The biggest question older adults ask about health and fitness is: Is it too late for me? I am middle-aged and I haven’t done anything. Can I still get fit and turn my health around?
My answer? Of course you can.
Healthy diet and a good exercise program can still make a difference. Used together you can slow down the cellular aging process by 50%.
A study by Dr. Ralph Paffenbarger of Stanford followed more than 17,000 Harvard graduates for more than 25 years. He found that burning at least 2,000 calories a week through exercise adds a year or more to your life.(1)
If you want to be independent, active, and feel good through the second half of your life you have to exercise and eat right. The body is designed to stay active.
If you aren’t active you will begin to degenerate. The diseases that doctors used to assume came with old age have turned out to be the diseases of an inactive lifestyle.
This is a long post but I wanted to have the information in one place. (I hate clicking through 5 five pages to read one article.)
I also wanted to give you plenty of practical ways to incorporate healthy habits into your everyday life. This is real-world advice for real people.
Fitness after 40
If statistics are correct, you have either been married for a while or are recently divorced. You may be reentering the dating scene after a long break away from it.
You have kids at home and a mortgage payment to worry about. Work is stressful.
You eat out a lot. Your parents are getting old and, if they don’t require care now, are heading in that direction. You are operating on too little sleep and not enough time.
Sound familiar? This is generally the decade where life gets the most complicated. You have a lot of outside commitments and a lot of debt. Add to that a lower energy level and it’s no wonder over 50% of people in their 40s don’t exercise.
Unfortunately, this is also the decade where everything starts catching up with you. If you are part of that sedentary 50% you’ve probably noticed that your old habits have made you put on some extra pounds.
Starting around your mid thirties you start to lose muscle. This slows down your metabolism.
Do you really need a real-world translation? The diet that allowed you to keep a steady weight in your twenties and early thirties will put an average of 3-5 pounds per year on your body. By the time you hit your 40’s you are looking at a 10-40 pound weight gain.
Most of this weight has probably settled around your middle and on the backs of your arms. Gravity has given you a more ‘droopy’ appearance.
And muscle loss is giving you an aching back. Even if you’ve kept pretty active you’re probably noticing that the same amount of effort isn’t giving you the same sort of results.
I don’t mean to depress you. But if you want to look good and feel good you have to know where you are starting.
Anyone who has ever had to navigate through a strange place knows that the only way to get to where you want to go is to first know where you are.
The same is true about weight loss. Once you know what you’re up against, you can do something about it.
Every fitness manual and personal trainer advises you to ‘consult your doctor before beginning this or any other workout.’ It is a good idea in general and for a person in his or her 40’s it is now mandatory.
Go and get a comprehensive, ‘40,000 mile’ inspection. Everyone should get their blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked, along with a physical.
Get weighed and ask your doctor for a healthy weight goal. Find out if there is any exercise that you need to stay away from based on any underlying medical conditions or past injuries.
Don’t be discouraged by what your Doctor says.
Your 40’s are a pivotal time period. This is when most people decide, consciously or not, if they are going to age well or fade into a fragile senility.
New research shows that almost all the symptoms we associate with getting older are really only diseases of inactivity. This means you really are only as old as you let yourself become.(2,3)
Exercise is the critical ingredient to a long and healthy life. A 20 year old can live on diet alone because he or she has youth on their side. That is no longer an option for you.
I can hear your objections piling up already. You already have so much to do. How are you supposed to fit in exercise?
Good question. Fortunately, you already have the answer. Don’t believe me? Check this out.
How to Find the Time to Exercise
Pull out your calendar and a piece of paper. Write down, hour by hour, a couple of your typical days. Most people have two or even three different versions of them.
You have the days you have to pick up Jr. from soccer, the days you have to work late, and who knows what else. That sort of thing.
Write down from when you wake up to when you go to sleep. Fill in the time you spend watching television.
Don’t forget to add in the time you need to commute between your various activities. Pencil in the time it takes you to shower, dress, etc.
No matter how crazy your life is I bet you’re watching a couple of hours of T.V. a night. Am I right?
Or maybe you spend time on other ‘filler’ activities. Do you surf the web after work? Well knock it off. THAT is an order. Your life is complicated enough without adding more challenges.
Easier said than done, I know. But you are going to have to shed some of your filler activities if you want to shed some pounds. It is as simple as that.
