Exercise After the Age of 50

After the age of 50, we reach one of the many crossroads we must face in life. Do you stay active, strong, vital, and healthy? Or do you go the other direction and fall into ill-health and disrepair? An estimated 29.4% of women and 25.5% of men over 50 years old are classified as inactive, defined as only moving around enough for daily tasks¹. Staying in shape as you age has profound impacts on your healthspan. Healthspan boosting has become the new focus of those looking to slow down the aging process. We now know it isn’t just about adding years to your life – medications can do that relatively well. What the anti-aging community is prioritizing now are practices that will help us live just live longer, but better. This should be centered around remaining active. Whether that is primarily lifting weights or doing cardio is less important, although resistance training is far more beneficial than the traditionally prescribed aerobic style exercise. That doesn’t mean you have to be glued to the floor at your local gym or hire an expensive personal trainer to start getting into shape or maintain the progress you have made in the first 50 years of life, though. There are also some nutritional and hormonal considerations to keep in mind when training for fitness in your 5th decade and beyond as well as some training and recovery principles that need to be given special attention if you are wanting to positively adapt to the stress of exercise. 

We should start by going over what you shouldn’t do when exercising after 50. If nothing else, keep these things in mind and you will avoid potentially cataclysmic obstacles, allowing you to stay active and have a leg up on most people. The worst case scenario is meaning well and putting in the effort, but having the wrong information, causing you to hurt yourself resulting in a major setback. First and foremost, whether you are running, lifting weights, boxing, taking spin class, or any other route to your fitness, avoid doing too much too soon. Despite what some social media stars may say, overtraining is real, and your ability to recover from overly difficult exercise declines with age. Overtraining leads to injury and injury often leads to inactivity. Do the least amount of work possible at first and progress slowly from there. It is also wise to avoid exercises that are unnecessarily dangerous. Movements like behind the neck shoulder press, chest flyes, and ridiculously heavy leg presses are some of the most common sources of injury for young and old alike in the gym. Even exercises like deadlifts, squats, and bench presses should likely be modified to improve their risk to benefit ratio. There are no exercises or training modalities that absolutely must be done to stay strong and healthy after the age of 50, or any age for that matter.

Cardio/aerobic training is the kind of exercise that most doctors still recommend to their patients. The World Health Organization, looked at as the guiding light to health by the uninformed recommends: “Adults aged 18–64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week².” Although the actual act of doing cardio is less risky than lifting weights, you can absolutely overdo aerobic training as easy, if not easier than you can with resistance training. Jumping on an elliptical and hammering away for hours will burn a considerable amount of calories, however it will also drain recovery capital dramatically, pulling from resources required to bounce back and adapt to stress from every aspect of life. This is something that you must keep in mind as you get older because your ability to rest and recover diminishes over time. If you’re going to do cardio, do as little as possible and as infrequently as possible. In fact, we typically recommend that you stick to just walking for your aerobic training and that you incorporate it into your daily life. For instance, the benefits of going for a short walk after every meal are twofold. First, you increase your activity via more steps throughout the day therefore helping manage your weight. The second major benefit is that walking after a meal helps to mechanically digest your food and mitigates the postprandial blood glucose excursion (how high and for how long your blood sugar is elevated after eating). In reality, training after the age of 50 is much like it should be when you are younger. Unfortunately, in our youthful ignorance we tend to do far more than is necessary and ask far more of our body than it is able or willing to give. This can result in overtraining, injuries, or just burning out and not enjoying exercise anymore. This is a recipe for disaster because if you are not enjoying working out, it isn’t likely you will continue to do it for the rest of your life. What sane person would?

So how do you enjoy it? How do you continue to push yourself in the gym, on the running trails or wherever you chase health and fitness without choosing a life of inactivity and Netflix? Well the trick is finding what works for you, but allowing that to shift as your interest and goals do. 

