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7 Ways to Become a Lifelong Exerciser After 50

The secret is in factors that you can control


On a typical morning, you’re likely to find Chris Kelly, 64, at his neighborhood YMCA in Downers Grove, Ill. The retired captain for United Airlines starts his day with an early workout.

“I’ve always enjoyed physical activity,” says Kelly. “I wasn’t a natural athlete but I gravitated toward things like running and lifting weights… and I played hockey for about 20 years.” While his hockey days are behind him, he stays fit with a mix of cardio and lifting weights.

Kelly doesn’t have to make himself go to the gym; it’s simply part of his lifestyle. And anyone over 50 can make the transition from sporadic workouts to a more committed routine. The key to becoming a lifelong exerciser has less to do with access to a gym or even having perfect health and more to do with other factors that you can control.

Here are seven ways you can start working out — and stick with it:

1. Put It On the Calendar

“Most people who are regular exercisers are able to self-regulate,” says Danielle Wadsworth, an assistant professor and head of the Exercise Adherence and Motivation Lab at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala. “They manage their time for exercise.”

That means scheduling it like you would any other activity. And while working out in the morning increases your chance of sticking with it, choose a time that works for you. Some people prefer midday workouts, while others opt for late-afternoon sessions.

2. Create a Support Network

Research shows that having a workout buddy makes you more likely to stick with an exercise program.

“If you have a spouse or significant other, that person has to be supportive and realize that it’s a priority for you,” says Wadsworth. “Is your partner willing to allow for funds to be spent on a gym membership or for equipment, for example?” Talk to your significant other about your intentions and get him or her on board. Or enlist a friend to work out with you.

Kelly has belonged to the same YMCA for 25 years and has made longstanding friends there.

“When I was younger, I did a lot more by myself, but the social part of it has become a much larger part of what I enjoy,” he says.

3. Up the Ante

It may sound counterintuitive, but pushing yourself a little harder than normal can increase the pleasure you derive from exercise. A recent study published in PLoS One found that upping the ante — doing a more challenging workout that includes intervals as opposed to steady-state cardio — can increase the amount of enjoyment you get from your workout. And when you feel good post-workout, you’re more likely to want to keep doing it.

4. Get Creative

Hate working out in a gym? Then don’t do it! Maybe standup paddle boarding or a barre class will be a better fit.

“There are lots of opportunities to exercise,” says Wadsworth. “At this time in your life, you can make yourself more of a priority… traditionally we thought of exercise as doing something for 30 minutes or longer, but even 10 minutes is fine. Try new things and see what you enjoy. Enjoyment does help with adherence over time.”

5. Protect Your Body

Regardless of what you choose to do for exercise, it’s important to include range-of-motion activities on a regular basis. That might be taking yoga once a week or doing flexibility or stretching exercises several times a week. This will help reduce your risk of injury and help you maintain your mobility as you get older.

Another non-negotiable? A couple days of strength training every week.

“For women especially, I always encourage strength training,” says Wadsworth. That will allow you to continue to do the everyday tasks you may now take for granted.

6. Develop Intrinsic Motivation

People who exercise for extrinsic reasons — like to lose weight or to look a certain way — aren’t as likely to stick with it as those who have intrinsic motivation, which is doing exercise for its own sake. Being mindful about your workouts — paying attention to the feeling of moving your body and the satisfaction you feel at the end of workout — can help develop this inner motivation.

7. Invest in Your Future

“Everyone is looking for the magic pill… well, exercise has the ability to affect you physically, emotionally, intellectually and cognitively,” says Wadsworth. “And it’s not something you have to work hard to do! You have to figure out how to incorporate it into your daily life so you’re able to do the things you want to do and have the quality of life you want. Exercise is one of the things that will allow you do that.”

Kelly said exercise will continue to be part of his retirement.

“When I leave the Y after my workout, I feel great. There’s no other way to put it. So why would anybody stop doing things that make you feel good?” he asks.

By Kelly K. James
Kelly K. James is a health, wellness and fitness writer and ACE-certified personal trainer based in Downers Grove, Ill.

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