opportunity to release synovial fluid, a lubricant for the joints,” he adds. “We allow connective tissue to become more pliable and ready for higher tension later on in the workout. Skipping the warm-up isn’t worth the risk of injury.
“The cool-down phase of the workout gives the heart and lungs a chance to clear the metabolites of respiration—uric acid, lactic acid, and ammonia—from the tissues,” says Sugrim. “It helps with reducing exercise-related inflammation.”
12. Do interval cardiovascular work. “Instead of staying at the same intensity with your cardio, doing interval work will always elevate your basal metabolic rate for 48 hours,” says Sugrim.
“Instead of a 45-minute run or spin on the bike, do six to eight high-intensity one-minute intervals, where you go hard—maybe 8 out of 10 in perceived exertion,” he advises. “Be sure to intersperse the hard parts with longer, perhaps 3–5-minute, periods of low intensity. You’ll get a greater return on your time investment.”
13. Don’t compare yourself to anybody. “Health and wellness is deeply personal, and when you’re older, your focus should be more about functionality,” says Sugrim. “Can you get up and move through your activities of the day with ease? Do you have energy to play your favorite sport? Can you keep up with your grandkids for a few hours?
“Define for yourself what the right balance is, and don’t compare yourself to the personal goals of others,” he says. “Contentment will breed happiness.”
14. Prioritize quality sleep. “Seven or eight hours of sleep is a must for optimal hormonal health and for the nerves to properly support your physical training,” contends Sugrim. “With poor rest, cognition and coordination decline and increase our chances of injury.”
Sugrim suggests you wind down by having a cut-off time at home for emails, phone use, and stimulating reading material. Dim the lights an hour before you hit the bed, and make your mind tranquil before you try to rest. If you’re not rested, advises Sugrim, skip working out because the risk of injury isn’t worth it.
15. Eat less. “As we age, we need fewer calories than in our 20s,” says Sugrim. “My mom and dad are 70 and 63 years old, respectively, semi-retired, and in great shape. Mom loves yoga, and dad is a tennis fanatic. Their motto is: Eat like a king for breakfast and like a pauper at dinner.
“It’s a masterful approach in the sense that our bodies will become totally congested with three large meals per day,” he explains. “It’s best to avoid late-night eating and switch to two meals per day instead of three. A high-fat coconut oil in your coffee or tea in the morning can help you skip breakfast if you prefer to start the day with a light feeling.