Even as a fitness professional, albeit one who came to it later in life, my frustrations with the industry are not insignificant. Looking at it from a customer’s point of view it seems to me that the overriding image is of testosterone fuelled gyms and bootcamps, often promoted with images of sculpted bodies in cropped tops where the heavier the weight you lift and the higher the repetitions the better. Even the more mindful solutions such as pilates and yoga present with super bendy, lycra-clad women contorting themselves into a range of unimaginable positions.
I wonder what percentage of older women (and in fact the female population as a whole) identifies with these? My guess is that many more are put off and their confidence to participate is undermined.
If you Google ‘exercise for older women’ you find either very frail or impossibly healthy, smiley, slightly fake looking women. What happened to normal people who just want to work on their fitness because they know that there is so much to be gained? The media has done a very good job of extolling the virtues of regular exercise and its role in disease prevention, mood enhancement and quality of life (albeit with a confused array of fixes!) yet the fitness industry has not responded with enough appropriate solutions, in particular for women who are beyond their 20’s and 30’s. I had a client come to me recently having taken part in a ‘over 50’s boot camp’. She ended up injured as a result of an exercise prescription that was either wholly inappropriate or delivered with a lack of instruction, knowledge and care. This is both unnecessary and inexcusable.
The recipe for health and wellness for women in the second half of their life does not need to be so difficult, and understanding the physiological changes that we experience should be at its heart (no pun intended!!).
1. Muscle: muscle mass can start to decrease from the age of 40 (known as sarcopenia), affecting not just function but also our base metabolic rate, the rate at which we burn calories at rest. If we do not actively take steps to reverse this the decline will continue, impacting on our ability to do all sorts of daily tasks that we take for granted: getting out of a chair, in and out of the car, or carrying shopping.
2. Bones: the density of our bone decreases over time, in fact once we have reached 30 we have already hit our peak bone mass. This decrease is even more marked in post menopausal women as oestrogen levels decline. Bone loss is greatest in the 5-10 years post menopause and we lose up to 5% of our bone density per decade once we hit 50. The good news is loading the bones through the correct type of exercise will help to strengthen and encourage new bone to be laid down.
3. Joints: as we age joints tend to become stiffer and the fluid that lubricates them may decrease. The less a particular joint is encouraged to move through its full range, the more pronounced this will be.
4. Heart and lungs: the heart is a muscle too and therefore needs to be trained and conditioned to keep it functioning at its best. In so doing, it will adapt and become more efficient, so that it is able to push out more oxygen to the body in one beat – the reason why resting heart rate declines as cardiovascular fitness improves.
5. Motor skills: coordination and balance become increasingly important, not least to prevent trips and falls, a key contributor to premature death. It is estimated that 1 in 2 women over 50 will have an osteoporosis related fracture and shockingly, 1 in 5 women will die in the 12 months after suffering a hip fracture.
Exercise for older women: the ideal solution
With the above in mind, it therefore makes sense that the exercise prescription for older women is multi-faceted and effective solutions will be very individual. However, I recommend that you try and include an element of each of the following:
1. Weight training – a scary thought for many but it does not need to involve sessions in the gym. Simple body weight exercises such as squats, lunges, press-ups or planks (choose the right variation for you) are extremely effective and can be done anywhere. Using exercise bands is also useful and very versatile. Aim for 2-3 sessions a week and do get someone to check your form before you start to avoid injury.
2. Cardiovascular training – current guidelines suggest 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise which can be broken down into small chunks. Choose something that will get your heart pumping and breathing more heavily but you should still be able to speak! Good examples are brisk walking, cycling, jogging, zumba, aerobics, swimming, or Nordic walking. Work up to doing at least 20 minutes in one session.
3. Flexibility – much underestimated and yet so important to our quality of life. Post exercise stretches can be almost an afterthought, and there is definitely a place for regular and more prolonged stretching which will deliver an immediate sense of wellbeing. Don’t forget to breathe deeply as you stretch and think about sending the oxygen to the area you are stretching – it helps!
4. Mobility – making sure that you keep using and moving your joints. Shoulders, hips and spines are particularly susceptible to stiffening up and need regular attention. All exercise sessions should contain a warm up and mobility component at the beginning, but there is no reason why you can’t help to keep your joints mobile just by moving them – swinging and circling your arms and legs, side bends, gentle twists with the upper body will all help, as will avoiding prolonged periods of sitting.
5. Balance – critical in the prevention of falls and so important to include in your weekly plan. There are lots of balance exercises to choose from but you can start by standing on one leg to see how you get on (hold on to something if necessary to steady you) and as you improve close your eyes while doing it – it’s much harder!
Time for action
Allocating just half an hour a day to your health and wellbeing is perfectly possible and will allow you to implement much of the above. Some things can be combined e.g. warming up before a weight training or cardiovascular session will take care of the mobility, as will the actual session itself as you’ll be using many different joints. Balance exercises can be introduced here too.
Take a hard look at your diary and the way you spend your time and resolve to move yourself up the priority list – not only are you totally worth it but you’ll be improving the quality and length of your life too. What could be more important than that?
Let me know how you get on.