Exercising to lose weight?
Adjust your workouts to accommodate your body’s age-related changes.
By Linda Melone, CSCS
As a self-confessed exercise addict, Ellen Albertson, PhD, 53, psychologist and wellness coach in Burlington, Vermont, did it all. She took dance lessons as a child, started lifting weights at age 18 and ran track in college, eventually becoming a fitness trainer in her late 30s. “At that point I was under a lot of pressure to be in great shape,” she says.
Albertson eventually gave up her work as a personal trainer by the time she reached her late 40s. “It was a good thing, actually, because all that exercise began hurting my joints. I was exhausted and in pain all the time.” She also began feeling the effects of age. “My knees and lower back bothered me, and I noticed I didn’t recover from injuries as quickly,” she recalls.
Gone are Albertson’s high-impact workout days. She still stays active by doing “a little yoga,” lifting weights to keep up her muscle mass and walking her dog an hour or so each day. But she no longer runs. “My knees ache if I do,” she says.
Exercise is crucial to keeping your weight under control as you age. According to a Harvard School of Public Health study, weight training plays a key role in keeping belly fat, the kind that is metabolically hazardous, in check. The researchers, writing in the journal Obesity, found that men who lifted weights for 20 minutes a day had less of an increase in age-related abdominal fat compared with men who spent the same amount of time doing aerobic activities.
As Albertson discovered, though, age-related changes can make it tougher to get going. That makes finding ways to modify workouts crucial.
Physical alterations that occur with aging can affect recovery times and increase injury risk. For example, tendons, which attach muscle to bone, become more brittle with age, says David Geier, MD, orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in the Charleston, South Carolina, area. This may be due at least in part to the fact that tendons lose water over time, making them stiffer and less tolerant of stress. (Smoking has also been shown to damage tendons.)
“Tendons become less resistant to sudden changes, so you’re more likely to take longer to recover,” says Geier. “And many people often find themselves with nagging tendonitis,” or inflammation of the tendon.
Pushing through tendonitis can result in the tendon breaking or rupturing, which can lead to permanent disability if not repaired. Geier cites the case of a 51-year old patient who needed surgery for a torn Achilles tendon after he began doing sprints.
Bones can also weaken with age. Osteoporosis, a loss of bone mass, isn’t just a women’s problem; Geier says it can happen to men as well.
Weight-bearing exercises help to build and maintain bone density. Examples of high-impact exercise include dancing, jumping rope, climbing stairs and tennis, as well as hiking, jogging and running. Low-impact activities include elliptical training, using stair-stepping machines and fast walking.
If you’ve broken a bone due to osteoporosis, you may need to stick with low-impact exercise; check with your practitioner first. “Impact is not usually harmful if you don’t have osteoporosis,” says Geier. “Running has been shown to actually help cartilage strength. Stop if you feel any discomfort or pain.”
Aging muscles start to shrink as well. Called sarcopenia, this condition is characterized by 3% to 8% reduction of muscle mass each decade after the age of 30. This muscle loss results in less strength and affects the ability to perform activities of daily living, making it a risk factor for a disability later in life.
Fortunately, this loss of muscle is not inevitable if you keep active; strength training can help. “Exercise later in life is even more important than when we were young,” says Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise science at Auburn University. “Growth hormone increases after vigorous workouts, so use these workouts as a way to raise your anabolic, aging-reducing hormones.”
Sarcopenia before age 70 is primarily due to being inactive, says Olson. “Research shows that strength gains are the same for people as old as 80 participating in regular strength training sessions. It’s never too late to start.” Walking quickly, water aerobics, riding a bike on mostly level ground, playing doubles tennis or pushing a lawn mower all qualify. Vigorous activities include jogging or running, swimming laps, riding a bike fast or up hills, playing singles tennis or playing basketball.
If you’ve not done much of anything for a while, get started by walking outdoors, suggests Tim Ramirez, DC, founder of Pacifica Wellness in Costa Mesa, California. “It’s not only non-impact, but it engages you, keeps you in the moment and connects you with nature,” he says. “If you’ve been out of shape for 10 years, though, you need to start slowly.”
