Forty may be the new 30. But if you’re approaching (or past) the mid-century mark, you probably don’t want to work out like a 20-year-old — no matter how spry you feel.
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“Exercise is really important as you get older,” says Tom Iannetta ATC, CSCS, a senior athletic trainer and certified strength and conditioning specialist. “But you might have to adjust your routine to avoid injuries as you age.”
Here’s how to exercise safely, in middle age and beyond.
Safe exercise in middle age
You don’t have to abandon your favorite exercise just because you’re getting older. People are staying active well into their later years. “There’s no reason you can’t stay active past 50. You can keep playing tennis or softball, golfing or doing any of the things you’ve always enjoyed,” Iannetta says.
But that doesn’t mean you can push yourself quite like you did at 25.
“As you get older, muscles and tendons get tighter,” he says. “Injuries like tendon tears become a lot more common in middle age. It’s important to know your limits and listen to your body.”
Preventing sports injuries after 40
Luckily, you can take steps to reduce the risk of injury.
- Warm up: “It’s important to warm up your muscles before strength training,” Iannetta says. “Five or 10 minutes on the elliptical machine or stationary bike gives you a good light warmup before lifting weights.”
- Get stretchy: “Incorporate a good flexibility program alongside your strength training program,” he says. Whether it’s yoga or a simple stretching routine, it will help you stay flexible and decrease the risk of tendon tears and other injuries.
- Try machines: If you’re used to lifting free weights, consider switching to weight machines. These can be safer and help you avoid injuries when aging brings on a loss of muscle tone.
- Consider your sport: Iannetta says he sees a lot of injuries from high-intensity interval training among people in their 40s and 50s. If you’re not as limber as you used to be, you might want to skip the intervals and schedule a round of racquetball or hit the bike instead. No shame in that game.
- Listen to your body: That’s true at any age, but especially as you get older. If you have muscle pain that lasts the better part of a week, or joint pain that lasts more than a day or two, that’s a red flag. “If it hurts, stop exercising and get it checked out,” he says. “And while it’s normal to get winded during a workout, you shouldn’t feel like you can’t catch your breath.”
Benefits of exercise for seniors
Before starting a new exercise program, talk to your doctor, Iannetta says. They can give you advice about what is and isn’t safe. That’s especially true if you’re taking medications or have any chronic conditions such as lung disease or heart problems.
As you get started, it’s worth seeking help from the experts, he adds. “Look for a certified strength and conditioning specialist or a certified personal trainer,” he says. “They can help you find enjoyable ways to exercise safely.”
Once you get the all-clear, where do you begin? Iannetta offers these ideas to get you started.
- Walking: Putting one foot in front of the other is often the best way to start a new routine. “Walking, outside or on a treadmill, is a great activity you can pursue safely,” he says.
- Machines: Stationary bikes and elliptical machines are gentle on the joints and allow you to start slowly. Work at the speed and intensity that feels right for you. Increase the time and resistance as you get stronger.
- Aquatics: From lap swimming to group exercise classes in the shallow end, pools offer safe, low-impact opportunities for moving your body.
- Strength training: Strength training is key to maintaining muscle tone and bone density, which lowers the risk of falls and injury. Iannetta recommends doing strength training two or three days a week. That can be lifting weights or using weight machines. You can also use stretchy resistance bands or even your own body weight: “Movements like squats and modified pushups can help you build strength, and they’re great because they mimic the activities of daily living,” he says. (Squats, for example, help strengthen the muscles you use when getting into the car or getting up from a low chair.)
Find your physical activity groove
The most important pointer for exercising in your 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond? You do you.
Don’t worry about what your buddy is doing or stress about keeping up with the younger crowd.
“More isn’t always better,” Iannetta says. “There’s no shame in adapting your routine as you get older. It’s the movement, not the method that matters.”