Many adults equate getting fit with being able to run for miles on end or having six-pack abs. Those ideals may be fine for the post-college crowd, even for adults in their 30s, but fitness priorities for most of us over the age of 45 should be less about aesthetics involving muscle size or body fat and more about promoting flexibility, balance, good circulation, greater energy, better sleep and a positive libido.
"Exercise is not one size fits all," says Chhanda Dutta, PhD, a spokesperson for the National Institute on Aging's Go4Life physical activity campaign who also leads the NIA's task force on exercise and physical activity. "Having a so-called gym body should not be the goal for everyone. What's important is that you recognize the importance of working more physical activity into your life, because it can protect and improve your overall physical and mental health. But there's no one path you need to follow."
Dutta says men and women in their 50s are at a "pivotal stage" when it comes to setting the tone for the rest of their lives. Exercise, after all, is a well-documented way to protect the heart, prevent and fight many chronic diseases and cancer, support the immune system, build and protect muscle mass, strengthen bones and keep your brain in tip-top shape. And as for that libido — science shows that not only does exercising regularly help give you the energy for bedroom fun, it also enhances women's arousal and lessens the likelihood of erectile dysfunction problems for men.
"The 50s is a great time to change the health course that you're on," Dutta says. "It's definitely not too late to make changes that will help you stay well as you grow older."
The first change should be to toss out your old notions of what counts as proper exercise. Then, with the benefit of a clean slate, check out these 10 ways to reach your prime fitness.
1. Expand your definition of exercise. Almost no one says, "I love to exercise!" But people do say they love to dance, play golf, shoot hoops, kayak or even garden. Guess what? Virtually anything that doesn't involve sitting on the couch or in front of a computer counts as exercise. "Put some thought into finding meaningful ways to move more," says Dutta. "If going to the gym is a real turnoff, don't even consider joining one. If you don't like to take walks, don't. But do make more time to do the physical activities you enjoy."
2. Put some meaning into your workouts. If you view working out as just another chore on your list, chances are high you'll skip it. But if you carefully choose exercises that directly relate to an activity that you do enjoy (see number 1), you'll place a higher value on breaking a sweat. It's the whole "If this, then that" concept at work. Let's say you've identified gardening as your favorite physical activity. To make hauling those bags of potting soil less likely to put a crimp in your back, you can now see the value of signing up for Pilates. If dancing's your thing, setting aside a few minutes to complete strengthening exercises for your calves and ankles won't seem like such a time suck. If you're not sure about how to match the right exercises to your activity, book a session or two with a certified personal trainer. It will be money and time well spent.
3. Forgo trips down memory lane. Chances are you once played on a sports team in high school or college. Maybe you have some race finisher's medals gracing your bookshelf. Or perhaps you were once a step-class devotee — so much so that you wore down grooves in the bench. Whatever your fitness past looks like, if life got in the way of that routine, do not try to jump right in where you left off. Otherwise you risk injury or, perhaps worse, huge disappointment.
If you haven't been consistently exercising since those glory days, "you need to match your activity with your current fitness level," says Michael Ross, M.D., medical director of The Rothman Institute's Performance Lab at Velocity Sports Performance in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
So whether you've decided to take a dance class or have set your sights on a 5K, start slow, take the time to master the right form and technique, and pay attention to your body's signals. Your body will always let you know when you need to back off, or are ready to push it.
4. Don't ignore the basics. While we've given you a green light to name your exercise pleasure, you can't entirely ignore the foundation of a healthy body. "Adults of all ages, not just older ones, tend to put all their time and energy into one activity or type of exercise," says Dutta. "But that's not really enough if your goal is to improve your long-term health."
For that, she says, you need a mixed bag of movements that target the areas of endurance, strength, flexibility and balance. The good news is that a little goes a long way. For example, doing a heel-to-toe walk around your house, or taking 30 seconds to stand on one foot can help your balance. Doing some shoulder and leg stretches while you're watching "Scandal" will give you more freedom of movement for everyday activities. And to protect your muscle mass, you can keep a resistance band nearby for some quick arm curls or leg extensions.
5. Set more specific goals. The problem with most fitness goals is they're too broad. Wanting to "get fit" is fine, but doesn't really mean much. A better approach is to think small. Do you want to stop feeling out of breath every time you climb a set of stairs, for example. Maybe you want to have the stamina to go on a long hike with your partner. Or jumpstart a slowing metabolism.
"You set yourself up for failure if you set the mark too high," says Aimee Nicotera, a certified personal trainer based in Tampa, Florida. "It's better to start with one or two small goals that are achievable. So ask yourself, What is it I really want to gain?"
6. Grab a partner. The buddy system is a great way to build up momentum and stay motivated to be more active, says Dutta. For one thing you'll have more fun, turning your workout into a social event. Studies also show that people who exercise with someone else tend to have a more efficient workout. (Few want to slack off in front of a friend.) They're also more likely to stick with their fitness plans. After all, it's not as easy to duck out of a plan to hike a new trail or go for a bike ride if there's someone counting on you. One more good reason to find a workout pal (or more) is that exercising with a partner improves weight-loss results, according to a recent University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine study.
Often the best way to line up an exercise buddy is to enlist a friend or co-worker. If you don't find any takers, expand your search to groups or places you frequent — church, volunteer organization, even your daily coffee joint. Or consider joining a team; adult sports leagues are always looking to add players to their rosters.
7. Set the timer for 10 minutes. We get that it can be tough to work up the energy to exercise. Even top athletes struggle with mental fatigue. Sports psychologists have a way around that: "Bargain with yourself. Say I'll stop after 10 minutes. Almost always, when that 10-minute mark comes around you'll be up for going on," says Duncan Simpson, PhD, an assistant professor at Barry University's School of Human Performance and Leisure Sciences in Miami Shores, Florida.
8. Focus on the relaxation factor. Perhaps the real beauty of physical activity isn't all the good it can do for your body, but all the good it can do for your state of mind. If the physical work that's involved in being more active is holding you back, pay more attention to how "incredibly relaxing" it is to paddle a kayak, smash a tennis ball, hike through a scenic city park, says Simpson. When your motivation is to break away from daily stressors (as opposed to setting out to prevent hypertension, for example), you'll be less likely to knock exercising off your priority list.
9. Track your movements. Activity trackers — those little gizmos that gather data on your every move — aren't just trendy, they're pretty darn useful. Most are easy to use and don't require a degree in IT to figure out. Get yours up and running and you can easily see how many steps you take each day to determine your starting line. From there, you can set targets and receive alerts when you've hit your goal. Some models, like the Jawbone Up 24, will give you a little nudge if it detects you've been sitting still too long. Others have sensors to monitor your heart rate, and some even tell you whether or not you've had a good night's rest.
10. Don't act your age. Self-perception plays a huge role in how one views exercise. If you think you're too old to try a new sport or to challenge yourself to take another lap around the neighborhood, chances are you won't even try. But your muscles would love the push, says Dutta. In fact, they need it: Loss of muscle mass begins when you're in your 40s, and between the ages of 50 and 70, you'll lose 30 percent of your mass. But exercise protects precious muscle and slows this natural process. She points out that people in their 80s and 90s are setting world records in endurance sports like marathon running. And one seminal study done on nursing home residents in their 90s found that after beginning a strength-training program they gained not only strength but walking speed.
"The one myth I really want to bust for those in their 50s and 60s is that it's too late for them to start exercising," says Dutta. "That's not at all true! Even if you start in your 90s, you'll see gains. You'll see even more, the sooner you begin."