How do you see yourself at age 65? If you’re like the average American, you will probably have retired from your job — and your fitness routine.
Imagine it: A spare tire has settled around your midsection, your knees hurt more than they used to, and even a 45-minute walk can wear you out. Opening a jar is like unscrewing a manhole cover. Your balance is poor, so you have to be careful navigating over something as simple as a quarter-inch-high throw rug. And forget about touching your toes — on a good day, you might reach your shins.
That’s most definitely not how George Amundson sees himself. While other men his age are settling into sedentary lives, Amundson, 74, was training for the Ironman Triathlon World Championships at age 64. “I had a decent chance in the 65-to-70 age group,” he says, matter-of-factly. He already knew he could complete the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run, because the year before, at the sprightly age of 63, he had entered the competition as a lottery selection and finished the race in 16 hours, 12 minutes.
Amundson has been active his whole life, although he says he “kicked it up a notch” at age 40 when he began to run competitively. His commitment to stay in shape really showed itself when he attended his 40th high school reunion.
“I saw a bunch of old people. Most were overweight and out of shape,” he says. “By not staying active, they let themselves get old.” Amundson, on the other hand, is often mistaken for the same age as his wife, who is 56. “Since October 2003, I have completed eight more Ironman races,” he says. “At 74, I am in good shape.”
While Amundson is certainly an exceptional case, his accomplishments highlight one significant point: Getting older doesn’t have to mean getting feeble. In fact, like a good bottle of red wine, your body can actually get better with age.
Yes, your physiology naturally changes as the decades tick by, but you don’t have to sit back and watch your health and vitality quietly fade away. No matter what your current age or physical condition, with proper care and attention you can regain and maintain an exceptional level of fitness. Embrace the right combination of good nutrition and regular, intensive exercise — or any activity that gets your heart pumping and your muscles warm — and you may even feel and look healthier at 45 than you did at 25. The secret: Start wherever you are now, and don’t ever stop.
Prescription for Long-Term Fitness
“Breaking into a sweat regularly is a crucial part of becoming and staying a healthy person,” says Ralph Bovard, MD, an orthopedic and occupational medicine specialist at the University of Minnesota and TRIA in Minneapolis. “People forget exercise is medicine. Daily exercise is perhaps the most powerful tool you can prescribe for yourself; a variety of regular activity helps prevent cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis, and just about every other affliction that strikes us as we age.”
To wit: A study from Northwestern University followed 5,115 men and women, ages 18 to 30, for 15 years. Those who were highly fit (determined by a preset treadmill test) were half as likely to develop diabetes, hypertension, excess abdominal fat, and high blood pressure. Another study, conducted by Dutch researchers on 3,457 Massachusetts residents spanning 42 years, found that people overweight at age 40 (body mass index [BMI] of 25 and above) lived, on average, three fewer years than their more fit counterparts. Obese people (a BMI of 30 or above) had a life span shortened by six or seven years. Finally, a 2001 study from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas on men in their early 50s discovered that six months of modest exercise (about 4.5 hours a week) brought their cardiovascular capacity back to the levels it was at in their 20s. In effect, six months of training reversed 30 years of aging.
Does this inspire you to get moving? Here’s a look at what happens to the body during the different phases of life, and, more important, exercise strategies you can use to clear the hurdles.
The 30s: What, Me Worry?
OK, the bad news first. Your VO2 max, the amount of oxygen your body can deliver to your muscles, peaks at about age 25, as does your lung capacity and muscle mass. Similarly, your fast-twitch muscle fibers — the ones responsible for sprinting, jumping, and making other quick movements — also begin to shrink in your mid-20s.
In your 30s, unless you conduct evasive maneuvers (read on for those), you can expect to experience something called somatopause — a nice word for “middle-age spread.” This syndrome results from a decrease in the body’s production of human growth hormone (HGH) and is marked by a slowing of metabolism, an increase in body fat, and a loss of lean muscle, among other things.
The good news: If you are willing to do some intense, threshold-level cardio exercise (the kind that gets you totally out of breath), you can get your body to release substantial amounts of HGH and reverse the trend. This sort of speed work can also help you conserve and rebuild fast-twitch muscle. Throw in some weightlifting and flexibility work, and clean up your diet, and you might well end up in better shape than you were in college.
