Turning fifty is a great turning point in our lives. We’ve raised families and seen our kids (and maybe grandkids) grow up. We’ve had successful careers and made a real impact with our work. Yet when we hit the gym all of this success seems to fade away and we feel old and sore relative to the younger kids pressing iron all around us. Before you know it we’ve taken our workout to the elliptical or resigned ourselves to just walking for exercise.

That is a shame because the quality of our exercise is the single most important determinant of how we age.

No matter what outcome we look at – cognitive function, falls, disease, heart attacks, strokes – physical fitness over 50 is the most important factor leading to health.

Yet going beyond walking is often hard work, as we explore tentatively the limits of what a 50+ body can do. We know that our bodies feel different at 50 than they did at 25, but how best to make use of that knowledge to get the most out of our second 50 years on this planet? You can be sure that your average mid-twenties trainer doesn’t know the answer.

So, here are five proven tips for fitness over 50 to help you boost the benefits from your exercise and take your health and fitness to a new level. Note: to download these tips as a printable PDF, click here.

Fitness over 50 Tip #1: Take the time to warm up properly.

One of the most damaging ways to derail your fitness is to get injured. An injury at any age can sideline your workouts, but after age 50 the damage is harder to undo.

A torn rotator cuff, sprained back, or twisted knee can keep you on the bench for weeks to months, during which you’re likely to gain weight and lose muscle.

Your goal should be avoid injuries so you can continue to progress with your fitness routine. A solid warm-up is your best defense against injuries both in the gym and in the outside world.

Warming up enhances stretches out your muscles and enhances the blood flow to your muscles and tendons to prepare your for your workout. Studies have shown that a 20-25 minute warm-up can reduce injuries by up to 77%.

The best warm-ups are ones that focus on the body parts that will be used during your workout.  For a full-body cross-training workout, you really want to warm up every muscle and pay special attention to these  three injury-prone areas:

  • Shoulders
  • Back
  • Hamstrings

Check out this post for a great warm-up exercise you can do at home.

Fitness over 50 Tip #2: Work on power instead of strength.

Most of us do the same things when we hit the gym: twenty minutes of cardio followed by some resistance training.

There’s nothing wrong with improving strength or cardiovascular fitness, but research shows that this type of training offers minimal benefit when it comes to improving your functional performance over time.

Most of us have experienced this ourselves – how often do you put in the time on these types of exercises only to see that your body hasn’t changed a bit? The reason is that we’re missing an important component of training: power.

Power training improves your ability to move a load quickly, whereas strength training just measures the load, not the rate at which it is moved. Studies show that after age 50 it is power, not strength, that determines your fitness and ability. This translates into more effective stair climbing, traveling, lifting and all the other tasks that go into enjoying life after 50.

The maximum gains in power are achieved when moving a resistance of about 60-70% of maximum at about 30-40% of the maximum speed. This means the resistance should be relatively heavy and the speed should be faster than usual but not blazingly fast. The weight is then returned to the start position under control and the movement repeated.

On all three measures of functional ability, power training is better than strength training:2

 

fitness over 50 resistance training vs power training

 

Fitness over 50 Tip #3: Push yourself hard.

Ask a bunch of 20 year olds what they do for exercise and you’ll get as many answers: sports, gym, running, swimming. Ask a bunch of 60 year olds and you mostly get one answer: walking. Somehow when we turn 50 we forget everything about vigorous exercise and slow down to a more gentle pace. It turns out that this decision to hang up our track shoes in favor of lighter activities plays an important role in how long and how well we live.

To illustrate this, there’s no better study of cardiovascular health than the Harvard Alumni Health Study. Looking at over 17,000 people followed over fifteen years, this study looked at how the intensity of exercise impacted the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

The average participant was about 57 years old and burned an average of 2,000 calories per week. Their exercise was divided up as light, moderate or vigorous. The interesting thing is that it didn’t really matter how much time the participants spend on light or moderate activities – there was little association with cardiovascular outcomes. Only those who participated in vigorous activities saw a decline in their risk of heart attack or stroke, and that risk got less the more they did.

