Fit and 40-Plus

How to get (and stay) active, no matter what your age

By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

In your 40s and beyond, fitness tends to take on a new shape. Exercise routines you once found merely challenging may become painful or even impossible by the time you're 40, 50, or 60.

It doesn't matter whether you're male or female, a kickboxer or a mall walker -- sooner or later, age will have an effect on your body.

It happens to everyone -- even Sheila Cluff, 68, founder of The Oaks at Ojai Destination Spa in Ojai, Calif. Cluff, a former professional figure skater, is quick to tell you that she can do 70 pushups and ski black diamond runs with her grandchildren. But she can't do everything she used to do.

"Even if you're modestly fit or quite fit, there's still an effect of the aging process," says Cluff. "The body will shift and change.

"It is also natural in the aging process," she says, "to automatically lose a sense of balance."

She discovered that when she tried taking her grandchildren ice-skating after 30 years off the ice: "I was all over the place," she says.

But instead of throwing in the towel, she used the incident as an impetus to improve.

"I wanted to cut the risk of falling. I practice balance on land consistently," she says, "and now I'm back to jumps and spins. Now as a result, I'm a better snow skier."

Of course, you don't have to be a black-diamond skier to reap the benefits of activity as you age. Cluff and two other experts spoke to WebMD about how our fitness needs change over the years and how we can stay active -- or become active -- at any age.

Your Joints and Muscles

Many people first feel the effects of age in their joints.

As we age, our connective tissue (the supportive framework for the body, like cartilage, tendons, and ligaments) becomes less elastic, says William J. Evans, PhD, director of the nutrition, metabolism, and exercise laboratory at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging. That leads to a greater risk of injury to the joints.

And that's why, if you took step aerobics class or ran five miles a day in your 20s and 30s, you may have switched to cycling, swimming, or walking in your 40s or beyond. Those higher-impact exercises just don't feel as good as they once did. In fact, the aging of the baby boomer generation is one reason low-impact fitness choices like elliptical trainers, recumbent bikes, yoga, and Pilates have become so popular.

But softening the impact is not the only way we should change our routines as we age, Evans says. It's also more important than ever to do strength training.

"As (you) grow older, (you) lose muscle mass and there's a decline in metabolic rate," says Evans, also a professor of geriatric medicine, physiology, and nutrition.

"Even if you're aerobically active, you don't prevent loss of muscles. If you do exactly the same thing, you will lose muscle and gain fat. Strength training is the only way to increase or preserve muscle mass."

Studies have also shown that resistance training helps with joint elasticity, flexibility, and bone density, he says.

"We've taken people in nursing homes that are extremely weak and frail and put them through a strength training program with very little injuries," he says. "It had a greater effect on bone density than aerobic exercise and remarkably positive effects on bone density at every level."

"Once you start moving," Milner says, "it's like a snowball effect."
You feel better, he says, you're clothes fit better and you begin to eat better.

Whether you're 45 or 70, it's never too late to start (or restart) an exercise program, experts say.

"Once you start moving," Milner says, "it's like a snowball effect." You feel better, he says, you're clothes fit better and you begin to eat better.

Research backs up Milner's assertions.

A study published in the March 2005 issue of Diabetes Care found that even previously sedentary people aged 55 to 75 could benefit from exercise. Researchers monitored two groups of adults for a decade. They found that those that who became active and exercised regularly were not only more fit but increased their "good" cholesterol levels, got sick less often, and showed fewer signs of heart disease.