Highlight those filler activities.
Note: If you have an activity you do regularly to decompress, and it isn’t eating, drinking, watching T.V. or checking email, don’t highlight it.
Maybe you talk to your best friend on the phone every night. Or perhaps you read a magazine or work on a craft.
It is the activity that consistently leaves you in a better mood than you when you started. If you are lucky enough to have something like that, then keep doing it. It is a necessary activity.
You will need an hour to an hour and a half’s worth of time out of each day. In the beginning you’re only going to be working out for 20-30 minutes.
The rest of that time is for getting to where you’re going to exercise, and for showering and changing afterward. As you get into your routine you will spend more time exercising and less time getting ready for it.
What? An hour and a half for exercise! Impossible, you say.
I have to watch the season finale to Mad Men. I’m too tired. I don’t have the money for a gym membership. My local gym sucks. My neighborhood isn’t a safe place to walk at night. It’s snowing outside. I don’t have enough room to exercise inside, etc. etc.’
Let yourself think of all the reasons why this program won’t work. You might want to write your reasons down.
Now treat those excuses the same way you treat your kids when they start whining. Nod your head and then make yourself do it anyway.
Crumple up that paper and throw it away. Those objections are just suggestions that you are free to ignore.
Every time they surface, give them a mental ‘Uh huh, uh huh, you’re right’ as you put on your workout clothes and go exercise. Don’t beat yourself up for not wanting to exercise.
Just get in the habit of ignoring your inner whiner. That little voice may never completely go away, but if you start ignoring it, it will lose its power over you.
At this point you have found a free hour or two.
Now you have a decision to make. Will you exercise during that time slot, or shift other things into it so you can exercise at a different time during the day?
For example, if you have the hours of 8pm-10pm free, is it better for you to exercise then, or to move some of the things you do in the morning into that slot so you can exercise first thing?
The answer is really up to you. Are you a morning person or a night person?
Some people find that they won’t exercise right after work. They’re tired, hungry, and unmotivated.
Others just can’t get up at 5 in the morning. It messes them up for the entire day. All things being equal, pick the time that works for your body rhythm.
Having said that, I have to put in a plug for exercising in the morning because- stuff happens. You know that.
If you get your exercise out of the way before you start your day, then life can’t get in the way of your health. But either way, choose a time slot you will actually use, and stick with it on a consistent basis.
How to Get Started Exercising
…If you’re sedentary… If your idea of a workout is a round of golf on the weekends or playing with your kids, then you are sedentary.
Under no circumstances are you to put on your sneakers and try to go running for an hour or do hard-core aerobics. You are not twenty anymore.
You could put yourself out of commission for a month or more. We can get you to the point where you can pass for early thirties but you are not there yet.
You need a minimum of three exercise days. You will be working on these three areas: Cardio health, Strength, and Balance.
Add days as you progress, until you’re working out 6 days a week. Don’t panic.
You are a few months away from that right now. Do one set of the following exercises the first 2-4 weeks.
As they get less difficult to do, add a second set. Progress slowly. You aren’t in a race.
…If you’re active…
If you already workout at least three days a week for thirty minutes you qualify as active.
Those of you in this camp can be divided into two groups: Those that do just cardio work and those of you who do both cardio and strength training.
You will eventually work on cardio, strength training, and balance, but you will want to focus on raising the intensity of your weight training workout.
Muscles equal youth. The more lean muscle you have, the younger you will look and feel.
Start with two sets of the strength exercises the first week and add a second set in somewhere around week two or three. At week four, put in a third set.
The balance exercises will focus on your core muscles. If you have back pain, these are the exercises that are going to make that feel better.
A strong core improves your posture, protects you against pulled muscles, and will help your balance. You will be more coordinated, which translates into fewer fitness and “lifestyle” injuries.
You know what I’m talking about. Have you ever sneezed or reached down for something and pulled a muscle? A weak core is the culprit.
Start with one set the first two weeks. This is an area that most people ignore except for the occasional sit-up.
Go slowly. Add in a second set only after you can do one set correctly. Add a third set after you can do two sets correctly.
1. Heart rate monitor. This little tool will help you calculate if you are working hard enough or too hard. You don’t have to buy one right away, but make it a priority after you get in your exercise routine. Buy a heart monitor that calculates your optimal beats per minute range. You could also look for an app for your smartphone that will measure your heartbeat. This one is pretty inexpensive (free!).
