- Walking is perhaps one of the easiest forms of exercise there is, and it’s plenty effective despite its simplicity. Health benefits include improved blood flow and fat burning, improved heart health and increased longevity
- Poor flexibility and mobility can greatly impair the quality of your movement and raise your risk of injury, so stretching is an important fitness component. Stretching can also go a long way toward preventing and treating pain stemming from poor posture, overweight or excessive sitting
- Strength training only becomes more important with age, not less. Working your muscles will help you shed excess fat, maintain healthy bone mass, prevent age-related muscle loss, improve perimenopausal symptoms in women, and counteract postural deficits that occur with age
- Slowing your breathing through meditation and/or using breathing exercises increases your partial pressure of carbon dioxide, which has enormous psychological benefits and tones your parasympathetic nervous system, thereby inducing relaxation and calm
- Yoga works your connective tissue and increases your flexibility in functional movement patterns, while simultaneously acting as a form of moving meditation; Tai Chi, which may be particularly beneficial for the elderly, stimulates your central nervous system, lowers blood pressure, relieves stress and tones muscles while being very low impact
The video above features John Carter, who at 90 years of age still hikes, bikes, swims and plays sports. Doing a swan dive from the 10-foot dive board, he comments that no other 90-year-olds are well enough to join him. Indeed, it’s rare sight to see a 90-year-old doing any kind of physical activity these days.
That doesn’t mean you have to grow decrepit with age, however. You too can enjoy physical activity well into your senior years. The key, of course, is to stay active. The good news is, it’s never too late to start. My mother started a strength training program at the age of 74 after recuperating from a nasty fall, and was able to make significant gains within a couple of years.
So, if you’re ready to take control of your health, keep reading. Below, I list five key focus areas to help you stay fit after 50. Exercise may be particularly important for women entering menopause, as this is when changes in hormones begin to weaken their bones.
Postmenopausal Symptoms and Health Risks Can Be Controlled Through Proper Exercise
According to a paper1 in the Journal of Mid-Life Health, postmenopausal women “should include the endurance exercise (aerobic), strength exercise and balance exercise.” The paper recommends doing moderate aerobic activity for two hours and 30 minutes per week, and to track your target heart rate range and the intensity of your exercise by employing the talk test.
What this means is you should be able to maintain a conversation during your exercise. If you’re huffing and puffing to the point you cannot talk, you’re overexerting yourself. Deep breathing exercises, yoga and stretching are also recommended “to manage the stress of life and menopause-related symptoms.”
Just remember that physical activity, as important as it is, is not the sole factor that determines your health. As noted in a 2017 study,2 while retired adults tend to be more physically active than non-retirees, they are not likely to be following other healthy lifestyle suggestions, such as eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and keeping their blood pressure under control.
All of those factors, especially your diet, are important considerations if you want to live a long, healthy, active life. You can learn more about my dietary recommendations in my free nutrition plan. All of that said, the following five strategies can go a long way toward maintaining your health and fitness past the age of 50:
Tip No. 1: Walk Daily for 30 to 60 Minutes
Walking is perhaps one of the easiest forms of exercise there is, and it’s plenty effective despite its simplicity. The short video above reviews what happens in your body while walking, starting with the release of chemicals that give your body a quick boost of energy. Once you get going, your heart rate will increase, from about 70 to about 100 beats per minute. This boost in blood flow will warm up your muscles.
As you move, your body will also increase production of fluid in your joints, thereby reducing stiffness. And, while your blood pressure will rise from the exertion, this increase is counteracted by chemicals that help expand your blood vessels, such as nitric oxide. This expansion in turn allows greater amounts of oxygen-rich blood to reach your muscles and organs, including your heart and brain.
Over time, taking regular walks will help lower your blood pressure if it tends to be high. After 30 to 45 minutes of walking, you’re really oxygenating your whole body, burning more fat, strengthening your heart and cardiovascular system, and boosting your immune function.
The Many Health Benefits of Walking
Several studies have confirmed that walking boosts health and longevity. For example:
|Walking for 20 to 25 minutes per day may add anywhere from three to seven years to your life span.3
|These benefits also extend to those who are overweight,4 and even smokers. In fact, smokers may increase their life span by nearly four years by engaging in regular physical activity such as walking.5 Former smokers who kept up their physical activity increased their life expectancy by 5.6 years on average, reducing their all-cause mortality risk by 43 percent.
