Staying Fit Through the Ages
By Tracy Morin | Photography courtesy of Envision Fitness and Shutterstock
Learn how to make your workouts work for you at any age, and you’ll reap a literal lifetime of health benefits.
Regardless of age or current fitness level, there’s an exercise regimen that’s right for you. But in order to make the most of your efforts, it’s a good idea to take your life stage into consideration. Yes, a teenager’s capabilities and needs are going to differ greatly from a senior citizen’s, but that’s only part of the picture. The optimal approach is based on more than straightforward human biology or even the habits we may have practiced so diligently in our childhood years.
“On the journey of fitness in life, you want to look at not only what you’re capable of and what your needs are, but at your mental and emotional state in each decade,” explains Mark Akin, co-owner of Envision Fitness and Downtown Yoga in Memphis, Tenn. “Just because we’re good at something or invested a lot of time into it when we were younger, doesn’t mean we’ll like it for the rest of our lives, or like it in the same way.”
Feeling mystified when it comes to the facts of fitness? Fear not — Akin takes us through general guidelines that we can keep in mind while staying active at any age.
Teens. For teenagers, a physical activity routine establishes the importance of movement at a young and impressionable age, setting the tone for a lifetime of healthier habits. Also, on the positive side, this age group recovers more easily from injuries, so it’s a good time to experiment with different types of workouts, which can offer many benefits.
“With teens, you introduce the idea of movement and how fun it is, as well as use fitness to build confidence in themselves, and understand how the body moves and works,” Akin says. “Teenage bodies are changing so much, and they get to know how good it feels to set goals and meet them — a skill that will carry them through life.”
Though the teen years offer up a wonderful opportunity to get started on the path of fitness, health, and well-being, Akin does share some caveats. Parents or coaches should remain flexible with a teenager, keeping in mind the concept of balance. Pushing them too hard can quickly extract the enjoyment from their practices. Teens also require proper motivation so they’re able to stick with the practice long enough to see results.
In other words, daily discipline and hard work are musts, but this is also a great time for exploration and discovering what forms of fitness they like best.
20s. Anyone who’s passed through the decade of their 20s fondly recalls the spryness and boundless energy of that youthful time. So, it’s no surprise that Akin considers this age as the decade to have fun and go “all in” on fitness.
Whether that activity takes the form of powerlifting, marathon running, or competing in triathlons, 20-something bodies still recover fairly quickly, so they can push themselves and see what their bodies are capable of. It’s also a great time to find out what practices are most enjoyable, while taking advantage of having a bit more free time in the years before marriage and family obligations.
However, as is also true for teens, younger demographics can get mentally stuck on insecurity and the opinions of others.
“This is the time to internalize that this is for you,” Akin emphasizes. “It’s not about an Instagram post or looking better than your neighbor. Feeling like you’re not good enough leads to shame and self-loathing, and that’ll sap all of the joy out of your fitness journey. This is the time to decide what success looks like to you.”
30s to 40s. With human longevity at an all-time high, these decades are no longer weighed down with the stigma of “middle age,” but they do remain a time for transitioning from the exuberance of youth to habits that will help sustain health over the long haul.
“You’re still strong enough to push yourself, but you start to become aware that you can’t do what you did in your 20s,” Akin says. “We don’t have to baby our bodies — you can still go hard — but you can’t outrun a bad diet, and this is the age where that starts to show up. Going to the gym two or three times a week may not be enough to maintain anymore.”
Therefore, focus on three factors to enhance overall well-being: sleep, flexibility, and nutrition. Because muscle grows during rest, not during exercise, sleep is key for repairing the body and reaping the benefits of fitness routines. Meanwhile, practices like yoga and Pilates can increase flexibility, and low-impact exercises like long walks (done in addition to higher-intensity workouts) can calm the central nervous system while not overtaxing the body.
Though volumes could be penned on nutrition, Akin offers pared-down, practical advice: Listen to your body — eat when you’re hungry (not because you’re bored or angry) and stop when you’re not. And eat healthy most of the time; out of 15 meals, make 10 or 12 of them healthy.
Finally, years of sedentary living can catch up to us at this age, with desk jobs and extended sitting periods leading to atrophy of the gluteal muscles. That leads to pain in areas like the back, knees, and ankles. Counteract this with exercises that engage the glutes!
50s to 60s. Recovery time (including sleep), flexibility, and nutrition remain important in the 50s and 60s. And, though it’s slightly more difficult to build muscle during this time period, Akin stresses that it is absolutely possible through proper care of the body.
“We tend to get less experimental and more settled into a routine when we’re older, but it’s okay to always be curious and maintain that sense of discovery,” Akin notes. “Core strength is also important. Don’t be afraid to lift weights — and, yes, they can be more than three pounds. This is more important than ever, especially for females, because building muscle with resistance training strengthens our bones. It also helps promote better posture.”
However, whatever exercises we choose, it’s important to make sure they’re done correctly, because connective tissues may wear a bit at this age. Proper form prevents injuries such as torn ligaments or muscles.
70s and older. Akin admits that giving blanket advice for the 70-and-older age group is a difficult task, as this category can include everyone from lifelong fitness enthusiasts to committed couch potatoes. The good news? For those in the latter category, it’s never too late to start. Aim for exercises that can boost flexibility, and be very mindful of injury prevention, since muscles tighten as we age.
“Focusing on exercises that will preserve our balance and agility is very important,” Akin adds. “It’s important to be able to change direction without falling down, because that will prevent the typical accidents that may happen when we’re older.”
For example, many people might enjoy walking or running at any stage of life, but those exercises require only forward movement. Akin instead recommends agility training to be able to make those directional changes, which enhances our ability to connect movement with our brain. Developing these skills at any age can be literal lifesavers in our later years.
Note: Consult with your physician before starting a new fitness regimen.