Making time for focused fitness pursuits while dealing with the demands of a new family and career can be tough, though. The typical day of a 30-something is brutal: Get up at the break of dawn; wolf down a bagel to be out the door by 7:30 a.m.; work, work, work, and get home just in time to tuck the kids into bed before collapsing on the couch. This is the kind of schedule that can quickly put the clamps on a once-active lifestyle.
“The biggest exercise challenge for people in their 30s is lack of time,” confirms A. Lynn Millar, PhD, a physical therapy professor at Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “Your body can easily handle the level of activity you had during college, but most people simply can’t find the hours in the day.”
You’ve probably heard all the usual “find-the-time” advice: Get up early and exercise; schedule a workout into your daily plan just as you would a dentist appointment; find a workout buddy. All of those are effective, but another strategy that sometimes gets overlooked is to find a type of exercise you really love. You’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to find time for an activity you actually enjoy, and how powerfully this can springboard into other areas of fitness.
That’s what happened to Tom Koenig, 48. A self-described gym rat for most of his 20s, he got bored with fitness when he hit his 30s — so much so that he gradually worked out less and less. That all changed, though, when he bought a mountain bike on a whim and was immediately hooked on flying through the trails outside his home in Denver. Later he switched tire sizes and joined one of Colorado’s top cycling teams with Wheat Ridge Cyclery.
Even though Koenig works full time as an engineer, his fitness never falters because his bike always keeps him moving. “When I plan my day, there is no question of whether or not I’m going to exercise,” he says. “It’s just a question of when.”
After 30, inactive people lose 10 percent of their VO2 max with each decade. But if you’re working out at least five hours a week, you’re slowing that loss by as much as half. Why does this matter? Because a poor VO2 max means you won’t be able to go as hard or as long as you used to. You can minimize the loss by pushing your heart rate into the 90 percent zone at least once a week with interval training (like one minute really hard on the treadmill, one minute easy, and repeating the cycle 10 times).
Weightlifting significantly slows the loss of muscle mass, as well as the loss of bone mass, which can decline as much as 4 percent a decade in your 30s and 40s, and then accelerates to a whopping 10 percent for each decade thereafter. Barring some focused work on your part, you can expect to see your one-repetition max decline as much as 1.5 percent annually.
To maintain a decent fitness level, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of activity per week, but many people may need to exercise more.
Millar recommends following a variation of the ACSM’s guidelines: 30 to 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, three to five days a week, with your heart rate at 70 to 90 percent of maximum. (Note that while max-heart-rate calculation methods [such as 220 minus your age] can offer gross estimates, getting an accurate figure generally requires a physical test of some kind. A VO2-max test is considered the gold standard; for alternate methods, consult a trainer.)
Jeff Rosga, director of education at Life Time Academy, agrees with Millar’s advice to get upwards of 300 minutes per week. Aim to get 30 to 40 minutes of moderate to moderately intense aerobic exercise daily, he says. “The reality is, most people do not get enough daily exercise, or exercise at appropriate intensities,” Rosga concludes.
“You can modify the requirements to fit your schedule,” notes Millar. “Two 20-minute bouts of moderate exercise instead of one 40-minute workout are fine.”
Phil Campbell, an expert on exercise-induced HGH and author of Ready, Set, Go! Synergy Fitness for Time-Crunched Adults, strongly suggests sprint sessions to catalyze your body’s release of HGH, which he calls a “powerful fat-cutting, muscle-building, anti-aging substance.” His prescription: 20-minute sessions that incorporate eight 30-second sprints, with recovery periods in between, performed at least two or three times a week. Each sprint should take you to your lactate threshold (the point where your muscles burn and you’re breathless). You can run, bike, jump, or swim to get there, says Campbell, and it’s fine to build your sprint sessions into your longer cardio sessions.
In addition to cardio, aim for two to three days a week of strength training. Rosga suggests performing three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions of exercises that focus on push, pull, press, squat, twist, lunge, and step movements, as well as planks. (Find a good basic routine at ELmag.com/rcosgrove.)