You can also try this simple cardio program for beginners:
• Walk 10 to 20 minutes, three to five times a week, at an easy pace
• Swing your arms freely, step gently and avoid locking out your knees
• Stay close to home or in an area with rest stops in case you need to take a break
• Add five minutes after a week and every week after, until you can walk continuously for 30 minutes
• For a greater challenge increase your speed and/or incorporate hills
Muscle-strengthening exercises should work all the major muscle groups. “As you age you’ll want to increase the repetitions and decrease the weight,” says Geier. “If you’ve been exercising, there’s no need to cut back on the number of days you work out, just modify the resistance.”
Aim for two to three sessions a week, 8 to 12 repetitions per activity, which counts as one set. Start with one set and work your way up to two or three sets. Exercises that target each muscle group include:
• Legs: squats, lunges, step-ups, hamstring curls, calf raises
• Hips: hip extensions, bridges, inner and outer thigh exercises
• Back: seated rows, dumbbell rows, pull-downs, pull-ups
• Abdomen: crunches, reverse crunches, oblique twists, bicycle, bird-dog
• Chest: push-ups, dumbbell chest presses, chest flies
• Shoulders: overhead presses, lateral raises, front raises, reverse flies
• Arms: biceps curls, triceps extensions, push-downs (triceps)
It’s also important to focus on core and balance, says Ramirez. “Look for balance exercises where the hands are away from the body and your abdominals are engaged (tightened, as if someone’s about to tickle you).”
Tai chi and yoga both help with balance, core stability and strengthening. In fact, a March study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed that six months (more than 20 sessions) of practicing tai chi reduced the risk of an injury-causing fall by about 50% when compared with a group of participants that received leg-strengthening exercise instructions. In another study, eight weeks (two 60-minute classes and one home practice per week) of yoga improved the physical and mental well-being of people with two common forms of arthritis, knee osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (The Journal of Rheumatology 7/1/15).
Allow adequate recovery time. “It may take longer to recover from an intense workout as we age,” says Olson, “but recovery from moderate intensity workouts is not that different.” For high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts, the collagen in joints takes longer to rebuild; you may need two days to recover versus one.
Always stretch out only after your workout or after a thorough warm-up (gentle cardio for five to ten minutes). “Jump on a spin bike, sit in a sauna or do something to better increase blood flow and then work your way into a typical stretch routine to fight the loss of elasticity in the tendons and ligaments,” says Olson.
You can deal with aging if you keep moving, says Ramirez. “The better you take care of your body the better it’s going to perform. The biggest problem that happens with age is neglect.”
Stiff, painful joints explain why some people are reluctant to get off the couch. The most common cause is osteoarthritis, marked by pain, inflammation, swelling and reduced range of motion. It is estimated that up to 27 million Americans over the age of 25 show some evidence of OA.
OA develops when cartilage—the protein that lines bony surfaces within the joint—begins to break down. In some cases, the damage is so severe that the bones begin to rub against each other. The joint space may narrow, and bony spurs may develop.
As much as it may hurt initially, exercise is one of the best ways to prevent OA or slow its progression. Physical activity stops the vicious cycle of pain—less movement—more pain. In addition, yoga, tai chi and acupuncture have been found to reduce OA pain and improve quality of life.
Proper nutrition can also help ease OA and make joints less prone to achiness. Omega-3 fatty acids, the type found in fish oil, can help counteract inflammation, while the body uses vitamin C to create collagen, a protein found in cartilage. What’s more, studies have found a link between knee OA and low levels of vitamin D.
The best-known anti-arthritic supplements, glucosamine and chondroitin, are components of a substance found in cartilage; they are sometimes combined with an anti-inflammatory called MSM. (TendoGuard provides this vital protein as collagen hydrolysate, along with hyaluronic acid and other natural substances, in a form readily used by the body.) The plant Boswellia serrata has long been used to relieve joint pain in Ayurvedic medicine; a patented extract called ApresFlex offers better absorption and greater effectiveness than standard preparations.