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Adapting your exercise to your age

Change is key to our workouts as we grow older

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Staying healthy and fit can sometimes seem like a voyage into the mysterious. It involves a combination of exercises that work for you and a diet that nourishes and once you have hit the right balance, it involves further tweaking and changes to avoid stagnation.

Just when you think you have got it and have understood your body, your body behaves differently; and you have to start all over again. Fitness programmes need to be reassessed on a regular basis especially as we move from one decade to the next.

One of the most important changes we need to bring to our fitness programme as we age is to change our mind-set. First, we need to examine our goals and secondly we need to replace the riskier or tougher fitness elements with more stable elements that guarantee results.

The stable set includes regular cardio in the form of a jog, cycling or walking and exercises like squats, push-ups, bicep curls and abdominal crunches. With age, you may need to alter your reps and even the intensity of your exercises, but doing the stable set of exercises on a regular basis will provide you with the key to living long in good health.

Talking about age and exercise raises a couple of questions: One, what is the ideal age to start exercising? And two, is there a point when one is too old to start exercising?

To answer the first question, one should start off on a healthy lifestyle as young as possible. As for the second question, ideally, one should start young, but if not, then start at whatever age you are at right now. However, please consult your doctor before you do the same in order to better understand your strengths and limitations.

Start with a simple fitness plan that you can stick to consistently, and which emphasises stretching, correct form and strengthening the core muscles. The benefits of exercising regularly and from as early as possible are multi-fold – they can slow the aging process, fight off diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis.

Often, I have found that people give up on regular exercising as they age under the mistaken belief that their current fitness routine is not appropriate for them anymore and for fear of risking injuries.

Instead of adapting their exercises and diet to suit their new physiology, lower metabolism and needs, they give up on the one lifestyle habit that is key to their good health. I have also come across people who are disheartened when they are no longer able to sustain their old pace and quit exercising instead of adapting.

It is important for one to come to terms with the fact that as we age, we are not going to be able to run as fast or jump as high or hit as hard as our 20- or 30-year-old self. At 40, 50 and above, our body is changing and we need to come to terms with that and move from high-impact exercises to low-impact ones. In an average person, the body begins to lose muscle mass in their 20s (after age 50, the muscle loss is at the rate of 15 per cent per decade) and around the same time the maximal amount of oxygen your body can use (VO2 max) decreases by a per cent a year in healthy men and women.

Even bone mineral density decreases with age; in women, the rate at which the bone turns porous increases after menopause. Of course, shifting to low-impact exercises doesn’t mean that you get a free pass to sleep walk through your workout. You still need to give your 100 per cent.

In my line of work, I have often met people who believe that getting fatter as you age is inevitable.

However, I have to emphasis here that one gets fatter not due to increasing age but due to reduced physical activity and lower metabolic rate due to loss of lean body mass. Beginning in our 20s and 30s, the percentage of body fat gradually increases and since fat cells burn less calories than muscle cells, we need to ingest less calories. This means that if we don’t eat less, we’ll gain weight over the years.

This is why you will find experts advising you to focus on strength training so that you can reduce the loss of muscle mass. In fact, research has shown that even two months of strength training can help a woman recover a decade’s worth of muscle loss and a man can recover two decades worth of loss.


Fact Box

Fitness By The Decades:

In your 20s

These are the years where our mistakes vis-à-vis our body doesn’t show. It is also the best time to build our fitness foundation. Building your lean muscle mass and making your bones stronger now will put you in a position where you can afford to lose some muscle mass and bone density in your later years. In your 20s your workout should include strength-training and body weight exercises like pushups and lunges couple of times a week and 30 minutes of cardio three to five days a week. Now is a good time to try out new types of workout as the body is very resilient. However, this is also the age when an individual tends to pay scant attention to essentials like posture and form – so avoid these potholes. This is also the time to train yourself in dealing with life and its problems in a healthy manner - as in opting for meditation or a jog to calm down after a hard day at work instead of heading to the nearest burger joint.

In your 30s

If you have always focused on a particular sport or activity to stay fit, now is time to diversify. Cross-training helps prevent imbalance and overuse injuries. Thus mix up your tennis with resistance training and your cycling with running. In fact no matter what your age you must remember to train like a triathlete and intersperse running with biking or swimming to avoid injuries. Cycling uses the quadriceps and running is mainly a hamstring activity. If these muscles are strengthened in an imbalanced manner, injuries can occur. Or, if you like swimming, remember to get your quota of backstroke in to the mix as this will stretch the pectoral muscles and work the muscles between the shoulder blades that will help stabilize the spine.

Make sure that your fitness regimen includes flexibility exercises to loosen tight muscles, preserve range of motion, and improve balance. Activities like yoga, tai chi, or dancing are ideal. Primarily because now is the time when fitness has to be really interesting. In our 30s, we are pulled in a million different directions by our family and work commitments so our fitness program has to be interesting enough to keep us committed. Time is also limited, which is why interval training which burns more calories in less time works fine for many in their 30s. And head to the weight rack now. Your bones will thank you for the same.

In your 40s

For most of us, this is the time when our kids are no longer dependant infants or toddlers. In fact some of us may even be dealing with the empty nest syndrome. If you are a man, your testosterone starts to drop along with 5 percent or more of muscle mass per decade. Women too find themselves dealing with peri-menopause or menopause and loss of muscles mass as estrogen levels decrease. It is vital at this stage to preserve your lean muscle mass and keep the metabolic rate high and burn calories optimally. This is also the decade when fat settles in deep in to the belly (visceral fat). Sure, you may look the same on the outside but you may be packing the fat in deeper – this makes a consistent exercise program essential. Ensure that you continue to do a combination of high-intensity exercise and strength training, besides body weight bearing exercises like jogging or walking.

In your 50s

There is no escaping the aches and niggles now and you will have to adapt your fitness program to your rather ‘new’ body. You may need to replace some old favourites like running with new ones like swimming. Try yoga and Pilates to stretch and strengthen and also prevent getting a dowager’s hump. 30 minutes of aerobic activity five times a week will help you keep your heart in good health. Keep the intensity levels of your exercises at mild to moderate. In fact if you are maintaining the intensity levels at mild levels you may even be able to do the activity like swimming or walking 7 days a week. If you are however not yet willing to give up on your running or tennis, then ensure that your consult your physician. Exercising consistently in your 50s is not just about having a great body and being healthy it is also about keeping diseases like osteoporosis at bay.

Exercising regularly into your 60s will improve factors like your balance and even improve your odds of surviving a fall. Continuing with weight training is important for your bone strength. At this age, it is more advisable to do your weight and resistance training under the eagle eye of a certified fitness professional to avoid injuries. One should also focus on cardiovascular fitness, namely, building and maintaining lung and heart strength through low-impact aerobic exercises like swimming, walking, badminton, bowling and even gardening. Pelvic exercises will keep stress incontinence at bay. In your 60s, it is sufficient to get in about 30 minutes of exercise a day, 3 to 5 times a week.

In your 70s and 80s

Walking is one of the best exercises at this age as in these years rigorous workouts are not required. However continue to work on strength, flexibility and balance. Yoga and swimming are also great exercise options. Regular exercise in to your 80s will not just give you a healthier life it will also give you the physical and emotional tools to maintain your independence.