In Your 40s: Pay Attention to your Body
During your 40s, there are still no limits to what you can do, as long as you do it intelligently. The basic needs in this decade aren’t unlike those in any other — sweat, lift, and stretch. But as your muscles become tighter and more prone to injury, and (for women) the threat of osteoporosis enters the picture, a balanced routine of weight-bearing aerobic exercise, stretching, and strength training becomes even more important.
If you’re just making a new commitment to being healthy, a fitness to-do list that incorporates strength, balance, flexibility, and endurance may seem like a lot to cover, but don’t be intimidated. Start with something, and your desire to expand your fitness repertoire will very likely increase.
Prior to turning 40, the only exercise Janet Mills got was pushing the accelerator pedal during carpools as a stay-at-home mom. Then her husband, Tony, took up running and, in order to spend more time with him, she tagged along. “I ran a quarter of a mile and thought I was going to die,” says Janet, now 57. “I’d never done anything physical.”
Gradually, though, both her mileage and enjoyment increased, and she set a goal for herself: a half-marathon. She completed it at age 41, has since finished four full marathons, runs one or two half-marathons every year, and now feels “the best I ever have, both mentally and physically. When I was 47, my teenage daughter asked me, ‘How come you don’t get any older?’”
Mills eventually turned her sights to the More/Fitness Marathon, the first marathon exclusively for women over 40, which is held annually in New York City. Mills gathered together 20 women, ages 40 to 62, most of whom had never run a step in their lives, to train for the half-marathon event. Today, she runs regularly with her adult children and has stayed in touch with many members of her marathon group, walking and running with them in Atlanta.
Mills’s training strategy — begin slowly, and gradually increase the amount of work — is a smart one for anyone beginning a fitness routine.
“Take time to get your body adapted to the workload,” advises Millar. “You want to taste some success. If you feel beaten up after every workout session, you’ll end up quitting.”
While it’s fine to concentrate on one sport in your 40s, cross-training is more likely to minimize future aches and pains and help you avoid overuse injuries, such as swimmer’s shoulder or tennis elbow. Stay away from regimens — including sports-specific ones — that overemphasize one muscle group over another.
“I compare muscle balance to a wheel,” says sports-medicine physician Bovard, who, at age 60, swims on a masters team, competes in cross-country skiing races, and cycles regularly. “The different spokes are analogous to muscle groups: Any spoke that is too tight or weak causes the whole wheel to wobble.”
If you’re a sport-specific athlete, Bovard recommends cross-training at least once a week to give your oft-used muscles a break.
“Surprise your muscles regularly,” he advises. Otherwise you risk hitting a plateau; you’ll stop seeing improvement, and your muscles will become complacent.
Weight training becomes even more important in your 40s. Osteoporosis, a disease that makes you vulnerable to fragile and broken bones, becomes a real threat in the next decade and beyond. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, an estimated 10 million people (8 million women and 2 million men) already have the disease, and 44 million Americans — or nearly 55 percent of people age 50 and older — are at risk for it.
There are three easy ways to keep yourself from joining that club: 1) Weight train at least twice a week to build up the muscles around the bone; 2) consume a diet rich in calcium — at least 1,000 mg a day for both women and men, 1,200 mg for ages 50 and older; and 3) get adequate vitamin D (a good excuse to spend a little time in the sun). But don’t think some extra milk or a sunbath will make up for lost workouts. “You need to stress your body with exercise for the calcium you ingest to be incorporated into your bones,” says Bovard.
Also consider working on another key for both athletic performance and daily life: proprioception, or balance. Incorporate a fitness ball or wobble pad into your routine, or work at standing on one foot with your eyes closed — anything that challenges your sense of equilibrium.
Power, which is the combination of reaction time and strength, is perhaps more important to develop than raw strength at this stage. Why? You tend to lose 20 percent of your power per decade compared with about 10 percent of your strength. “If you don’t practice moving your limbs fast, they may not react fast enough when you need them to catch yourself when you fall,” says Jessie Jones, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Health Science and past codirector of the Center for Successful Aging at California State University, Fullerton.
Here are some easy ways to build power: After doing one set of weight exercises, lighten the load and then perform a set faster than usual. For those with healthy knees and backs, you can do a light plyometric routine: exercises like jumping rope, skipping, and hopping on one foot are effective at building power in your lower half.