OK, here comes the part where you exercise.
…For the sedentary… This will take up one day out of the three minimum days you will devote to exercise. At this point you want to perform an activity that raises your heart rate and makes you sweat for 20-30 minutes.
For some of you, walking around your yard or up and down your street will do the trick. For others it will take a power walk around the neighborhood, a stint pedaling on a stationary bike, or walking laps in a pool.
Beginner aerobic videos also count. Pick two or three activities you can do regularly.
…For the active… You will want to perform your cardio workout three days out of six. Do it every other day.
The stair stepper machine at the gym is a great option because you can get an intense workout without jolting your joints or back muscles. If you have access to a gym, try the other cardio machines or consider an aerobics class for variety.
Your body adapts to exercise quite quickly—you will want to change things up so you continue to see an improvement.
A Master’s Swim club is a great way to keep the intensity up and make new friends. You will have access to a swim coach, who will design a workout based on your fitness and swimming ability. The United States Masters Swimming organization at USMS.org can help you locate a swim club in your area.
…For Everyone… Once you start exercising regularly you will quickly see improvement. Remember to assess how you feel after each workout.
It is normal to feel a little sore, but if you feel can’t get out of bed for days, then back off. You need to progress, but do so slowly.
Add an extra minute to your exercise each week. Or raise the intensity of the workout by swimming faster, or raising the intensity on the exercise bike for a short amount of time. As long as you are working hard, small changes will produce big results.
This is your key to losing weight and looking young. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn even when you’re sleeping.
Beginners, you will be doing your strength training on one of your three days. Those of you who are active should pick two out of your six days to work on strength.
Everyone thinks of weights when they think of strength training. Weights can work, but they aren’t the only way to build lean muscle.
The truth is, you don’t need any equipment to get strong. Bodyweight exercises are super effective no matter what shape you are in.
If you buy a yoga mat, a couple of resistance bands, and a weight ball, you can have a complete home gym that you can store under your bed or on a shelf in the closet. Better yet, you can buy all of this equipment for less than $50 total.
…For the sedentary… Start slowly with one of the exercises below. Do one set each for the first week or two before adding a second set.
…For the active… Start with two sets of the exercises below, adding a third after the second week.
Squats (Lower back, butt, hamstrings)
Stand with your back to a chair. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Pull your belly button towards the spine. Lower yourself down as if you are about to sit in the chair. If you’re advanced you may want to touch the chair with your rear, but don’t rest on it. Lower only to the point you feel comfortable and hold for a count of 2. Come up slowly, squeezing your rear. Keep that stomach tight and your knees behind your toes to reduce stress on your knees while gaining muscles in your thigh. Beginners do 3, Advanced do 8. This is one set.
Lunges (Lower abs, hamstrings, quads, butt)
Stand up straight, belly button pulled toward your spine. If you haven’t done these before you will want to use a chair for balance, but don’t hang on it. Take a comfortable step forward. Keep your back straight and keep sucking in that belly button. Bend your knees. Hold for a count of 2, then come back up, squeezing all the way. Do the other leg. This counts as one. Beginners do 3 sets, Advanced do 6.
Push-ups (Chest, lats, upper back, stomach)
There are three main variations of this exercise: For the absolute beginner (or for someone who has difficulty getting on the floor) stand one or two feet away from a wall. Put your hands on the wall and do your pushups there. For the intermediate exerciser get down on the floor and do your pushups on hands and knees. For the advanced exerciser do full pushups on your hands and toes.
For everyone… Keep your stomach in tight and your back flat. Do your pushups in front of a mirror if you aren’t sure you’re doing it right. Lower down as far as you comfortably can. Push up until just before you lock your elbows. Don’t forget to breathe. Beginners do 1-3, Advanced do 3-10. This is one set.
Use either a weight or a resistance band. If using a resistance band, put the band under your foot, making sure the band is even on both sides. Stand up straight, suck in your belly button, and curl the weight up as you count to 2. Extend back down as you count to 3. Beginners: 5 reps, light weight or easy resistance band. Advanced: 8-10 reps with appropriate weight or resistance band. This is one set.
