Starting a new workout routine can be intimidating, especially when you’re over 50.
Changes to our bodies after 50 present challenges that were not a concern in our 30s and 40s. Workout shortcuts we could get away with earlier in life can cause harm to aging bones and muscles. In addition, everyone else seems to know the ropes while you struggle to keep up. And if you get off to a bad start, that could color the way you feel about exercise for years and prevent you from ever sticking to a program.
On the other hand, a positive experience makes it more likely you’ll enjoy the process and stay with it.
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Here’s what top experts suggest are the seven biggest mistakes new exercisers over 50 tend to make — and how to avoid them:
1. You don’t warm up.
It’s tempting to try and save time by skipping your warmup. But a warmup not only primes your nervous system for exercise, it can prevent skipped heartbeats and premature fatigue, says Michele Olson, a professor of exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala.
“Warm up by doing light exercise such as brisk walking while doing back arm-circles or marching in place, pressing arms overhead,” Olson says. You’ll know you’re warm enough when you break a light sweat.
2. You walk or do cardio only and avoid weights.
Cardio exercise keeps your heart healthy and burns calories, but resistance training plays an equally beneficial role. “We lose muscle every decade as we age largely due to becoming more inactive,” Olson says. This not only increases the risk of falls but slows your metabolism, since muscle burns more calories at rest than fat.
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“When you’re young and full of muscle you can go heavy on cardio and light on weights,” Olson says. “However, once you hit midlife, you need to work your muscles with a solid resistance training routine at least three days a week.” This can include dumbbells, exercise tubing or even your own body weight to start.
3. You forget to stretch.
The muscle tightness and inflexibility that accompanies aging results from the loss of fluid and elasticity in the tendons and ligaments surrounding the joints, Olson says. “You should engage in flexibility training at least three times a week,” she notes.
Stretching can include Pilates and/or yoga as well as static (stretch and hold) stretching. (Note: Stretching is not a warmup and should only be done after a thorough warm-up or at the end of your workout.)
“Yoga and Pilates also help improve balance and core strength,” Olson says. “Both are important in protecting the hip joints and spine, which gives us a more stable posture and stronger hip and spinal bones and muscles.”
4. You don’t seek a professional evaluation.
In addition to getting medical clearance and a complete physical before starting an exercise program, it’s a good idea to also find a certified and experienced trainer to determine what you should and should not be doing, says Irv Rubenstein, an exercise physiologist and co-founder of S.T.E.P.S. fitness facility in Nashville, Tenn.
“A qualified trainer can help you in terms of the specific exercises, machines, intensity and duration that are best for you,” says Rubenstein. An evaluation not only reduces your risk of injury, but ensures you’ll get results.
(MORE: Lifelong Exerciser Makes Peace with 'Senior Cardio')
5. You do too much too soon.
The excitement of starting a new workout program can lead to overdoing it, such as immediately exercising every day or lifting too much weight without working up to it gradually.
“It’s the source of most injuries and burnout,” Rubenstein says. “Don’t try to get to the gym or the track too often those first few weeks. Two to four times a week for cardio and two to three strength-training sessions is sufficient for novices.”
Increase your intensity and duration slowly and tackle one aspect at a time. For example, if you add 10 minutes to cardio, avoid raising the weight on your lifting routine at the same time.
6. You think you’re too old.
Many new exercisers over 50 set the bar too low, not realizing what is possible, says Mark Nutting, fitness director of SACO Sport & Fitness in Saco, Maine. “They often think it’s too late to start weight training, which is not true.”
Several studies, including one by the American Heart Association, show dramatic improvements in strength and heart health. Researchers found that moderate physical activity in sedentary adults 70 years and older dramatically reduced their heart attack risk after a year of supervised activity.
7. You start by jogging.
Going out for a run or jog when you’re out of shape is a common mistake when getting your cardio routine on board, Olson says. “Sure, running 5Ks is an admirable goal, but there are so many joint-friendly options, including cycling, elliptical machine exercise, water aerobics or enjoyable dance-style cardio classes such as Zumba to increase your cardiovascular fitness,” she adds.
Cross-training by switching up your cardio works best to keep you from hitting a plateau and can also help you stay motivated.
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