Finally, maintain flexibility by devoting at least 15 minutes to proper stretching after your workouts or between sessions when possible. Better yet, take a yoga class a few times per week. Although the amount of flexibility you lose with age isn’t easily quantified, experts know that when it declines, connective tissue in your body deteriorates, and as a result, your knee, hip, and shoulder joints take the brunt of the impact that was formerly dispersed to nearby muscles.
Jones suggests daily stretching of the hip muscles and hamstrings, which shorten the most over the years, as well as your shoulders, lower back, and neck to counteract the inevitable computer-hunch that only worsens with age.
“There’s no reason why you can’t perform as well at 45 as you did at 30,” says Bovard. So aim high, but listen to your body. You want to stay active long into the future, right?
50s and Beyond: Don’t Slow Down
It’s never too late to get going. Really. For proof, flash back to triathlete Amundson, who, like Mills, also began running at age 40 and who has since completed nine Ironman races, 10 Half Ironman distance events, and several rim-to-rim hikes of the Grand Canyon. At age 59, he began to bike competitively and overcame his fear of swimming so that he could compete in triathlons. In addition to his regular training, he has also stayed active with general calisthenics into his 70s.
Unfortunately, if you are like most 50-plus people, you may believe you’re too old to begin working out. “Only about one in four people over the age of 50 exercises,” says Colin Milner, founder of the International Council of Active Aging. Yet, if you commit right now to get in about five hours of exercise a week — not much, considering the average American watches 34 hours of television weekly — you’ll see the results almost immediately.
“The human body is extremely resilient,” says aging expert Jessie Jones. “It will respond and reshape itself to the demands you place on it, no matter what your age.”
Milner asserts that you can regain your strength in as little as 14 weeks of resistance work on strength-training machines, and the aforementioned University of Texas study on men in their early 50s found that cardiovascular health can be improved significantly in just six months.
Exercisers over age 50, though, should pay attention to a few specifics. First up is arthritis, a disease that afflicts 50 million Americans and is particularly problematic for folks over 50. Although exercise can help keep arthritis at bay, if you sustained a serious sports-related injury when you were younger, you may be feeling the effects of arthritis sooner. (See “Fighting Inflammation.”) So, to prevent arthritis from hampering your workout efforts, be sure to follow a good warm-up routine before diving into any activity, advises Millar, who wrote Action Plan for Arthritis.
Then there’s core strength, which you can improve in the weight room through abdominal and back exercises. Better core strength and a continued focus on improving balance can help you reduce your chance of taking a fall.
“Every year, one out of three people over the age of 65 falls and sustains some kind of fracture, and half of these people will fall again within 12 months,” says Milner. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 24 percent of people over the age of 50 who have fractured a hip from a fall die in the year following injury.
Women especially should hit the weights during this time: In the five to seven years after menopause (which, for the average American woman, kicks in around age 51), they can lose up to 15 percent of their bone mass. “One-half of postmenopausal women over the age of 50 have osteopenia, the beginning of osteoporosis,” says Milner. Males fare much better, losing only 0.4 to 0.75 percent of bone mass per year beginning at age 45.
As you look to the future, realize that if you’re still active in the second half of your life, you can keep it up for many years to come. “Most Americans have about 10 years at the end of their lives when they need help doing daily tasks,” says Bovard. “A person who has been active can compress that span to about three years.”
Your fifth decade of life isn’t a bad time to go on an exercise kick. In fact, for many people, the freedom they experience later in life — from having their kids out of the house and being more secure in their careers — delivers a powerful impetus and opportunity to make fitness a priority.
That said, if you have been exercising regularly since your 20s, go ahead and pat yourself on the back. A 1999 study from San Diego State University followed a group of 45-year-old men who participated in an exercise program for 25 to 33 years and concluded that exercise “has a favorable effect on aging of the cardiovascular system in older men, resulting in minimal loss of oxygen uptake, no rise in resting blood pressure, and no change in body composition.”
Translation: The men were nearly as fit at 70 as they were at 45. And when you picture yourself in the future, isn’t that what you’d like to see?
This article has been updated. It originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Experience Life magazine.