How to Stay Fit as You Age
“It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” – Indiana Jones
Like Indy, you’ve lived a little.
But, getting older doesn’t mean it’s time to sit on the sidelines. You don’t have to grow weaker and give up what you love. No matter how many miles are on the odometer, you can get older and stronger.
And this strength can impact your healthy lifespan in powerful ways. As we’ll show you below, getting stronger is associated with better aging and mortality, stronger bones and heart, and improved quality of life.
The best news? It’s never too late to add strength and experience the benefits of exercise. But if you want to stay fit (get in even better shape) as you age, you need to start thinking about your training differently.
Aging and Body
Changes: What To Expect
The reality is that growing older brings the possibility of age-related changes. Left unchecked, they can alter your quality of life and even contribute to a shortened lifespan.
Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States. And according to the National Institute on Aging, older adults (people 65+) are at higher risk.
Why does this happen? As we age, fatty deposits can build up in the walls of our arteries. Over time, these deposits (called plaque) can harden and slowly narrow the arteries. This process, called arteriosclerosis, reduces blood flow and oxygen to the heart, leading to an increased chance of a heart attack.
Age-related changes happen in your skeletal system as well. Bone is a living tissue. Although changes might not occur as rapidly as they do elsewhere in the body, bone tissue is broken down by the body and replaced.
At around age 50, our body starts breaking down more bone tissue than it replaces. This process, called osteoporosis, weakens your bones and can lead to increased chances of fractures or falls.
Do you know what doesn’t change all that much as you age? Your metabolism. New research published in Science showed that when you account for differences in body size, your metabolism does not change between the ages of 20 and 60.
(Let that sink in.)
For years (maybe forever?), the assumption was that our metabolism slows down as we age. But, the ground-breaking study, which combined the work of more than 80 scientists, 6,500 participants (aged 8 days to 95 years old), and the gold standard methods of testing metabolism, shook the foundations of weight loss science.
Some rules still hold. Despite the common belief that lean people have faster metabolisms, the heavier you are, the more calories you burn. But, once you account for the differences in size, metabolism doesn’t change as much as we thought, and that applies to men and women.
After age 60, metabolism does start to decrease about 1 percent per year. Maybe not surprisingly, this appears to be correlated with a reduction in activity. So, the more active you stay as you age, the better.
Maintaining Mobility: The
Best Way To Stay Injury Free
If you can’t move your joints freely through their range of motion (and control it), your chance of injury or dangerous falls increases.
If you’re injured, it’s hard to do regular exercise. And if you can’t exercise, that’s when muscle loss begins. Why does this matter? Muscle loss is strongly correlated with a lower (or shorter) lifespan.
Avoiding injury also plays an indirect role in weight loss. Regular physical activity outside the gym (called NEAT) can help maintain your body weight in a healthy range. Move less during the day, and the pounds could sneak up on you like the decades.
So, mobility is essential to a higher quality of life and a longer life.
Unlike strength training (which we’ll explore more below), there’s an inverse relationship between mobility and aging. You likely need to invest more weekly time to maintain mobility as you age.
How much? A Strength Coach suggested that you should base your mobility sessions per week on every decade you’ve lived. If you just turned 50, that would mean mobility work five times a week.
That doesn’t mean you need to spend an hour a day stretching. After all, getting older doesn’t mean you have fewer time constraints on your day. For most people, 10-15 minutes a day is enough.
Not sure where to start? Try extending your warm-up before strength training sessions. By piggybacking on an existing habit (your workout), you’re more likely to make mobility a habit.
For most of our clients, I suggest a 4:1 work-to-mobility ratio. So, if your workout takes 40 minutes, you should start with 10 minutes of mobility and flexibility work.
You could also pair mobility with cardio on rest days. Before you head out on a walk (you are walking every day, right?), do 6 reps on each side. You’ll loosen up your entire body and elevate your heart rate.
Strength Training: What
Should Change And What
Should Stay The Same With Age
Your workout needs to shift as you age. It was fun while it lasted, but the days of maxing your bench press or squat and training heavy every day are likely gone. Your goal now is training for longevity.
