Yes, You Can Be Fit After 55

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12/14/2018

For 70-year-old Chris Ross, who lives in a New Jersey-based 55+ community, staying active is a huge part of his physical and mental well-being. That’s why he works fitness into his schedule five days a week, with a mixture of yoga and Silver Sneakers classes and group activities, like twice-weekly tennis matches with his neighbors. “My plan is to stay active,” he says. “I’ve met so many people in my age group who share my desire to stay physically fit.”

For older adults, regular physical activity (as long as you don’t have any limiting health conditions) helps maintain good health, along with more energy, improved mood, and better mobility, balance, and muscle strength. For optimal benefits, aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity like brisk walking five days a week, along with muscle-strengthening activities two days a week that target all the major muscle groups, including legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.

Ross packs more than enough physical activity into his week: 60-minute stretching sessions five days a week, two power walks, two 90-minute tennis matches, and 45-minute yoga and Silver Sneakers classes. “It’s great because there are so many people doing what I’m doing,” he says. “There are 40 people in my yoga class and 10 neighbors playing tennis with me.” There are many benefits to physical activity, especially as you age, according to the National Institute on Aging. One study indicated that exercise stimulates the brain’s ability to maintain existing network connections and forge new ones essential to cognitive health. Other studies from the University of Pittsburgh show that exercise increases the size of the brain structure that’s vital to memory and learning, in turn improving spatial memory.

 

 

While we can’t stop getting older, we can limit the amount that age-based changes limit our quality of living and activities.
Joey Daoud, New Territory Fitness

“While we can’t stop getting older, we can limit the amount that age-based changes limit our quality of living and activities,” says Joey Daoud, a California-based fitness coach and CEO of New Territory Fitness. “Embracing the idea of active aging is key to unlocking this potential fountain of youth.”

Priority number one

Find an exercise activity you like and stick with it. “The benefits that come with fitness will bring a positive impact to your life, no matter your age,” Daoud says. 

However, to reap the lasting benefits of fitness into old age, it’s important to keep progressing. A maintenance workout regime of doing the same thing over and over again won’t create the adaptations that have the lasting health effects for active aging, Daoud says. Here are four practices to try at home, outside or in the gym.

Walking or Power Walking

Walking’s one of the easiest ways to get off the couch and start moving. It helps strengthen your muscles, improve your balance and coordination, keep your joints flexible, and improve your mood. 

Walking, or another form of cardio like cycling or tennis, by itself won’t maintain muscle mass, though, so make it part of a well-rounded fitness program that includes stretching, strength training and higher-intensity workouts, Daoud says.

How to do it on your own: The best part about walking is that you don’t need anything except comfortable sneakers and a neighborhood sidewalk or trails in your local park to explore, soaking up all the nature sights and sounds.

Daoud says it's important to challenge yourself. “Increase your speed to power walking or jogging if you can, to elevate your heart rate,” he says. “You don't have to move fast the entire time. Embrace the Swedish style of ‘fartlek,‘ which means speed play. Vary your workout with periods of faster and slower walking or jogging.”

What to expect in a class or group

While you may not find walking classes, you’ll see lots of walking (and running) clubs. “Most clubs split up into pace groups, so people walking at the same speed stick together,” Daoud says. “You can also join a walking pace group, so you don't have to jog, but might feel the energy to walk faster.”

Social benefits

Walking can be a social activity when the pace is slow enough to chat. However, getting your heart rate up is key. “Think back to the importance of slightly pushing yourself,” Daoud says. “Do you need to pause the conversation from time to time to move a little faster?”

Yoga or Higher-Intensity Yoga

Yoga’s excellent for mobility, balance, and breathing. Higher-intensity or power yoga classes will score you more of a traditional workout, incorporating core movements and leaving you with the ‘muscle burn‘ feel you'd associate with a workout, Daoud points out. “Yoga helps me with core strength and stamina since I’m holding positions like Cat, Cow and Moonflower,” Ross says. “The attention to my breathing also mentally calms me down.”

How to do it on your own

There are lots of free beginner yoga videos online. “If you're concerned about your mobility and flexibility, search for seated or chair yoga poses,” Daoud says.
For an optimal experience, use a thick foam mat to protect your joints and bones, says Lindsay Gordon, a yoga instructor at Philadelphia-based CorePower Yoga.  
What to expect in a class or group: Even while you’re taking a class, this is your personal yoga practice. “You may see others doing postures you’re not capable of doing,” Gordon says. “With group classes, set expectations that it’s a practice, and you’ll come back again and again to work on flow, flexibility and breathing.”

Don’t feel pressure to do every pose, Daoud says. “The instructor should remind you of this, but you can always go into child’s pose to take a break.” He also notes that your instructor should offer modifications, if needed. 

Yoga's social benefits

There usually isn't much talking in a yoga session, but you can dial in your breathing and the soft music. “You'll find a greater impact in connecting with yourself, both with your internal dialogue and how your body is moving and feeling,” Daoud says.

However, group classes do build a sense of community. “You’re sharing a sacred space with others,” Gordon says. “Studios always have little areas where you can sit and pow-wow after.”

