The start of a new year and so, predictably, the papers have been full of what we all should be doing to get fit and healthy. Rather unpredictably, this year there seems to have been an increased interest in fitness for ‘older’ adults. Given that this is not normally a population that the media considers especially newsworthy, I was interested to read what they had to say.
While some parts of the coverage were better and more appropriate than others, I was left frustrated by a lot of what I read. At best it was so far away from my own experience of what the majority of women over 50 actually enjoy, feel comfortable…or even really need to be, doing. At worst it was wholly inappropriate. Researching online, there were some even more shocking examples. Well known ‘experts’ starting a workout specifically targeted at ‘seniors’ with no warm up, no stretch at the end and content that could have easily caused injury. Not great.
The sad fact is that often those people who choose a career in fitness are young, extremely fit themselves and have different priorities. Cultivating a six-pack and sculpting an Instagram-worthy body is not really where it’s at for the ladies I work with. What matters most is keeping healthy and fit for as long as possible, staying pain-free, preventing disease, and maintaining function and quality of life. Of course, the aesthetic benefits are welcome but generally just not at the top of the wish list.
We all have our own unique relationship with exercise. If you have never considered yourself a ‘sporty’ person (as I haven’t), then the thought of it often conjures up uncomfortable moments that we don’t want to repeat. It’s worth a rethink though. Firstly it doesn’t need to be like that and secondly, the benefits to our physical and mental health are so extensive that it would be foolish to ignore them. It really is the world’s only miracle cure.
Having worked with women, the majority of whom are over 50, for more than a decade, and seen some amazing transformations in the process, I thought it was time to set the record straight. If you are looking to live your longest, healthiest life, this blog is a guide to the most important considerations with regard to exercise. I’ll talk about what it is worth making the effort and why, how much to do and how often, and the key ingredients for success.
There are three areas I would consider essential:
Probably the thing that first springs to mind when we think of exercise, and the one that we seem to have a love-hate relationship with. However, the good news is that you do not need to push yourself so hard that you can hardly breathe, but rather just a little out of your comfort zone.
In order to realise the many benefits, your aim is to make yourself slightly short of breath such that you can still hold a conversation but you may need to breathe in the middle of the sentence. In other words, there is effort but it is not excessive (‘moderate’).
You can achieve this in whatever way you choose – walking a little faster than normal, swimming, dancing, cycling, climbing stairs, even doing the housework would count if it gets you a bit breathless. Find something that is not too much of a chore so you will be more likely to keep it going.
- Strengthens the heart and lungs so they function more efficiently and will be able to do a better job with less effort.
- Helps to prevent many of the major diseases including heart disease, strokes, and diabetes.
- Can reduce blood pressure.
- Regulates blood sugar.
- Lowers cholesterol.
- Speeds up metabolism. As cardiovascular activity tends to use the larger muscles and they need energy to fuel performance, it can assist in weight loss.
- Improves cognitive function.
- Relieves stress and boosts mood.
- Can help improve confidence and self esteem.
Guidelines are 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. You can break this down in whatever way suits you but it is better to keep moving regularly through the week rather than do it all in one go. If 150 minutes seems unachievable, don’t be put off. Start with what you can do and work towards it.
Tip: watch out that you maintain your effort level throughout – it is easy to slip back to the intensity you are used to!
Traditionally associated with body-building types working out in unappealing environments, strength training can seem pretty off-putting. Yet the benefits are too important to ignore. Finding a way to work on your strength is well worth the effort. It doesn’t have to be in a gym and no specialist equipment is needed. Your own bodyweight can be enough.
It’s a fact that muscle mass declines with age (sarcopenia). Studies suggest that we lose up to 5% of our muscle mass per decade from the age of 30. Yikes. This not only impacts on the aesthetic, but it has more serious implications on our ability to function. Including an all-round strength (upper, lower and core) component into your weekly routine can pay huge dividends.
