If in the old days it seemed like you ate anything you wanted without gaining an ounce—and now just the thought of cheesecake makes you fat, it may not be your imagination.
Beginning at about age 30, your metabolism drops by 2 percent per year. Over time you may notice weight gain and loss of fitness without making any changes to your normal routine. Add hormonal changes in women and aging for just about everyone, and you can see why it’s more difficult to keep physically fit.
Don’t throw in the towel just yet. You can achieve fitness at any age. Research shows that getting regular, moderate exercise and following a healthy diet will reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes, and can improve those conditions if they already exist. Other benefits, according to the Mayo Clinic, include having greater control of your weight, being able to sleep better, having more energy because your heart and lungs are working more efficiently, enjoying a happier more relaxed mood (and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression), and an enhanced sex life.
How much do you need to exercise to reap the rewards? The Center for Disease Control recommends that adults at any age engage in moderate physical activities for at least 30 minutes, five or more days per week. The National Academy of Sciences suggests that everyone strive for an hour of physical activity per day.
The good news is that you can break those 30 minutes into smaller increments. If getting on a treadmill for 30 minutes seems like an onerous task, take three 10-minute brisk walks around the office building or neighborhood each day.
If it’s been awhile since you’ve exercised, don’t go from zero to 60. That’s how you get hurt.
“It’s pretty hard to hurt a 20-year-old,” says Dr. Mark A. Lafferty, chair of the science department at Delaware Technical & Community College. “But as you get older, you have to change your focus and your approach due to the natural arthritic changes in the joints. Take it slow and easy, and avoid ballistic movements.”
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After age 30, when you have reached your maximum bone density and strength, you begin to lose muscle mass at a rate of about 2 percent each year and you burn fewer calories. In your 40s and 50s, when there is bone density loss, a reduction in cartilage, tissues become thin, and you don’t have the rebound capacity to recover as quickly, you’re more prone to injury.
At Pro Physical Therapy centers throughout Delaware, some common injuries doctors see are to the Achilles and patella tendons, and lateral epicondylitis (“tennis elbow”) because “Blood doesn’t get to areas of the body like it used to,” says Ray Wahl, vice president of operations. “We see a lot of people with back pain which has a lot to do with lack of core strength. They’re not as fit as they once were to stabilize themselves.”
“I think exercise is the cure for almost anything,” says Barbara Monaghan, personal trainer at Kirkwood Fitness in North Wilmington, “especially core conditioning for a strong core and back.” It helps with osteoporosis, too, by making the bones and muscles stronger.
Women are four times more likely to develop osteoporosis than men, according to the Cleveland Clinic, and women over the age of 50 have the greatest risk. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that women who walked four or more hours per week had 41 percent fewer hip fractures than those who walked less than an hour a week.
Walking is good for heart and respiratory health, and part of the three-pronged approach to fitness that Monaghan recommends: cardio, flexibility and resistance (strength) training. “Women 50 and up usually like to do cardio—and Zumba is really big—to burn fat,” says Monaghan, and suggests the optimal heart rate for safe and effective cardio workouts for people over age 50 is 40 to 60 percent of maximum. But they need resistance training, too. “Resistance training replaces that fat with muscle, which boosts metabolism and burns more calories.”
Before starting any fitness program, however, Lafferty recommends that people see their physicians—especially those with conditions like heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis or fibromyalgia—and that they begin with a functional movement screen.
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“This is the biggest screening tool out there,” Lafferty says, and it’s offered for free through Delaware Tech’s Exercise Science & Technology program. The FMS analyzes any imbalances or limitations to normal functioning. A trainer can then provide exercises to correct those imbalances.
“If you’ve been sedentary for awhile, be very conservative when starting to exercise again,” says Wahl. “Start slowly. It takes four to six weeks to develop soft tissue, to get your muscles and tendons used to the stress, and to build up your endurance.”
“Once they correct any imbalances and develop those soft tissues,” Lafferty says, “even people in their 50s and 60s can progress to do very advanced exercises.”
When Master Gene McClone began his martial arts training at age 51, he was very inactive and a self-proclaimed “fat guy.” Now at age 72 he’s more fit than men half his age, and he’s a black belt and instructor at Gentle Palm Martial Arts Academy in Claymont. McClone says he works really hard six days a week to keep fit, integrating martial arts, stretching, cardio through fast-moving floor work, and tai chi to keep his feet on the ground.
“Early on it was all physical: Get the body in shape,” McClone says of his martial arts training. “Somewhere in the process I became more tuned in to training the mind and spirit, and that made training physically much easier.”
In the martial arts, students learn how to be progressively better in every way. “Know your limitations but don’t let them become permanent. Everything can be improved upon,” McClone says. “Always be better tomorrow than you are today.”