Strength Training

A well-rounded workout regimen includes strength training. “While studies have shown that getting older means losing muscle mass, those studies have been done on inactive aging populations, meaning the people they’re looking at are not working out,” Daoud says. In fact, a recent study done on an active aging group showed that with exercise and strength training you can maintain the same levels of muscle mass, keeping the function and independence you’ve been used to your entire life. Muscles don’t go away with age, but with inactivity, according to an article in The Physician, so it’s key to strength train three or four times a week.

How to do strength training on your own

“Start slower, with lighter weights, fewer repetitions and a lower intensity,” Daoud says. “Building muscle takes time, and if you stop training the gains will go away quicker – it’s a ‘use it or lose it’ deal.”

If you’re starting out, practice three sets of 10 to 15 reps of bodyweight movements like bicep curls or overhead presses without weights. When that feels easy, use a small set of free weights (perhaps even one-pounders) or resistance bands and do three sets of eight to 12 reps, aiming to keep good form. The goal is to increase your weight load. However, it’s good to work with a personal trainer first to build the right workout for your fitness level and physical ability.

What to expect in a class or group

You’ll learn the principles of strength training, resistance and repetitions, proper form, and breathing. Strength training moves include punches, squats with bicep curls and knee lifts, lunges, shoulder overhead presses and dips. Many strength training exercises can be performed from a seated position.
Social benefits: “When you’re in a group setting, the high energy of those around you keeps you motivated to push through the workout,” says personal trainer Britani Birchmeier, founder of Boca Raton, FL-based Britani Fitness.

 

 

When you’re in a group setting, the high energy of those around you keeps you motivated to push through the workout.
Britani Birchmeier, Britani Fitness

Functional Movements

Functional fitness exercises train your muscle systems to work together by mimicking movements you’d often do at home, like getting up out of a chair. For example, a deadlift requires you to bend at the waist and reach toward the floor, helping you retain the range of motion to easily pick something up off the floor. Lots of gyms offer functional fitness classes or incorporate these exercises into boot camps.

“Ideally, the body should be able to endure moderate to moderately high levels of physical stress to reduce the risk of injury,” says Brandon Hirose, a personal trainer at Crunch’s 59th Street location in New York City. “Developing a tolerance for higher work output through appropriate loading and increased rate of force production will build a more resilient body and confidence like no other. Older doesn’t mean not able-bodied.” 

A 12-week functional fitness regimen performed by older adults showed improved mobility, stability and hip and lower-back flexion, a reduced fall risk and perceptions of improved physical functioning and vitality, according to a study by The Cooper Institute.

 

How to do it on your own

While you can find functional fitness exercises online, consult with a personal trainer or coach to develop a program suitable for you to do at home. One of Hirose’s favorite exercises is the Turkish Get Up. “This exercise starts on the floor and requires you to progressively make your way to standing and return back to the floor,” he explains. “The ability to make your way to a standing position from the floor is an invaluable skill to have in later life.”

What to expect in a class or group

Functional fitness classes are often set up as circuit training, where participants move from one station to the next. Expect to perform weighted and non-weighted exercises like a wall-ball dynamic squat, a single-leg balance, a medicine ball overhead slam, modified pushups, crunches and the Superman pose (when you lay on your stomach and lift your thighs and chest off the ground and hold the position for a few seconds).

Group training helps you stay motivated

Like strength training classes, working the moves alongside others will help you stay motivated and keep good form, which is key to strength training.

A regular, well-rounded workout regimen of cardio, strength and functional training, and a relaxation-focused practice can help you enjoy a better quality of life as you maintain fulfilling friendships. “It’s true when they say, ‘healthy body healthy mind,’” Birchmeier says. “When you burn energy, and feel good on the inside, your mental-brain benefits are directly related. You’ll even see an energy increase long after your workout is finished.”

Is your coach or instructor tuned into you? When you join a gym or class, chat with your fitness professional about your age and fitness goals, injury and disease history, your fitness history, and any other concerns or limiting factors like sight or hearing.

“A solid coach or studio should ask you these questions unprompted,” Daoud says. “If they don’t, it could be an indicator that they’re not equipped to work with an older population and modify the program to you.”

Will your instructor accommodate all ages and fitness levels? “Attend classes that tailor to you and your needs,” says Lindsay Gordon, a yoga instructor at Philadelphia-based CorePower Yoga. “Tell the instructor if you have injuries or a limited range of mobility so he or she can make adjustments for you.”

For more information:

Silver Sneakers

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Institute on Aging

Study from University of Pittsburgh on memory and learning

New Territory Fitness

CorePower Yoga

The Physician and sportsmedicine article on activity

Cooper Institute study

What to Look for in a Gym

When you’re looking for a fitness facility to work out in and meet like-minded people in your age group, there are a few things to consider.

Is the class schedule robust and diverse? “There are many types of group workout classes, from dance classes to cardio workouts to boot camps,” says personal trainer Britani Birchmeier, founder of Boca Raton, FL-based Britani Fitness. “Keep trying different classes until you find what works best for you.”