Smokers who were physically active were also 55 percent more likely to quit smoking than those who remained inactive, and 43 percent less likely to relapse once they quit.
|As little as two hours (120 minutes) of walking per week has been shown to reduce mortality risk in older adults by 20 percent, compared to inactivity.6
|In another study, in which 5,700 older men were followed for 12 years, those who got 30 minutes of exercise — even if all they did was light walking — six days a week, reduced their risk of death by about 40 percent. Getting less than one hour of light activity per week had no effect on mortality in this study, highlighting the importance of getting the “dosage” right if you want to live longer.
|Patients with obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who walk 2 miles a day or more cut their chances of hospitalization from a severe episode by about half.7,8
|Daily walking has also been shown to reduce the risk of stroke in men over the age of 60.9 Walking for an hour or two each day cut a man’s stroke risk by as much as one-third, and it didn’t matter how fast or slow the pace was. Taking a three-hour-long walk each day slashed the risk by two-thirds.
|People who regularly walk briskly for more than 30 minutes generally weigh less than those who hit the gym on a regular basis and/or exclusively do high-intensity workouts.10 According to the press release, these results were “particularly pronounced in women, people over 50.”11
Walking has also been shown to lower your risk of:12,13
|Type 2 diabetes
|Depression and anxiety
|Dementia and Alzheimer’s
Tip No. 2: Do Yoga or Tai Chi Weekly
Research reveals potent mental and physical benefits from yoga, regardless of your current state of health or fitness. It gives you a full body stretch, working your connective tissue and increasing your flexibility in functional movement patterns, while simultaneously acting as a form of moving meditation. And, like meditation, yoga, tai chi and qigong have been shown to actually alter your genetic expression through their impact on your mind.14
Examples of genetic effects obtained through yogic- and other meditative practices include the down-regulation of cellular stress response genes and genes associated with the pathway responsible for the breakdown of proteins, while expression of heat shock proteins and immune function are increased. Other health benefits from regular yoga practice include:
|Improved immune function15
|Reduced food cravings16
|Reduced risk for migraines17
|Improved heart health,18 including improved atrial fibrillation19 (irregular heartbeat)
|Improved cognitive function20,21,22,23
|Reduced anxiety, depression,24 aggression and stress;25,26 improved emotional resilience and anger management27
|Lower resting blood pressure30
|Improved leptin sensitivity31 (leptin is a hormone that plays a key role in regulating energy intake and energy expenditure)
|Improvement in symptoms of schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder32 and post-traumatic stress disorder33
|Improved sexual performance and satisfaction34,35
|Increased flexibility, better balance, improved strength, stamina and body alignment, low-back pain relief
For examples of some simple beginner’s yoga poses and descriptions of several of the most popular versions of yoga, see “New Twists on Yoga.” An alternative practice is Tai Chi, a branch of Qigong, said to balance and harness qi or “life energy” in your body, and is frequently described as meditation in motion as the activity takes you through a set of slow, gentle movements while you focus on your breath.
Studies have shown Tai Chi stimulates the central nervous system, lowers blood pressure, relieves stress, tones muscles and helps with digestion and waste elimination. Tai Chi may be particularly beneficial for the elderly, thanks to its low impact. You can even do Tai Chi if you’re confined to a wheelchair.
Those struggling with chronic pain or stiffness may also benefit a great deal. Tai Chi can also take the place of seated meditation if you struggle with the sitting still part. To learn more about this ancient self-care practice, see “A Comprehensive Review of Health Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi.”
Tip No. 3: Strength Train Two to Three Times a Week
As mentioned, my mother didn’t get started on her strength training program until she was 74. In the video above, she shares the health benefits she gained from her program, and demonstrates her strength training routine. The truth is, strength training only becomes more important with age, not less.
Working your muscles will help you shed excess fat, maintain healthy bone mass and prevent age-related muscle loss, the latter of which can start as early as your 30s. It will also help counteract postural deficits that occur with each passing year.
During your youth, bone resorption is well-balanced, ensuring healthy bone growth and sustained strength. However, as bone loss accelerates, it starts to outpace your body’s ability to create new bone. The more sedentary you are, the weaker your bones get as a result.
The same can be said for your muscle, and without good muscle tone, your mobility starts to suffer. Worse, muscle weakness in combination with brittle bone structure is a recipe for falls that can result in crippling disability. Resistance training also:
|Improves your insulin sensitivity, thereby lowering your risk of most chronic diseases.
|Reduces your risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions (large waist circumference, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar) that raise your risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.36,37,38,39
|Reduces perimenopausal symptoms in women, such as anxiety and depression, mood swings, irregular periods, weight gain and brain fog, in part by increasing production of testosterone.40
|Lowers inflammation, a hallmark of most chronic disease, especially heart disease and cancer.
|Improves cognitive function and reduces anxiety and depression, promoting greater well-being.
|Improves your cardiovascular fitness.
Strength Training Basics and Further Guidance
There are two basic terms you must understand before planning your strength training routine:
- Reps — A rep (repetition) indicates one complete motion of an exercise. Be mindful of performing each rep using full range of motion.
- Set — A set is a group of reps.
So, for instance, if you performed two sets of 10 reps of bicep curls, this means you did 10 bicep curls, rested, then did 10 more. How many reps you should do depends on your fitness level and your goals. Here are some general guidelines:
- For building strength and bulk, it’s generally recommended to do fewer than eight to 10 reps per set with heavier weights.
- For tone and general conditioning, aim for 10 to 12 reps using more moderate weight.
