Exercise for the Ages

While regular physical activity is a cornerstone of wellness at any age, it’s during your 30s, 40s and 50s that exercise becomes especially important. These may be the busiest years of your life, and staying physically fit helps you keep up with all the demands. Plus, these are the decades when you’re setting the stage for healthy aging down the road. Staying physically active can lower your risk for developing many diseases associated with aging, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and colon cancer.

Whatever your age, a well-balanced exercise program should include aerobic activity, strength training and stretching. You need all three types of exercise at all stages of life. But the right mix of activities and the best approach to doing them may change over the years. Here’s how to get the most health benefits from exercise and stay in tip-top shape throughout your 30s, 40s and 50s.

In your 30s

This is the decade when you’ll probably notice the first subtle signs of aging. Maybe you’ve started putting on weight or now crash on the couch every night after a long day. Even if you’re still active, you may notice that your body doesn’t bounce back quite as quickly as it once did. On a positive note, you probably have a more mature take on health than you used to and may have more money to spend on recreational activities.

This is the time to establish habits that will last you a lifetime. Aim for a balanced mix of aerobic, strength and stretching exercises. “Try shaking up your fitness routine every three months by adding new exercises and emphasizing different muscle groups,” says Michael Richardson, M.D., an internist in Charlotte, N.C. This reduces the potential for unevenly developed muscles or excess wear and tear on one body part, he says.

Active playground games such as dodge ball and kickball are enjoying a resurgence among 30-somethings, notes Mary Frances Visser, Ph.D. If you love soccer or basketball, consider joining an adult league. Your muscles are capable of more explosive power and speed now than they will be later.

In your 40s

This is the decade when the long-term consequences of earlier lifestyle choices are starting to become more apparent. For the first time, you may be seeing people your own age having heart attacks or getting sick with lifestyle-related illnesses such as diabetes.

If you’ve been inactive in the past, now is the time to change your ways. On a positive note, you’ve reached an age when you’re able to appreciate planning for the future. It’s much like stashing away money for your retirement. "The time you spend exercising is an investment in your body," says Dr. Richardson.

Strength training becomes especially important after age 40. It’s a classic “use it or lose it” scenario. Without adequate exercise, muscular performance tends to decline at a rate of about 5 percent per decade after age 40. This steady weakening can eventually affect people’s ability to do everyday activities, such as carrying a bag of groceries. Strength training is one key to avoiding frailty in old age. “People who lift weights regularly have less joint pain and injury,” says Dr. Richardson. “Their muscles, ligaments and tendons are both stronger and more flexible.”

Don't forget about flexibility. “Your body tends to stiffen up after you reach your 40s,” says Shirley Archer, a certified personal trainer, health educator and author of The Strength and Toning Deck. Regular stretching is more essential than ever. In addition to a few minutes of stretching at the end of every workout, you might want to consider taking a yoga, tai chi or Pilates class. Look for one that’s suited to your ability level, because some classes are more challenging than others.

In your 50s

This is the decade when you’re ready to enjoy the fruits of your past labors. You may be at the peak of your career or have grandchildren who are an important part of your life. Taking good care of your body is crucial for making the most of these years. For women, the onset of menopause may mean increased concerns about bone loss, heart disease and weight gain. For men, the physical changes at midlife are more gradual, but they’re still there.

After age 30, bone is being broken down faster than it’s being made, leading to a slow loss of bone mass in both sexes. After menopause, however, the rate of loss accelerates in women. The result is an increased risk for osteoporosis, the disease in which bones become thin, fragile and easily broken. Weight-bearing exercise is crucial for everyone’s bone health, and it may slow bone loss in middle-aged and older people. Examples include jogging, stair climbing, tennis and walking. Lifting weights will also help keep bones strong.

We often take our ability to balance for granted. Yet impaired balance is a major cause of falls in older adults. To help prevent this, work balance training into your daily activities now. For example, stand on one foot while doing the dishes or brushing your teeth. Try doing a set of balance exercises two to three times a week. Your health care provider or an exercise professional may be able to suggest specific exercises to try.


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