Use either a weight or a resistance band. Bend your knees and lean forward with a flat back. Pull your elbows up toward the ceiling, hands by your hips. In this position push your hands back toward the ceiling on a count of two. Come back to the start position while counting to three. Beginners: 5 reps. Advanced: 8-10.
These exercises may be really hard in the beginning. But fortunately for you, these are the muscles that are already used to working out.
All of your movement begins in your core (the muscles of your pelvis and trunk). These muscles will respond quickly to a consistent workout.
Both beginners and advanced should do this work-out a minimum of once a week. As you progress you will want to add one or two of these exercises to your other exercise days.
Bridge (Back, stomach, butt, thighs)
Lay on the floor with the bottoms of your feet on the ground and your knees bent. Pull your belly button into your spine and raise your hips off the floor. Your arms should be flat on the ground. Hold this position for 10 seconds. Beginners repeat this 2 more times, Advanced – 4 more times.
For anyone who is advanced and looking for a challenge, get into the bridge position, then try extending one leg (so that you are balanced on one foot while still in the bridge). Hold for 10 seconds. Alternately, you can put the weight ball between your knees and perform a regular bridge.
Quadriped (This works everything)
Get down on the floor onto your hands and knees. Pull your belly button into your spine and keep your back flat. Squeeze those butt muscles. Beginners: Raise one hand as if you are pointing at something in front of you. Hold for 2 counts and lower. Do the other side. Do 2 more on each side. Intermediate/Advanced: Assume the same position. Raise one arm and the opposite leg. Hold for a count of 2. Do 4-6 more on each side.
Plank (This works everything)
Lie on your stomach. Come up onto your elbows. Beginners: You will be on your elbows and knees. Keep your back flat and pull your belly button in. You want to get to the point where you can hold this for 20 seconds. Just concentrate on holding it as long as you can in the correct position. If that is 3 seconds at first, so be it. This is one set. Advanced: You will be on your elbows and toes. Hold for twenty seconds. Check out our Basics of Plank exercise post for more info.
This is not a wimpy workout. Exercise doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective. Do this workout consistently and you will see results.
Exercise will help make you fit and strong. But if you want to show off those muscles to the best advantage you need to eat a diet that leaves you glowing with health.
How to Eat after 40
I put the exercise portion of your total body overhaul first on the list because it is the one area that most people fight the hardest. Nutrition, on the other hand, has the opposite problem.
Everyone nods along when we hear that we should be eating better. Most people will even admit that they don’t eat the way they know they should—but then they don’t do anything about it.
‘I don’t have enough time. I don’t know what to eat. All of those diet plans are so confusing. I don’t know where to start. It’s impossible to lose weight when you don’t have time to cook.’
I hate to say it, but some of those excuses have a kernel of truth in them. The best ones always do.
Consider this section your get-real guide to eating right. We will cut through all of the fad diets and talk about a sane, healthy, and effective way to lose weight and gain health.
Eating right is really all about common sense.
The fad diet pushers would like you to believe that they and only they can give you the body you so desire. They act as if losing weight is a secret that you have to learn from them.
Then again, they want your money, don’t they? If you believe that some weight-loss guru has the holy grail of thinness, then you will probably pay whatever they ask to get into the thin and fit club.
You know what? They are lying to you. Losing weight isn’t a big secret.
It isn’t complicated. And you already know what it is.
Don’t believe me? Let’s review it and tell me if I’m telling you something you don’t already know.
Eat Fewer Calories than You Burn
Calories count. Always. Anyone who tells you any differently is lying.
If you want to lose weight you have to take in fewer calories than you burn. It’s as simple as that. But you already knew that deep down.
All of those diets that claim that you can eat unlimited quantities of your favorite foods and still lose weight look good for a reason. They sound like a way to cheat to get what you want.
You’re right. You are cheating. But unlike school, you can not fool your body for long. It will all catch up to you.
The one part of weight loss that can be complicated is figuring out how many calories you should cut to permanently lose weight. This section is going to explain it to you so you can figure it out for yourself.
One pound of weight is made up of 3,500 calories. If you want to lose that pound, you have to burn 3,500 more calories than you take in.
If you want to lose that pound in seven days, you need to cut 500 calories out of each day. Some people (and you know who you are) are already thinking that if they can cut 500 calories out of their day and lose a pound, then cutting 1500 calories out of your day is three times better because you can lose 3 pounds.