What do I mean by longevity? You lose a few things as you age – and I’m not talking about your memory.
Muscle loss can begin as early as your 30s if you’re sedentary and will continue yearly at a rate of 1-2% per year. As life expectancy increases, this can lead to a severe amount of muscle lost in your 60s and beyond.
Over the decades, you’ll also lose what we call power, or the ability to move quickly. Think of things like jumping or throwing a medicine ball.
The best way to fight this loss of muscle and power? Lifting weights and safe plyometric training. When combined with regular physical activity, there’s no better way to keep you moving well throughout your entire life.
So, how should your program change? If you’re 55+, it’s time to embrace bodybuilding. In other words, your goal is now to build lean muscle mass with your workouts. We call this “hypertrophy” training. And yes, you can add muscle at any age.
It’s not that strength isn’t essential, and getting older doesn’t mean you have to get weaker. A new study out of Norway suggests you can continue getting stronger well into your 70s by lifting weights. And those results applied to both men and women.
But low reps and heavy weight beats you up, and it also increases your chance of injury. As I often tell my clients, the risk-reward ratio is no longer in your favor.
The solution? Shift your definition of strength.
Research suggests higher volumes (sets x reps) are better for hypertrophy in aging adults. When training for hypertrophy, the goal is to add more sets and reps to your workout.
Here’s what most people miss – if you’re able to add weight each week and do the same amount of reps, you’re building muscle and getting stronger as you age.
Your Age-Proof Training Plan
You’ll likely feel best – and make the most progress – by training hard 3 times per week. As we age, our ability to work hard in the gym doesn’t diminish nearly as much as our ability to recover from those sessions.
So, for most people, 3 full-body workouts each week. Keep these workouts simple. Choose an upper-body pull, upper-body push, squat (or single-leg movement), hinge, and carry. Do 2-3 challenging sets of 8-12 reps.
Finish each workout with 1 or 2 of your favorite isolation movements. If you’re 55+, I’d argue you need to do more isolation work. Remember, we’re fighting to hold onto as much lean muscle mass as possible, and isolation moves can help you do that. Plus, they’re easier on your joints.
That’s right. I’ve given you the green light to do more curls, lateral raises, and tricep press downs. You’re welcome.
We hammered this point home earlier, but it’s worth mentioning again: Start each workout with quick mobility work. Mobility isn’t a one-off thing; it’s an ongoing process, a daily habit.
Remember that loss of power we discussed earlier? After you warm up, do 1-2 power movements to keep this at bay. Things like low box jumps, med ball throw variations, or even landmine clean to presses work well.
Finally, Add LISS (low-intensity steady state) cardio 1-2x a week for 20-40 minutes, plus stay as active as possible during the day. The best choice? Long walks.
What To Be Cautious Of
Do you remember LifeAlert commercials? If you’ve seen them, you’ll know they’re famous for one line (and quality acting): “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up.”
While you might laugh at the overacting in the commercials, the risk of falls as you age is no joke. According to the CDC, falls are the leading cause of injury and death in people aged 65+. Not heart disease or cancer. Falling.
The best way to avoid falling? We discussed the basics: strength training (don’t ignore single-leg movements), power development, and a daily mobility habit. It’s also essential to learn how to fall safely.
Joint pain can be another reality of getting older. While your training can cause this, it’s often due to a lack of movement. Getting stronger with smart training as you age will help you avoid age-related joint pain.
That said, this isn’t the Marines. Pain isn’t weakness leaving the body. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t push through it. Try modifying the movements or get coaching to refine your technique.
Finally, you’ll also want to consult your doctor before starting any new exercise program. If you experience shortness of breath or chest pain, stop exercising immediately and seek medical attention.
A Workout For All Ages
The goal here is simple: build muscle in a joint-friendly way. We’ll do that by training your entire body three times a week.
Outside of the final group of exercises each day (where we do some “pump” type training), the goal is general fatigue instead of local fatigue. In other words, unless you’re doing curls, no single body part will ever feel like it’s “done.” This helps keep the technique sharp and reduces the chance of injury.