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Are You Fit For Your Age?

By Kate Rockwood | June 21, 2017 | Rally Health

Age ain’t nothing but a number — seriously. The biggest factor in your body’s fitness isn’t about the number of birthday candles on your cake but how active you are, says Tiffany Lowe-Payne, MD, an osteopathic physician and an assistant professor of family medicine at Campbell University. “The idea that as you get older you just have to accept a decline in strength or flexibility or speed? That’s a myth,” she says. “I have 70-year-old patients who still go rock climbing.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all fitness metric for each decade, she says, but aging does tend to affect bodies in predictable ways. And knowing whether you’re making the right tweaks can help you preserve your fitness levels no matter how many candles are on that cake. “You’re really competing against your own fitness benchmarks, not the calendar,” says Lowe-Payne. And that’s true for every type of fitness: cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility.

This guide can help you get fit for your age. Of course, it’s always worth discussing a new regimen with your doctor, especially if you have a chronic condition or complicated medical history.

In Your 20s

What’s Happening: Your metabolism is humming along (high five!), and you can probably skip a week or two at the gym and not notice a difference when you return, says Lowe-Payne. Less obvious, your body might still be building bone mass until right around your 30th birthday, according to the National Institutes of Health. That matters because the more bone mass you build when you’re young, the more likely you are to avoid osteoporosis as your body loses bone mass later in life.

“Think of your 20s as the time to really strengthen your fitness foundation,” she says. “The earlier you start to exercise — and include all three components of fitness — the better. Fitness is one area in which an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.”

Action Plan: Working out when you’re younger may protect your ticker later in life: A 2016 study of nearly 5,000 young adults found that those who had better cardio health (and were able to stay on a treadmill longer) had a significantly lower risk of heart disease and death later in life. So double down on making sweat sessions a priority: The US government recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity) every week, and strength-training your major muscle groups at least twice a week. (Exceed the recommendation, and you’ll reap even more health benefits — up to a point.) At this age, you’ll get bonus points for weight-bearing activities, like jumping rope, climbing stairs or running — you don’t need to pump iron to build strength. “Weight-bearing activities are what build up bone mass — period,” says Lowe-Payne. And remember, more bone mass now means less risk for osteoporosis down the road.

In Your 30s

What’s Happening: First, the bad news: The big 3-0 kick-starts some not-so-awesome changes, including loss of muscle mass (which can in turn depress your metabolism) and tighter tendons (which can curb your flexibility). The good news? “With the right fitness tweaks you can preserve your fitness and really push back against those age-related changes,” says Rebecca Seguin, an exercise physiologist and professor at Cornell University.

Action Plan: Hitting 150 minutes of cardio a week is wonderful, but you might want to also try mixing it up, says Seguin. Swimmers who stick to the pool may experience tight chest and shoulder muscles, while runners who only hit the track are more likely to overtax their leg muscles than those who cross-train. You want to foster more muscle balance, so you’re less likely to be sidelined by an injury.

And speaking of muscles, this is the decade where you should start fighting to preserve as much muscle mass as you can. Get all BFF with a strength-training routine, and “focus on quality, not quantity,” says Seguin. You only need to do two to three sets of 8 to 10 reps a few times a week, but the key is to pick a weight that fatigues your muscles by the end.

“If it’s starting to feel easy — or you can chat on the phone easily while lifting — it’s time to add weight,” she says. Follow any workout with a few minutes of stretching to help elongate the tendons that connect your muscles and bones. “When we’re young, our bodies are like rubber bands,” says Lowe-Payne. “But as you get older, those tendons start to shorten and the muscles get tighter and our range of motion shorter. If stretching isn’t already a daily habit by your 30s, it’s time to start.”

In Your 40s

What’s Happening: Many people are juggling family and career commitments that can make squeezing in workouts seem harder than before, says Lowe-Payne. But your body isn’t taking a busy schedule as a good excuse: You’re still losing muscle mass and muscle elasticity, and your metabolism slowdown continues. The combined effect of all those age-related changes? Many people find themselves weaker, pudgier and more prone to small injuries in their 40s than they’ve ever been…unless they’ve made fitness a priority.

Action Plan: Don’t assume 30 minutes of activity is going to have the same effect in your 40s that it did in your 20s or 30s, says Seguin — especially if, like many people this age, you’ve swapped jogging or tennis for more leisurely strolls. “You really want to be working at 70 to 80 percent of your max heart rate,” she says. “And using a heart rate monitor can help you make sure you’re doing that.”

But keep in mind that cardio is just one component of staying fit: A Harvard study of more than 10,000 people over 40 found that those who lifted weights for 20 minutes a day gained less age-related abdominal fat than participants who devoted that time to extra cardio. And researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that women who practiced yoga regularly between age 45 and 55 didn’t just work on their flexibility — they actually gained less weight during this 10-year period than those who didn’t practice. “Whether you’re into yoga or not, everyone can work towards touching their toes,” says Seguin. “Even if you’ve lost that flexibility with age, you can recover it.” She suggests 10 minutes of stretching at the end of each workout, when muscles are more elastic.

In Your 50s

What’s Happening: Blame your hormones if your usual workout routine is starting to leave you out of breath. For women, menopause can slow the metabolism even more, and the estrogen dip accelerates bone loss, says Lowe-Payne. For men, the 50s bring a dip in testosterone level, which can make fat production rise. At the same time, the loss of lean muscle mass marches on. And a University of Pittsburgh study found that women gain an average of 12 pounds, in the eight years following menopause. “This is when we start noticing small tasks we could handle with ease — putting luggage in an overhead compartment, or lifting a heavy bag of trash — suddenly seem more onerous, says Seguin.

Action Plan: The biggest barrier to increasing fitness in your 50s can sometimes be mental, says Lowe-Payne. Sedentary habits can seem insurmountable, or people let their old workout habits lapse and don’t pick up new activities. “But people at this age should be able to walk up hills, to walk a mile while carrying on a conversation, to lift their kids or grandkids,” says Seguin.

If any of that seems difficult, science says you can fight back. A study in the American Journal of Medicine found that, for people over 50, focusing on simple resistance training — with exercises like squats and modified push-ups — builds lean muscle mass and strength, and the more work they put in, the more muscle mass they built. Rather than force yourself to stick to the same routine you’ve always done, focus on the activities you enjoy now, says Lowe-Payne, because you’re more likely to stick with them. That might mean swapping crunches for plank exercises to strengthen your core, or trading yoga for tai chi. “Find something you can make a part of your daily routine so you can stay in your top shape,” she says.

In Your 60s and Beyond

What’s Happening: Arthritis, creaky knees, that old sports injury that still bothers your back. Minor ailments accumulate as people age, and for many that means curbing their physical activities, says Lowe-Payne. But the less you move, the faster the decline in fitness. And less lower body strength and stability can also exacerbate balance problems, which tend to rise dramatically after age 65, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. Worsening balance can have significant — even fatal — consequences: For people 65 and older, more than half of all deaths related to accidental injuries result from a fall, the CDC notes.

Action Plan: No one should suffer through a workout routine if it’s causing them pain. “But we need to stay active, no matter our age,” says Lowe-Payne. “That may mean trying an activity you’ve never done before.” If a bad knee makes you hang up your running shoes, for instance, try a different activity, like swimming or rowing. Dreading your usual dance class? It might be time to hop on a bicycle. How you move isn’t nearly as important as the fact that you stay moving, says Seguin. And for those who spent the middle years more sedentary than they should, remember that it’s never too late to start working out, as long as you do so safely.

 

Kate Rockwood
Rally Health