- helps guard against sarcopenia.
- maintains function and our ability to carry on doing what we have always done.
- quality of life is improved and independence protected.
- building muscle elevates your base metabolic rate (the rate at which the body burns calories while at rest).
- increases bone density and helps prevent fractures and the onset of osteoporosis.
- improves balance.
- reduces the risk of getting injured.
- lowers cholesterol.
- better posture.
- promotes a positive self image.
Ideally 2 -3 times a week for a minimum of 20 minutes and including upper body, lower body and core. As before, start with what you can do and build up slowly.
Tip: slow and controlled movements are much more effective when strength training, Try not to use momentum or rush through.
3. Mobility and flexibility
An area of fitness that is often overlooked but just as important as the others. The ability of our joints to move freely and without pain depends, to a large extent, on keeping them them moving. If they don’t get used they get stiff, become more painful, and the range of movement more limited. The risk of injury will also increase. Mobilising all the major joints regularly can help a lot.
Tight muscles can also impact on joint function. Muscles tissue is bound together by fascia. Imagine a sausage and its outer skin. It doesn’t allow for much movement inside. If muscles are not stretched out the fascia becomes tight causing tension and pain, affecting alignment and limiting the ability of the joint to work correctly.
You don’t have to look very far to see the impact of our current lifestyle on this. Look out for hunched shoulders and rounded upper backs, a forward flexed body position rather, and heads that jut forward. They are often the signs of tightness and imbalances which would be helped by stretching. What’s more, it’s a wonderful stress reliever and that certainly counts for a lot right now!
- reduces stiffness.
- maintains healthy functioning of joints.
- improved sports performance.
- helps to prevent injury.
- better posture.
- relieves stress.
- improves quality of life.
Daily would be perfect but even a couple of times a week can make a big difference if done consistently. Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds.
Tip: breathe deeply, full and wide into the rib cage rather than in the chest, as you stretch. Not only will it help the quality of your stretching, it will also ground you and promote calm and peace.
Your 5 step guide to success
Procrastination is a terrible thing! Not only does it stop us doing what we know is the right thing, it also makes us feels rubbish in the process. Change depends on us flicking the switch in our minds, moving beyond thinking and actually doing. Leave any limiting beliefs that you might be harbouring behind. What was once true might not be any more.
Work out what the first step will be, no matter how small and get started today!
Being ‘busy’ is a sign of our times. It is sometimes worn like a badge of honour. But are we really so busy to want to miss the most important opportunity that, in itself, allows us live longer, happier, disease-free lives? And all for less than an hour a day. I am currently carrying out a covert experiment with the chef tracking how many hours he spends on his phone. The time drain is truly shocking and worse than that, his physical and mental health are impacted. Each of us has the same amount of hours in the day and we have a choice how we use them. It’s time to relook at our priorities. This video sums it up just perfectly:
Whatever you choose to do, make it something that you can say 100% you can commit to consistently. Grand plans are exciting but usually impossible to stick to. Have the grand plan if you find it motivating but break it down into small achievable chunks. Think of the tortoise and the hare – who had the last laugh?! The smallest thing done consistently delivers the biggest results.
4. Build up slowly
Try not to set yourself something that takes you too far out of your comfort zone. Yes, progression is an important principle in improvement but go too far to soon, and you’ll find yourself back on the couch. The guidelines above are something to work towards. If they feel out of reach right now, don’t rush.
Finding the best way to hold yourself accountable is key to keeping on track. Talking openly about your goal makes it feel more real and helps promote commitment. Enlist the help of other people to check in with you or even better, have them join you. It’s easier and more motivational when there are two of you encouraging each other. Accountability can be a little uncomfortable but it certainly turbo charges results.
I’d love to hear how you get on!
Note: don’t forget to check with a doctor before starting any new exercise programme, especially if you have pre-existing conditions. Always warm up at the start ad stretch at the end. Take advice from a qualified professional as necessary.