How to Stay Fit After 40
The older you get, the more important it is to stay in shape. The key is finding exercise regimens that help and don’t hurt.
Julie Lastra has been active for most of her life, but she never had much interest in lifting weights or working out at a gym. “I hated those machines, and I hated all those people looking at themselves in the mirror,” she says. She preferred to go for a run with her dogs after work.
All of that changed in 2014, when Lastra, 42, a planning director for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., injured her knee in a downhill skiing accident. She wore a brace for a month, and her muscles atrophied. Running was out of the question. A friend suggested she try Solidcore, a boutique gym program that requires participants to do a 50-minute, high-intensity, low-impact workout on resistance-based machines. First Lady Michelle Obama is a fan of the program.
Lastra became a fan, too. “I could get that runner’s high and still protect my knee,” she says. Lastra now goes to Solidcore several times a week and has become a part-time coach. The workouts strengthened the muscles around her knee, so she’s able to run again and often does laps around the soccer field while her daughters, ages 8 and 10, are practicing. Her pace has slowed, but Lastra says that if she hadn’t done Solidcore, she probably wouldn’t be able to run at all.
Not everyone over 40 has a reckoning as painful as Lastra’s, but her experience is instructive. Although some people continue to run long distances into their seventies and beyond, many are no longer able to put that much pressure on muscles and joints. Injuries are more common, too. But even as working out becomes more challenging, it’s more important than ever to stay fit.
Exercise has been shown to prevent or control a wide range of diseases and health problems, including stroke, diabetes, certain types of cancer and arthritis. A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that people who rarely engaged in physical activity after age 60 had a higher incidence of dementia, suggesting that regular exercise could lower your risk. And regular exercisers are less likely to hurt themselves in a fall, which is one of the most common reasons seniors end up in a nursing home. Exercise also improves your mood, gives you more energy and helps you sleep at night, according to the Mayo Clinic, which recommends 30 minutes of physical activity a day.
The most effective exercise regimen is one that gets your heart rate up, strengthens your muscles and joints, and improves balance and flexibility. Fortunately, you can take a number of paths to accomplish those goals while minimizing the risk of injury.
Get Buff in a Boutique
Solidcore is just one of an assortment of workouts that seek to combine all the elements of total fitness in one sweaty session. Others include Pure Barre, which incorporates a ballet bar and upbeat music into its workout; CrossFit, which weaves together weight lifting, running, rowing and more; and SoulCycle, a spinning class that mixes in an upper-body workout. Most provide a way to adapt the routines to your abilities, so you don’t need to be an Olympian to participate.
One of the fastest-growing boutique programs is Orangetheory, which has more than 450 studios worldwide. Ellen Latham, who has been teaching fitness for 40 years, founded the program in 2010 after she noticed that clients in her Pilates group were dashing out after class to run around the track or join a cycling session. “They weren’t burning fat with Pilates,” she says. “They were frustrated.”
That led Latham, now 60, to create a one-hour interval workout during which clients rotate between a treadmill, rowing machine and resistance training with free weights and suspension straps. With assistance from heart monitors and flat-screen TVs mounted in the studio, participants can determine when they’ve reached the “orange zone”—defined as 84% or more of their maximum heart rate.
Like Solidcore, Orangetheory allows participants to get a cardio workout that doesn’t put a lot of stress on their joints. “After 40, your joints can take only so much,” Latham says. “I used to do triathlons and everything else, and now I have arthritis in my knees.”
Other boutique programs use different strategies to keep clients energized and entertained. CrossFit publishes a “Workout of the Day” (WOD) on its website to encourage members to mix up their exercise routines and take a rest day. At SoulCycle, participants work out in candlelit studios as instructors encourage them to pedal harder.
Callie Coffman, 49, started working out at Solidcore and Orangetheory after running became too hard on her joints. She believes boutique fitness classes appeal to older people because they accommodate a range of fitness levels. “There’s no judgment,” says Coffman, manager of government affairs for the Washington, D.C., courts system. “You see people just like you.”
Coffman, who works out five or six times a week, says she’s motivated by her family history of heart disease. Her father had a heart attack at age 42 and died when he was 52. “I have a physical every year, and my blood pressure is great,” she says. “I can’t imagine the shape I’d be in if I weren’t doing this.”