- For SuperSlow weight training (i.e., high-intensity resistance training), aim for only one set of 8 to 10 reps. You should not be able to do the last rep no matter how hard you try. If you can do 11 then increase the weight. If you can’t do 8 then decrease the weight.
Regardless of how many sets you do, make sure the last rep in your set is done to failure. You want to fully fatigue that muscle in the last rep, while still maintaining control of the weight so you don’t lose your form, as this could lead to injury.
Adjust the amount of weight you use for each exercise depending on which muscles you are working. Larger muscles such as your thighs, chest and upper back are stronger and will require a bit heavier weight. Smaller muscles, such as your shoulders and arms, require less weight.
I’ve previously published articles detailing sample workouts for differing levels of fitness and age groups, including a basic guide of seated balance and coordination exercises for the elderly and infirm, easy strength training moves for seniors, and a slightly more advanced strength training guide for fitter, older adults.
I’ve also published a beginner’s guide to strength training, SuperSlow instructions, “best of” sample strength exercises that deliver great results, advanced strength training suggestions, bodyweight exercises and much more. For ideas and guidance, simply browse through my fitness archive.
Below, you’ll also find a demonstration of several bodyweight exercises which, as the name implies, do not require any kind of weights or fitness equipment, making them particularly convenient when you’re first starting out.
Tip No. 4: Meditate and/or Do Breathing Exercises Daily
Fitness is not all about vigorous activity. There is growing evidence demonstrating your mind and body are intricately connected, and wide acceptance that whatever is going on in your mind has bearing on your physical health. Mental stress has also been linked to a wide variety of health problems, in large part due to its ability to stoke the flames of inflammation.
Brain imaging has shown meditation alters your brain in beneficial ways, and scientists have identified thousands of genes that appear to be directly influenced by your subjective mental state. Research41 also suggests meditation can help counteract age-related loss of brain volume.
Importantly, slowing your breathing through meditation and/or using the Buteyko breathing technique also increases your partial pressure of carbon dioxide, which has enormous psychological benefits. I addressed this in “Top Breathing Techniques for Better Health.”
Slowing and relaxing your breathing will also tone your parasympathetic nervous system, often referred to as the “rest and digest” system, which induces relaxation and calm.42
Tip No. 5: Stretch Daily for 30 Minutes
Poor flexibility and mobility can greatly impair the quality of your movement and raise your risk of injury, so stretching is an important fitness component. There are a number of stretching techniques out there, but one of my personal favorites is Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) by Aaron Mattes, a registered kinesiotherapist and rehabilitation therapist.
A quick demonstration of how to do AIS is included above. AIS targets muscles and connective tissue in a functional pattern that mimics your spontaneous body movements, without stretching isolated muscles.
While prolonged static stretching has been the gold standard for decades, research shows this technique actually decreases blood flow within your tissue, creating localized ischemia (a restriction in blood supply) and lactic acid buildup that can lead to irritation or injury of local muscular, tendinous, lymphatic, as well as neural tissues.
As it turns out, many of the improvements you gain from stretching are related to the movement of fascia, the connective sheaths covering your muscles. When they move, they create tiny piezoelectric signals that can improve your overall health.
The AIS protocol involves repetitive stretches, performed in a specific order that target myofascial (muscle and connective tissue) restriction. By working with the primary laws of your body, it promotes elongation of muscle and fascial tissue without eliciting your body’s protective mechanisms, which actually inhibit safe, effective stretching and overall flexibility.
AIS Basics and Further Guidance
To perform AIS effectively, keep the following guidelines in mind:
- First you need to move the joint as far as you can in the direction of the stretch. This is the active part of the exercise, which activates the antagonistic muscles that inhibit the stretch. Many fail to do this and only passively stretch the muscle, and that simply will not work.
- Stretch the muscle gradually with a gentle stretch of less than 1 pound of pressure toward the end point of your range of motion, and then hold the stretch for two seconds. After two seconds, release the tension to prevent reverse contractions of the tissues being stretched.
- Do not push through the stretch; instead do multiple stretches. Done correctly, with each stretch you’ll get greater range of motion.
By improving mobility, daily stretching can also go a long way toward preventing and treating chronic back, neck and shoulder pain stemming from poor posture, overweight or excessive sitting. To ease back pain specifically, take a look at “Simple Stretches to Help Relieve Lower Back Pain,” in which you’ll find six helpful yoga-inspired stretches that target your back.
Staying Fit Beyond 50 Doesn’t Have To Be a Challenge
While it’s certainly true that the older you get, the longer it takes to radically transform your body, significant progress is possible at any age. The key is to stay consistently active. To summarize, by incorporating the following five key focus areas, you can get fit, and maintain your fitness, well into your 50s and beyond:
- Walk for 30 to 60 minutes daily
- Incorporate at least one yoga or tai chi session each week
- Strength train two to three times a week
- Do breathing exercises or meditation daily
- Stretch daily