We all instinctively know that we should be having fun while we’re at the gym. I mean, the guy that lifts more weight than the whole rest of the gym combined or has bigger biceps than Arnold must enjoy himself right? Having a good time while exercising seemingly contradicts a major misconception that has a grip on the health and fitness industry – the thought that you must work as hard as you possibly can, every single day, with no end in sight. This is untrue no matter what age you are but never more so than when you workout after the age of 50. It’s not that something terrible happens once the clock strikes midnight on your 50th birthday. However, by their 50’s, most Americans are in a considerable amount of disrepair and training the wrong way is only going to make it worse. For the sake of simplicity, there really is one form of exercise that is superior to all others. Resistance training is far and above all other forms of exercise for people of all ages but confers special benefits to those 50 and older. Incorporating weight training and low level daily activity into your daily life can facilitate a long, healthy life. Just do a quick google search for a list of all the health benefits of doing resistance training has on the human body. You likely don’t even need to get on your computer, just think about the average 60, 70, or 80 that has never exercised. Now compare that to someone like Arnold Schwarzeneggar. They are completely different organisms! Although his is an extreme case far on the muscle end of the spectrum, Arnold is now 72 years young and still hits the weights everyday. Outcomes from illness, infection, surgery, and other maladies improve nearly linearly with increases in muscle mass (lean body mass). With the rare exception of some athletes, your training focus past your 50’s should be sustaining and lengthening your health span. This is exactly why you don’t need to be lifting like a bodybuilder or joining a crossfit gym to be tested on how hard you can push yourself. Unless you want to; but know that route will likely lead to less progress in the long run.

By now you should be able to see the benefits of resistance training. Many people get stuck on the very first step – where to start. Start your weightlifting journey by mastering the big compound movements. These traditionally include the overhead press, deadlift, back squat, and bench press, as well as a whole host of others. You should almost certainly modify these exercises into much safer variations because they are inherently risky. Now that doesn’t mean you should rule them out forever, but certainly wait until your skill level has progressed and you feel comfortable with complex movements like the barbell back squat or deadlift. Until then, do variations of those lifts such as goblet squats, kettlebell deadlift, dumbbell bench press, and essentially unlimited other variations that train the same functional movement patterns as those big lifts mentioned before. The trick is finding which ones work well for you. That may take hiring a personal trainer or another kind of coach that can walk you through the process of weeding out what does not work. Just be sure to very clearly express your goals and intentions when meeting with a potential trainer. You don’t want to end up in the trap of doing the same workouts and exercises that particular trainer runs all of his or her clients through.

Your daily activity and habits make up a vast majority of your experience on earth. At most you should be in the gym for 60 or 90 minutes every day, which means the other 15 or so waking hours is spent elsewhere. This is why it’s so important to establish healthy habits and lifestyle practices that will contribute to your overall fitness as you age. Incorporating daily walks like we mentioned before, hikes, and generally staying active is crucial to your success in and out of the gym. No matter how hard you work in the gym, it won’t make up for a lifestyle that isn’t conducive to health.

Fitness trackers, while not entirely accurate, can be incredibly useful at allowing you to become aware of habits that may be detrimental to your health. Sitting for extended periods of time is quickly being identified as one of the next major health crises we are facing in america. Although it is human nature to look for reasons why we are inactive and unhealthy, sitting doesn’t appear to be just another scapegoat. Sitting for extended periods of time like most office workers do leads to incredibly low levels of calorie expenditure and therefore incredibly high calorie surpluses. Thus begins the spiral of becoming more and more unhealthy as the years go on.

Overall, exercise after you turn 50 does not need to change much if you are already being thoughtful about your training regimen before then. Finding ways to become more active throughout the day and lifting weights will take you most of, if not all the way to your goals. Remember, as we age our ability to bounce back from stress in every aspect of life declines, just ask anyone who has drank alcohol after the age of 30 for example. Do just enough to stimulate an adaptation or change in your body, and progress from there. Turning 50 isn’t the end of the world and you absolutely can get stronger, fitter, healthier, and happier with the right exercise and nutrition.

¹ ”CDC: Not Enough Adults Over 50 Exercise Regularly.” Oncology Nurse Advisor. Sep. 20, 2016. https://www.oncologynurseadvisor.com/home/cancer-types/general-oncology/cdc-not-enough-adults-over-50-exercise-regularly/
2 “Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health.” World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/factsheet_adults/en/

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