For all of their popularity, boutique fitness programs aren’t for everyone. The loud music and intense workouts may be off-putting to people who haven’t exercised much in the past. Although CrossFit has a large and enthusiastic following, critics say its difficult regimen and competitive atmosphere cause some people to push themselves too hard, leading to overuse injuries. (CrossFit says its WODs can be adapted to suit an individual’s fitness level.) And boutique fitness classes are pricey. Costs range from about $25 to more than $30 per class, depending on the package and location. In New York City, SoulCycle costs $34 per class (slightly less if you get a package deal).
Design Your Own Program
If group exercise isn’t for you or you don’t want to spend that much money, you can create your own routine. Consider getting help from a personal trainer, at least initially, so you can design a fitness plan that suits your abilities and needs, and incorporates cardio, strength training, balance and flexibility. The cost of a personal trainer varies depending on where you live, but the average is about $60 to $70 for a one-hour session.
A trainer should “get a really clear idea of where the individual’s body is,” says Billy Polson, founder and co-owner of Diakadi, a studio in San Francisco that offers personal training sessions and fitness classes. To do that, the trainer should assess your posture and skeletal and physical alignment and look for muscles that are too tight or out of balance, he says. For example, many people who have worked at desk jobs for years have tight shoulders and chests. Polson often encourages such clients to work out on a rowing machine, which will lengthen and stretch those muscles.
A consultation with a trainer is particularly helpful when it comes to strength training, something many older people skip because it’s hard and, well, kind of boring. That’s a mistake. Muscle strengthening and endurance training may be the most important elements of a fitness program for older adults because they prevent the loss of muscle mass and the physical weakness that often accompany aging, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. And research by the Cleveland Clinic shows that half of women and one-fourth of men over age 50 will have an osteoporosis-related fracture during their lifetime. Strength-training exercises can prevent bone loss and even stimulate bone growth, reducing the risk of osteoporosis-related injuries.
You don’t need to be a bodybuilder to strengthen your muscles and bones. Resistance training takes many forms. Ryan Fritz, a personal trainer at Science of Cardio, a fitness studio in Washington, D.C., is a proponent of isometric exercises, which involve contracting a muscle or group of muscles without moving the affected joint. You can perform isometrics against a wall or doorway or by using your own body for resistance. The plank position, often included in yoga and Pilates workouts, is an example of isometrics. For seniors in particular, “it’s a very safe way to exercise,” Fritz says.
You can also improve bone density and muscle strength by working out with free weights, stability balls or blocks. Some yoga positions, including the Tree, Triangle and Warrior II poses, have been shown to increase bone density, according to a study by the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Strength training doesn’t require an enormous time commitment. Aim for half an hour twice a week; if you can fit in three half-hour workouts, that’s even better. Although you can do strength training at home, a few sessions with an experienced trainer can go a long way toward developing good form, which will help you avoid injuries. A good trainer can also help you come up with a whole-body workout “so you’re not just standing in front of a mirror doing bicep curls,” says Dianne Bailey, a certified sports conditioning specialist in Denver. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends a twice-a-week workout that trains each of the six main muscle groups: legs, abdominals, back, chest, shoulders and arms.
The best workout program is one you enjoy, because otherwise, you probably won’t stick with it. Identifying the program that’s right for you may require trial and error. If you’re interested in a fitness class, find out if it offers a free or discounted introductory session. Don’t be afraid to try a new sport or activity: It could provide the jump start you need to get moving. Bailey says one of her clients recently signed up to play pickleball, which combines elements of tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong. “It got her involved, and she was with other people her age.”
Bailey says she spends a lot of time disabusing older people of the notion that they have to run to stay fit. “You don’t have to run, but you do have to have some kind of cardiovascular fitness, whether that comes in the form of tennis, walking or Zumba class.”
Julie Lastra says finding the time for her workouts is a challenge, so she puts them on her calendar. “I schedule them as I would a meeting at my office,” she says, adding that she wants to show her daughters that it’s possible to have a career and exercise, too.
