The workouts that get the best results
The over-40s are now the most active age group – but your workout needs to change for maximum benefit. By Anna Magee
Maybe it’s a collective midlife crisis, a late realisation of our mortality or an old-fashioned desire to lose the spare tyre. Maybe it’s because of Brexit, because everything else is. But one thing is certain, the middle-aged are getting fit.
Research from 4.5 million Strava users has found that the most active age group in the UK is the over-40s. Meanwhile, Sport England says running is up a staggering 97 per cent in the over-55s, with cycling up 59 per cent, and Nuffield Health has found that people in their 60s make time for exercise more than any other age group. Meanwhile, WGSN, a global trend forecasting agency, has dubbed the Ageless Athlete a trend to watch in 2019.
And it’s never too late to start. A flurry of studies last year seemed to show that exercising in middle age – even if you’ve never been active before – is the elixir of youth. One, published in the European Heart Journal, found that sedentary, middleaged people who took up aerobic exercise for six months developed longer telomeres – the tiny caps on the end of cells that shorten as we get older. Scientists generally refer to the length of people’s telomeres as a sign of how quickly they are ageing.
Likewise, a study published in the journal Circulation found that middle-aged people who began a two-year programme of brisk walking or jogging for 30 minutes, four or five times a week, were able to reverse age-related stiffening of their arteries. Far from giving in to the sallow pull of middle-aged limitation, many of us are the fittest we’ve ever been. Cindy Crawford and Drew Barrymore have posted gym selfies and yoga videos on Instagram, while Davina Mccall has reached new fitness heights – swimming the Channel in her 40s and qualifying as a personal trainer at 50.
I have tried to keep fit since my mid-20s. But it was always with the same goal: to be thin. I did back-toback aerobics classes and ran five times a week in my 30s.
By the time I reached my 40s, my knees were ruined and I had Achilles tendonitis. I was forced to slow down, so took up yoga and qualified as an instructor at 42. But while the poses calmed me down, they still didn’t give me the lean, toned body I wanted. So, in my mid-40s – and deep into a midlife crisis – I got myself a personal trainer. She got me to stop running, start walking everywhere and do strength training in our twice-weekly sessions together.
After six months, I was lean and had dropped that last 5kg. But what kept me going was how good I felt: I could walk up and down stairs without pain, and even run again, albeit slowly, with zero ankle or knee issues. I was properly fit. Looking better in a bikini was just a bonus (honest).
So at 49, I decided that I would qualify as a personal trainer. Despite being old enough to be the mother of all the other students on my course, I was also one of the fittest and strongest.
The older we get, the more life forces us to face our own mortality. Watching my loved ones succumb to cancer, dementia or immobility – things exercise has been shown to help keep at bay – has finally helped me to understand why exercising when you get older is about so much more than being thin.
Sure, I want to look nice in jeans. But you know what I want more? To be able to get out of a chair without that geriatric “oof ”. Hell, I want to be able to stand up on long train journeys when I am 70, and not complain about it.
Do you want that, too? Here’s what I’ve learnt about secondlife fitness…
Muscle wastes – so build it
Each decade after 30, your muscles decline by 3-8 per cent – a process known as sarcopenia. Muscle has a higher metabolic rate than fat, so the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn during exercise and rest.
“Muscle requires more blood and oxygen to be supplied to it than fat, and that increases the energy expenditure the body has to do to maintain it,” explains Prof John Brewer, head of sport and exercise science at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.
One study from the American College of Sports Medicine asserts that muscle loss is the single greatest contributor to age-related decline in metabolism, and claims that by adding just 2-4lb of muscle to your body, you could burn 100 extra calories a day at rest (that’s 3,000 calories in a month, enough to lose 1lb).
And it takes a surprisingly short time to build muscle. One study, from the Harvard School of Public Health, followed 10,500 men aged over 40 for 12 years. It found that, of all the activities they did, weight training for 20 minutes, three times a week, had the greatest effect on preventing agerelated abdominal fat (in other words, middle-aged spread). “Muscle builds up quickly, even from the first session, when you get sore. That minor damage repairs itself and you become stronger,” says Prof Brewer. “Within two weeks you should see benefits.”
