Getting fit and staying in shape are crucial to lifetime health. A recent study found that midlife fitness is a strong predictor of the avoidance, after age 65, of eight major chronic conditions, including congestive heart failure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and colon and lung cancer. Remaining fit throughout middle age, the study indicates, helps us postpone and shrink the amount of time we may have to spend living with chronic illness, thanks to the phenomenon known as "compression of morbidity."
But as many of us return to the gym or the track to get in shape, or recommit ourselves to maintaining our longtime fitness routines, we also need to change some old habits to avoid injury, accommodate changes in our bodies, and, most important, make our workouts as effective and efficient as possible.
As you plan your fiftysomething workout, consider these five common mistakes and our expert tips to avoid them:
1. You Don't Warm Up
When you don't warm up, you limit your ability to complete your workout pain-free, increase the likelihood of feeling soreness afterward, and raise your risk of experiencing injury or muscle tear. Think of your warmup as a bridge leading you to exercise, and your cool down as the bridge leading you back from it, says New York exercise physiologist Scott Weiss, who has trained athletes for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "As we age, all of our systems take a bit longer to function at peak performance," Weiss says. "Warming up increases the body's temperature, stimulates blood flow to every organ, helps increase the uptake of oxygen on a cellular level and prepares joints and muscles for upcoming exercise."
(MORE: How to Avoid Injuries)
For a proper warmup, kick off each workout with five to 10 minutes of cardio exercise to raise your heart rate, like jogging on a treadmill at moderate speed and incline. After you work out, cool down by performing a lower-intensity version of the exercise you performed. For example, if you were running, take a five- to 10-minute walk.
2. You Skip Stretching
As you've probably already discovered, we can't work out in our 50s the way we did in our 20s. There was a time when we could just rotate our arms and bend our knees a few times and be ready to roll. But after age 40, Weiss says, stretching becomes crucial not only for successful workouts but for preventing soreness and injury every day. Blood flow to our musculotendinous junctions, where muscles and tendons meet, decreases by 30 to 40 percent as we age, putting vulnerable points like the Achilles tendon at higher risk of injury. "If you do not stretch all major muscle groups regularly," Weiss says, "you risk muscle tears and tendon strains." Stretching also benefits the range of motion in your joints. "The more flexible you are," Weiss says, "the greater freedom and ease of movement."
When you exercise, stretch for five minutes after your warmup, making sure to include all the major muscle groups but focusing on the muscles you will use in your workout. And remember to perform all your stretches slowly and smoothly, and in both directions. (This Mayo Clinic guide to stretching can get you started.)
3. You Focus Exclusively on Cardio
Aerobic exercise — like walking and running or using your gym's treadmill or stair machine — can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and help you ward off dementia. But when you focus on cardio workouts at the expense of resistance or weight training, you miss out on some important benefits. In middle age and beyond, most of us lose from 20 to 40 percent of our muscle mass. "It's imperative to reduce or stop this reduction altogether," says Michelle Gray, assistant professor of kinesiology and co-director of the Office for Studies on Aging at the University of Arkansas. Additionally, "resistance training has been shown to reduce rates of certain chronic illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes," Gray says, "and it also helps increase functional fitness — the ability to perform everyday activities." You may want to do strength training work in the gym after a half-hour of cardio exercise, or simply alternate between days of cardio and strength exercise.
(MORE: Why It's Never Too Late to Start Running)
Before launching a new resistance training regimen, it's wise to consult a trainer or physical therapist who can help you design a workout using weights, resistance or movements that exercise all your major muscle groups, and show you safe and proper form. In general, says Benjamin Figueroa, a senior exercise physiologist at Fox Rehabilitation in Cherry Hill, N.J., your workout should be based on "gradual progression," sessions involving eight to 10 exercises that amount to a total-body workout, with two sets of 10 to 15 repetitions for each exercise.
4. Your Workout Is Too Easy
If your workout feels comfortable, it's probably time to up the intensity. "Many exercisers just go through the motions of performing easy repetitions," Weiss says, "but the only way to trigger responses that strengthen joints and bones is through effort." If you're running, you should be building toward longer or faster runs that challenge your muscles. When working out in the gym, the last few repetitions of every exercise should be a bit of a struggle (but still doable). If they're not, you should slightly increase the weight. "Only then will you strengthen joints and bones, increase the proper anabolic, or building, hormones, increase lean body mass and negate the physiologic effects of aging," Weiss says. Similarly, it's important to vary the exercises you do, even to work the same muscles.
A recent University of Alabama-Birmingham study found that when three groups of adults age 60 to 75 were assigned three different 30-week fitness regimens, the group following the most intense workouts got the most benefit, with average gains of four-and-a-half pounds of muscle mass, and no injuries. The conclusion: Not only do you need more intense workouts, you can handle them.
5. You Avoid Power
As we get older, we tend to shy away from exercises that require power. By "power," we don't mean the ability to bench-press hundreds of pounds — we mean exercises that require our core muscles to move with speed and strength. Avoiding such moves contributes to a decrease in muscle fibers in our core, and that has ramifications beyond the gym. Walking quickly to beat a red light requires power, as does walking on uneven surfaces and maneuvering over obstacles.
To add some power exercises to your workout, introduce a speed component to traditional resistance exercises. The following squat, curl and press exercise is a simple move you can try at home, after a thorough warmup, to work your legs, biceps and shoulders. Start with two sets of six to eight repetitions each, once or twice a week:
- Stand straight, holding light dumbbells or filled water bottles in each hand, with your arms at your sides and your feet shoulder-width apart. To avoid injury, make sure the dumbbells are a manageable weight. The goal here is good form, not moving the heaviest weight possible.
- Bend at the knees and hips and lower yourself into a squat position, keeping your back straight and your eyes focused straight ahead.
- Pause in the squat position, then quickly stand up straight, rising onto your toes while curling the dumbbells up toward your shoulders. Then, while still on your toes if you can maintain your balance, slowly press the dumbbells overhead.
- Gently drop back onto your heels and return the weights to the starting position.