Fit after Fifty
By Kathy Jordan, MS, RD, LDN, CPT
Life is a precious gift and most of us want to live each day to the fullest. Unfortunately, as we get older, suboptimal health and fitness can affect our quality of life by limiting our ability to do our favorite activities. Many of us blame this on age. But actually, much of what we consider a result of aging is actually due to a gradual decline in muscle mass. According to the American Council on exercise, we lose 3-5% of muscle mass per decade after we turn 30. The rate of muscle loss accelerates after 50, particularly for postmenopausal women. This results in a loss of stamina, strength, and balance. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ASCM), we can slow these losses by doing things that maintain – or even improve – muscular strength and power.
You don’t have to feel old before your time. Adopting a better diet and fitness plan will help you have the energy and stamina to continue an active lifestyle as well as prevent age-related illnesses. Attaining the best possible state of fitness requires a life-long commitment to healthy lifestyle habits. If you want to transform your body into what it was 10 or 20 years ago, consume a well balanced diet that contains plenty of lean protein, fruits, vegetables and whole grains – but that’s just the first step. A balanced exercise plan, like the one detailed below, helps complete the transformation.
There are four components of an exercise program to optimize health and slow the aging process. First and foremost is strength training. Adequate strength is needed to more easily perform daily activities such as cleaning, yard work and playing with the grandchildren, as well as enjoying your favorite pasttimes (golf, skiing, etc). The others include: balance, flexibility and cardiovascular or aerobic exercise. These are not mutually exclusive; for example, you will likely have gains in cardiovascular health and improvements in balance from resistance exercises. And you can gain some strength while working on balance or from aerobic exercises that rely on the larger muscle groups.
Maintaining your weight over time does not mean muscle isn't vanishing, notes Steven B. Heymsfield of St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York. Muscle loss usually goes unnoticed for decades. In fact, the body hides its loss by subtly padding affected areas with extra fat. This change in body composition in favor of fat can be slowed or reversed by coupling a healthy diet with exercise that incorporates resistance training.
The American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine (2007) recommend doing 10-15 repetitions of 8-10 exercises using weights or other resistance equipment two or more times per week. If you have limited time, focus on the larger muscle groups or exercises that work a combination of muscle groups at one time.
Added benefits include increased bone density and a faster metabolism, which means you’ll burn more calories throughout the day.
Here are some suggestions for maximizing your time and activating the most muscles:
- Focus on the large muscle groups including Quadriceps and Hamstrings.
Your quadriceps is the large group of muscles on the front of the upper leg. These muscles run along the front of the thigh, starting at the hip joint and ending at the knee joint. Hamstrings run along the back of your leg from the knee to the hip. Together, their primary function is to flex the hip and extend/bend the knee, motions needed for walking, running, jumping, climbing stairs and pedaling. Squats and lunges target these muscles. Both can be done with or without weights.
- Large muscles/combination: Lat pull downs. You can do these on a lat machine or using resistance bands. This exercise uses several groups of muscles in your back as well as arms and abs if you focus on your from and posture. Other suggestions include assisted pull-ups and push-ups.
For additional exercises and demos go to the website of Georgia State University, Department of Kinesiology and Health.
While this is not the exercise of choice for adding muscle, if you are now sedentary you will add a little muscle by doing aerobic activity. The real benefits of aerobic exercise include improved circulation and emotional well-being. Low impact activities such as brisk walking, bicycling, swimming and hiking are not only easy on your joints, but also have been shown to improve cardiovascular and cognitive health. If your goal is heart health, then track your steps with a pedometer and aim for 10,000 per day. If your goal is weight loss, you may have to work up to 12,000 steps or more per day. Weight loss will be of higher quality and easier to maintain if you couple your aerobic exercise with a couple bouts of strength training every week.
Balance is “the ability to maintain the body's center of mass over its base of support against the forces of gravity and acceleration” (Shumway-Cook, 2001). If you are just turning 50, you probably aren’t overly concerned with balance. However, as the years slip by this will become more and more important for maintaining quality of life. Believe it or not, strength training, particularly with free weights, is one of the best ways to maintain balance. Other exercises that focus specifically on balance, such as step ups on a Bosu Balance ball (looks like half an exercise ball with a flat bottom) or single leg squats, can be included in your strength training routine.
Have you noticed how much more difficult it is now to reach back and get that seatbelt? Our flexibility declines as we age, resulting in restricted range of motion. Stretching after you’ve warmed up your muscles, or doing yoga and Pilates, are good ways to build flexibility. Pilates and yoga can also help you develop core strength and balance.
To build muscle and maintain overall health and fitness:
- Weight train at least 30 minutes, 2-3 times per week, making sure you have at least 48 hours rest before working out the same muscle groups.
- Warm up for at least 5 minutes before you start your workout.
- A rowing machine or elliptical with the handles will warm up upper and lower body simultaneously.
- Include at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 3 or more times per week. Vary your workouts to prevent overuse of the same muscles and joints.
- Take a yoga or Pilates class once a week.
If you want to do weight training and aerobics on the same day, I recommend a 5 minute warm-up followed by 30-60 minutes of strength training, finishing with a half hour of aerobic activity such as walking, cycling or swimming.
Remember to stretch at the end of your workout when your muscles are warm and more pliable.
If you get really serious about building strength and muscle, you will need to adjust your diet. I recommend whey protein drinks before your workout and again about 10 minutes after you complete your strength training. Proper supplementation can optimize performance.
If you find you enjoy aerobic activity and want to participate in events of longer duration, you may need to include some supplements to provide extra “fuel” to maintain your energy and maximize recovery.
Regular physical activity that includes these 4 basic components – strength, aerobics, balance and flexibility – not only helps you look and feel younger; it also lowers your risk for a variety of conditions.
1. Janet Raloff. “Vanishing Flesh.” Science News online, Aug 10,1996.
2. Steven B. Heymsfield, Obesity Research Center, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center.
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