Weight training helps control blood sugar
The soaring rate of type-2 diabetes in the UK suggests that we need to know this – not least, as it’s far more likely to develop in middle age. Weight training helps control blood sugar levels in patients with type-2 diabetes, and one analysis concluded that resistance training should be recommended in the prevention and management of the condition. Moreover, it might actually help age-related bone loss, too. With age comes a decrease in oestrogen for women, a hormone
By adding just 2-4lb of muscle, you could burn off an extra 100 calories a day
that helps with calcium production. Studies from Glasgow Caledonian University found that strength training improved bone density in the post-menopausal.
Know what works
But middle-aged fitness is not created with weight training alone. This is the decade to find out what works for you and do it: leaving fads to the young ’uns. That means understanding that fitness has three main pillars. First strength, achieved by resistance exercise – anything from your own body weight (say, a push-up) to free weights, such as dumbbells or
resistance bands. Secondly, we need flexibility, because becoming more flexible means our muscles can contract and expand during everyday life, when sitting, standing or reaching up to a shelf.
Thirdly, we need endurance, which is achieved by doing cardiovascular exercise, such as brisk walking, running, cycling or swimming. The Strava research also found that the two things that worked for the over-40s were setting goals and training with friends.
Exercise smart, not hard
We know that overtraining for sustained periods may lead to weakened bones, burnout and even abnormal heart rhythms. But it can also tax your immune system and hinder fat loss. That’s thanks to cortisol, a hormone emitted by the adrenal glands in response to prolonged mental or physical stress.
Exercising too hard has been shown to affect immunity because of cortisol overload, which has also been associated with an increased risk of storing fat around the middle. Not to mention, you’ll probably just get sore and give up.
LISS is the new HIIT
There was a point when everyone was talking about high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to burn fat. But HIIT – short bursts of exercise at high intensity – is tough on the body, so it needs to be built up to and – in my opinion – limited to around once a week in middle-age.
Low-intensity steady-state training (LISS), on the other hand, done at 70 per cent of your maximum heart rate, is ideal for burning fat. Think of anything that leaves you quite puffed and not quite able to hold a conversation – for example, brisk walking, cycling, power walking or dancing.
A few LISS sessions are essential. Slowly begin to increase your pace or the length of time you do LISS training for, because your body becomes more efficient, the more you do. Or add some HITT training into your routine.
The ideal weekly line-up is three or four sessions of LISS that last 35 minutes or more; resistance training about two or three times a week, stretching before and after; and perhaps a yoga or Pilates session.
I used to wonder when I saw those people in the gym who would be swinging their legs back and forth, and side to side, or making fast circles with their arms.
Now, I know they were doing dynamic stretching, which is the best type to do at the start of your workout because it helps release synovial fluid into your joints. This is the prime lubricator of bones, making you more mobile and decreasing injury risk. As we get older, the amount of synovial fluid our bodies produce declines – cue joint pain.
Do eight to 15 reps of four dynamic stretches before exercise, and focus on the body parts you’ll be working. For example, before resistance training, do 20 fast squats with your arms swinging down and up overhead. You can also try leg swings, arm rotations and shoulder shrugs.
After your workout, do static stretches. That’s where the stretch is held for 10-15 seconds to release the muscle. Stretching afterwards is essential, because your muscles contract during exercise and need to be stretched adequately in order to prevent soreness and injury. Again, focus on the parts you worked most.
Anna Magee is editor of Healthista.com
As we get older, our bodies produce less synovial fluid – cue joint pain
Active ageing: research from Strava has shown that the most active age group in the UK is the over-40s. Anna Magee, below, decided to qualify as a personal trainer at the age of 49
Life cycle: research found that setting goals and training with friends were two things that worked for the over-40s