Getting fit and staying in shape is crucial to your health, especially after 50. A recent study found that midlife fitness is a strong predictor concerning a person’s future health after age 65. Results indicate eight major chronic conditions are most affected, including congestive heart failure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and colon and lung cancer. Though we all know we should exercise, many of us trip into pitfalls that can hamper our workout progress.
Remaining fit throughout middle age helps us postpone and shrink the span of time we may live with chronic illness, thanks to the phenomenon known as “compression of morbidity.”
But as many of us recommit ourselves to maintaining our longtime fitness routines, we also need to change some old habits to avoid injury, accommodate changes in our bodies, and, most importantly, make our workouts as effective and efficient as possible.
As you plan your fifty-something workout, consider these five common mistakes and our expert tips to avoid them:
You Don’t Warm Up
Not warming up can easily lead to injury. When you don’t warm up, you limit your ability to complete your workout pain-free, increasing the likelihood of feeling sore afterward, not to mention a risk of injury or muscle tear. “Think of your warm up as a bridge leading you to exercise, and your cool down as the bridge leading you back from it,” advises New York exercise physiologist Scott Weiss, who has trained athletes for the U.S. Olympic Committee. “As we age, all of our systems take a bit longer to function at peak performance,” Weiss says. “Warming up increases the body’s temperature, stimulates blood flow to every organ, helps increase the uptake of oxygen on a cellular level and prepares joints and muscles for upcoming exercise.”
When it comes to high-intensity sprinting exercises, prior stretching is imperative and should NOT be skipped. Failing to stretch in this case can easily lead to injury. For a demonstration of proper stretching technique, please see the following video.
You Skip Stretching
As you’ve probably already discovered, our bodies aren’t capable of working out in our 50s the way they did in our 20s. There was a time when we could just rotate our arms and bend our knees a few times and be ready to roll. But after age 40, Weiss says, stretching becomes crucial, not only for successful workouts, but for preventing soreness and injury every day.
When you exercise, stretch for five minutes after your warm up. It’s important to stretch all the major muscle groups, but really focus on the muscles you’ll use during your workout. And remember to perform all your stretches slowly and smoothly, and in both directions. This Mayo Clinic guide to stretching can get you started.
You Focus Exclusively on Cardio
Aerobic exercise reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease and helps ward off dementia. But when you focus on cardio workouts at the expense of resistance or strength training, you miss out on some important benefits. In middle age and beyond, most of us lose 20 to 40 percent of our muscle mass. “It’s imperative to reduce or stop this reduction altogether,” and weight training can help, says Michelle Gray, Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Co-Director of the Office for Studies on Aging at the University of Arkansas. Additionally, she says, “resistance training has been shown to reduce rates of certain chronic illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, and it also helps increase functional fitness — the ability to perform everyday activities.” You can perform strength training work in the gym after a half-hour of cardiovascular exercise, or simply alternate with days of cardio.
Your Workout Is Too Easy
A recent University of Alabama-Birmingham study found that when three groups of adults aged 60 to 75 were assigned three different 30-week fitness regimens, the group following the most intense workouts got the most benefit, with average gains of four-and-a-half pounds of muscle mass, and no injuries. The conclusion: not only do you need intense workouts, but you can handle them at any age. If your workout feels comfortable, it’s probably time to up the intensity. When working out in the gym, the last few repetitions of every exercise should be a bit of a struggle (but still doable). If they’re not, you should slightly increase the weight.
Training Too Long and Too Frequently
Exercising too much, either by working out too long or too frequently, can backfire in a number of ways. Many fail to appreciate the importance of recovery between sessions, and research has shown that endurance training without rest can do more harm than good in the long run. Remember, while your body needs regular amounts of stress like exercise to stay healthy, if you give it more than it can handle, your health may actually deteriorate. So listen to your body and integrate the feedback into your exercise intensity and frequency.
You Avoid Power
As we get older, we tend to shy away from exercises that require power. By “power,” we don’t mean the ability to bench-press hundreds of pounds — we mean exercises that require our core muscles to move with speed and strength. Avoiding such moves contributes to a decrease in muscle fibers in our core, and that has ramifications beyond the gym. Walking quickly to beat a red light requires power, as does walking on uneven surfaces and maneuvering over obstacles.
To add some power exercises to your workout, introduce a speed component to traditional resistance regimes. The following squat, curl, and press exercise is a simple move to work your legs, biceps, and shoulders. You can try this at home after a thorough warm up. Start with two sets of six to eight repetitions each, once or twice a week:
- Stand straight, holding light dumbbells or filled water bottles in each hand, with your arms at your sides and your feet shoulder-width apart. To avoid injury, make sure the dumbbells are a manageable weight. The goal here is good form, not moving the heaviest weight possible.
- Bend at the knees and hips and lower yourself into a squat position, keeping your back straight and your eyes focused straight ahead.
- Pause in the squat position, then quickly stand up straight, rising onto your toes while curling the dumbbells up toward your shoulders. Then, while still on your toes if you can maintain your balance, slowly press the dumbbells overhead.
- Gently drop back onto your heels and return the weights to the starting position.