Another interesting fact is that we lose about 1-2% of our cognitive function (brain power) per year after we turn 50. Vigorous exercise, but not light exercise, completely reverses this trend, adding the same 1-2% back to our brains. So whether you are looking to live longer or live better, upping the intensity of your workouts is critical to success.

One major benefit of vigorous activity is that it greatly reduces your total time in the gym. Working out in short bursts of high intensity allows you to get all of the benefits of exercise in much less time than you would spend walking or on the elliptical.

Fitness over 50 tip #4: Get full range of motion.

All too often we allow years of sitting behind desks to shorten our muscles and rob us of our flexibility. Stopping this decline and reversing it to restore full mobility is one of the most important goals of fitness after 50.

The decline in flexibility and power is most readily seen in the SIT/RISE test. This test has been shown to correlate with life expectancy, with poorer performance boding poorly. This simple test correlates flexibility and power with life expectancy. Here’s how you can take the test at home:

  • Stand upright
  • Then sit down on the ground
  • Now get back up again

You start out with a score of 10 (5 points each on the way down and on the way up). Every time you use your hand, knee, or leg for support as you go up or come down, you lose a point.

This sit/rise test might seem trivial, but it is no joke. Walking or using the elliptical will do nothing to help you get up after you fall. What will help improve your score is an exercise called the “burpee”. To do this exercise, simply lie down with your face toward the floor and get back up again. Repeat as many times as you can. When performed quickly, the burpee is a great way to improve your range of motion, flexibility and power.

Here’s an approximation of average life expectancy based on your SIT/RISE score:3

Fitness over 50 and the Sit/Rise Test that correlates balance and power with flexibility. You can improve your score by doing high intensity training at ages 50, 60, 70 and beyond

 

If you are stiff and have limited range of motion your scores on this test will drop accordingly. Improve your power and range of motion and your scores will quickly climb back to the ideal range, possibly adding years to your life.

As we discussed, walking or hitting the elliptical won’t help you get up after a fall or help you rise from a seat. This might seem trivial, but wait until you lose it and you’ll see that “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” is no joke. One exercise that is easy and effective is to simply lie down on the floor and get back up again. Done quickly, this is called a burpee, and is a great way to improve range of motion, flexibility and power in the upper and lower body.

Fitness over 50 tip #5: Work on your balance.

What we take for granted at age 25 and even 50 is not so easy at 60 or 70. In fact, in an easy test of balance, our performance declines 25% from 50 to 60 years old, then another 50% every 10 years after that. This means that by the time we are 80 our balance is close to zero.

The loss of balance as we age is due to multiple contributing factors, including diminished vision, loss of nerve ending called proprioceptors that communicate position information to the brain, and loss of muscle power and flexibility.

The good news is that balance, like anything else, improves the more you work at it. The major problem is that most exercise routines don’t take this into consideration. In fact, the typical walking or elliptical followed by resistance training using machines or free weights doesn’t work balance one bit. You can be exercising all day long and still trip over the curb at age 75 and wipe out, breaking your hip. But incorporate balance training early and often, and you’ll be as functional at 80 as you are at 50.

Here’s a simple balance test:

  • Stand straight and cross your arms.
  • Lift one leg and close your eyes.
  • Keep time until you lose balance, touch your foot to the ground, uncross your arms or tilt sideways more than 45 degrees.

Here are the stats for different age groups:4

Fitness over 50: Simple test to improve your balance at 50, 60, 70 and beyond

 

For a printable version of the fitness tips, click here.

 

 

References:

1. Jakobi, J. Functional benefit of power training in older adults. Journal of aging and physical activity. 2007

2. Paffenbarger, J. Associations of light, moderate and vigorous intensity physical activity with longevity. American Journal of Epidemiology 2000.

3. Araujo, C.  Ability to sit and rise from the floor as a predictor of all-cause mortality. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 2012.

4. Moffat, M. Age-Defining Fitness, Peachtree Publishers, 2006.