Callie Coffman’s strategy is to keep her workout clothes at the office and go to class directly from work. “Some days, the hardest thing is to get there,” she says. “But once I finish the workout, I walk out of the building feeling like a supermodel.”
Ideally, your exercise program should include 30 minutes of aerobic training at least five times a week. These activities will get your heart rate up.
Biking and spinning. Louis Moore, 75, played basketball for most of his life, but when he hit his late fifties, his knees and ankles started to hurt. So he turned to something he had done intermittently for years for exercise and transportation: bicycling. Once he started bicycling several times a week, “all of those ailments went away,” he says. “You’re not putting the kind of pressure on your bones, ankles and ligaments that you do with basketball.”
In 1999, Moore and a group of friends founded the Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota, which is named after Marshall Walter Taylor, the first African-American world champion in cycling. The club sponsors group rides and advocates for bicyclists in the Minneapolis area, where Moore lives. Most members are in their mid to late forties, and five are older than 70. In the summer, Moore bikes about 100 miles a week, and he says he’s in great shape.
Biking is an excellent way to get your heart rate up without stressing your joints. If you’re new to the sport, consider joining a bike club. You can find a directory of local groups at People for Bikes. Spinning offers the same benefits without the bad weather; most gyms offer classes, or check out SoulCycle.
Walking and hiking. This activity is a great way to get outside and moving, and many communities have local walking groups. Walking is also easier on your joints than high-impact sports, such as running.
To get a good cardio workout, though, you must maintain a brisk pace. Go for 70% of your maximum heart rate (subtract your age from 220 to get an estimate). Fitness trackers, such as the FitBit Surge, FitBit Charge and Jawbone UP3, will track your heart rate and reduce the temptation to stroll (see “Do Fitness Trackers Really Improve Your Health?”). Another strategy to get your heart rate up is to add some hills to your walks or hikes. If you prefer working out on a treadmill, set it so you walk on an incline.
Swimming. Jane Katz, 73, a professor of physical education at John Jay College in New York City, always carries a bathing suit when she travels (and makes sure the hotel where she stays has a swimming pool) so she doesn’t have to miss her daily swim. “As soon as I get in the water, I feel 16—maybe 17,” she says. Unlike many other exercises, swimming improves your upper-body strength. It’s also the ultimate low-impact workout, ideal for older people. Regular swimming reduces arthritis pain and stiffness in middle-aged and older adults, says Hirofumi Tanaka, director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory at the University of Texas–Austin, who has studied the health benefits of swimming for more than 15 years. Swimming also improves muscle tone, lowers blood pressure and reduces cholesterol.
The U.S. Masters Swimming program sponsors adult training swim programs and competitions for all ages. For a directory of local clubs and pools, go to U.S. Masters Swimming website.
Balance and Flexibility
Maintaining balance and flexibility is important at any age, but it becomes critical after age 40. Muscles, tendons, ligaments and connective tissues become less flexible as you grow older. And poor balance contributes to injuries from falls. Here’s how to stay limber:
Tai chi. This ancient Chinese practice, originally created for self-defense, involves a series of slow, gentle movements and postures that are performed in a standing position. The program improves balance and reduces stress, says Dianne Bailey, a certified sports conditioning specialist for the Conditioning Classroom in Denver. You don’t need any special clothes or equipment to participate.
Yoga. If you’re new to yoga, look for a hatha yoga class, which usually focuses on slow, gentle movements. An Iyengar class may also be a good choice: These classes typically include props, such as blocks and belts, to modify moves to suit your abilities and prevent injuries. Many studios offer classes for beginners, and some are designed specifically for people who are older than 50. Find a teacher who provides ways to modify poses. UCLA’s Healthy Years newsletter recommends finding an instructor who has completed at least 200 hours of training and has been teaching seniors for at least a few years.
Pilates. When you practice Pilates, you use your own body to improve core strength and balance. For instance, the “roll like a ball” exercise, performed from a seated position, massages your spine and helps strengthen your abdomen. This program is low-impact with minimal risk of injury. Its standing positions can strengthen the bone density in your spine and hips. You can find a list of certified instructors in your area through the Pilates Method Alliance.