Fit and 40-Plus

Last Editorial Review: 8/28/2007

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.

Another study, published in 1999 in the American Heart Journal, suggested that people who begin exercising later in life tend to have lower rates of heart disease -- and to live longer.

Just as our priorities change with age, so do our motivations for fitness, suggests Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA) based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"When you're younger, you're working out five and six times a week and it's all about sex -- about having a great body, about being virile," says Milner. "As you get older, it becomes more about keeping your health" as well as practical considerations like doing household chores and maintaining independence. That's why it's more important now than ever to forget the hard-body, "all or nothing" philosophy of fitness, Milner says. Instead, accept that you can get many fitness and health benefits by incorporating even moderate exercise into your life.


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The old catchphrase "use it or lose it" has some perspective now, says Milner: Yes, you need to use it or you'll lose it -- but you don't have to use it at the same degree you did previously.

"People's perception of exercise is so extreme. It doesn't have to be that way," Milner says. "You just want to move. We're animals, we're meant to move. Not moving is the worst thing you can do."

That's not always easy, of course. Time and energy are huge issues with fitness as we age. In our mid-years, we're often short on time as we balance career and family duties. Later on, we may have more time -- but less energy.

Still, it's essential to make time for physical activity, especially since you may not be getting as much in your daily life.

"The reality of it is," says Cluff, "as you get older, generally speaking, you may sit a little longer. Your lifestyle changes in the negative sense because you're not required to do what did when you were younger, like chase kids around." Milner cites the health-club chain Curves, famed for its 30-minute circuit workouts and no-frills approach, as an example of a company that "got it right" for the over-40 set.

"It gets you in and out quickly, it's non-intimidating, once around the circuit," he says. "It eliminates the obstacles."

If you don't want to join a gym, you can get rid of the fitness obstacles in your own life. Remember that even daily activities -- things like gardening, household chores, walking the dog -- can help you stay active, maintain or lose weight, and keep your health.

Get-Active Advice

Cluff and Evans offer some advice for fitness fans 40 and up, whether they're experienced exercisers or are just getting started:

  • Know when it's time to make a change. Stay in tune with what your joints and muscles are telling you when you work out, Cluff advises. "Notice how it feels at 40. Then, when you get to 42 or 43, does it change? Be aware of the signals that your body is giving."
  • Modify moves that cause discomfort. "Take those heavy, percussive movements and find a detour," Cluff says. "Instead of running, hike. Instead of running three miles, walk five. Walk faster, on a spongy asphalt trail."
  • If you haven't been weight training, get started. Strength training not only preserves and increases muscle mass and bone density, says Evans, it boosts your metabolic rate so you can burn more calories.
  • Warm up and stretch. Be sure to warm up before a workout and stretch afterward, to reduce the risk of injury, Evans says. Adding stretching to your workouts will help counter the tightening of the body that comes with age.
  • Make proper form a priority. Evans' philosophy is to take 2 seconds to lift a weight and 5-6 seconds to lower it. "Put more emphasis on the lowering phase because that's the part that stimulates muscle growth," he says.
  • Seek experts' help. If possible, hire a fitness trainer to create a program for you and demonstrate proper form and control. If you belong to a health club, take advantage of the services it offers. Many clubs offer a free walk-through with a trainer to help you learn to use the equipment.
  • "Snack" on fitness. Look for ways to fit in fitness whenever and wherever you can. Standing in line or waiting for the elevator are great opportunities to perform "fitness snacks," like drawing the navel to the spine, sliding the shoulders down the back, and trying to balance on one foot, Cluff says.

Originally published March 31, 2005.
Medically updated August 2007.

SOURCES: Sheila Cluff, founder and chief executive officer, The Oaks at Ojai Destination Spa, Ojai, Calif. William J. Evans, PhD, director, nutrition, metabolism, and exercise laboratory, Donald Reynolds Department of Geriatrics, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences; research scientist, Geriatric Rehabilitation, Education, and Clinical Center, Veterans Administration Medical Center, Little Rock, Ark. Colin Milner, chief executive officer, International Council on Active Aging, Vancouver, British Columbia. WebMD Medical News: "Better Late Than Never for Exercise," by Miranda Hitti, published March 18, 2005. WebMD Medical News: "More Evidence Suggests It's Never Too Late to Begin Exercising," by Jane Schwanke, published Nov. 24, 1999.

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