This sounds very logical. If this were a math problem in class it would make perfect sense. ‘If Johnny has $3,500 and he gives away $1,500 a day, how many days will it take for him to go completely broke?’ But this doesn’t work in real life (at least where your weight is concerned) and I’ll tell you why.
Because the Starvation Mode
Let’s look at an example. If you were to try and drive across the country without refilling your gas tank what would happen? Your car would drive until you ran out of gas. Then you would be stranded.
Your body is a lot smarter than your car. When it detects that you are eating too few calories it enters starvation mode.
Your metabolism slows down. Your energy level plummets.
It starts eating in to your muscle tissue. Any extra calories you do consume are going to be turned right into fat.
When your body thinks its starving, it does everything to keep you alive. This means, besides turning your body systems down it is going to turn your hunger level way up.
You will crave the high-calorie, high-fat foods that your body knows will keep you safe through whatever famine you are obviously going through.
When you eat too few calories, in other words, you have no energy, you crave “bad” foods, and you turn everything you eat into fat.
I don’t have to tell you that this is a recipe for weight gain, not weight loss, do I? Nobody can operate under these conditions.
Eventually you will slip up and eat everything in sight. Even stuff you don’t really like. Then you will get discouraged at your lack of will-power and give up.
This is what not to do. But we aren’t here to talk about how to fail. We’re here to talk about how to win.
What to Do if You Want to Lose Weight
1. Figure out how many calories you need to eat to survive. There is a mathematical formula that will help you figure out how much you need to eat to live. If you dip below this number you will enter starvation mode. Never, ever go below this number. Here is how to figure it out:
Calculate your BMR
BMR stands for Basal Metabolic Rate. It means the amount of calories you expend to run your body systems and lay in your bed breathing. Use the following equations to figure out your BMR:
[table id=7 /]
For Claire, who just turned 43, we want to figure out what her BMR is. She is 5’6 (167.64 cm) and weighs 168 pounds (76.36 Kg).
665 + (9.6 x 76.36) + (1.8 x 167.64) – (4.7 x 43)
665 + 733.56 + 301.752 – 202.1 = 1498 calories just to stay alive.
Now we add in your activity level. Take your BMR number and multiply it by one of the following numbers:
[table id=8 /]
Sedentary = little or no exercise
Light activity = exercise 1-3 days per week
Moderate activity = 3-5 days per week
High activity = Daily, high intensity
Let’s continue with our example of Claire, who we said has a BMR of 1498. She doesn’t exercise much at all excpet to walk to the coffee machine down the hall at the office. She is Sedentary, so 1498 x 1.2 gives us 1797.6 Calories to maintain her current weight.
Of course, you want to lose weight, not stay the same. To lose a pound or two a week, cut somewhere between 500-1000 calories out of your weekly diet. When choosing the amount of calories to cut, don’t let your calories for the day go any lower than 1200 for a woman.
This is the safest minimum number of calories you should eat. If we look at Claire in our above example, she could safely cut 500 calories out of her life (ending up with 1297) but not 1000. Her lowest calorie count for the day should be a minimum of 1200 unless she wants to go into starvation mode.
For long-term, pain free weight loss, start with a 500 calorie reduction. You will be able to keep this up almost indefinitely. Once you get used to this amount, consider reducing your calories further, if you won’t go any lower than 1200 or 1800 calories.
Of course, you can’t do any of this if you don’t keep track of how many calories you take in.
Keep a food journal. Write down what you eat and how much.
Just doing this may help you to lower how much you eat, but we aren’t going to rely on that. Buy a set of measuring spoons and measuring cups and use those to serve up your food.
Write everything down. Don’t go back to change it later. This isn’t school. The only person who loses when you lie about how much you eat is you.
After you write things down you have two options. You can either try to figure out your calories manually or you can let your computer do it for you.
Personally I think I have enough on my plate already. I’d rather let someone else work all the calculations.
There are online sites that will calculate your calories and keep track of what you eat day by day. MyFoodDiary.com or MyFitnessPal.com are good sites for that. There are also many computer programs you can buy to do the same thing—just make sure it comes with a large food database that you can update online.
The Good News Is…
The more you exercise, the more you can eat.
A word of warning: Some people think that exercise will allow them to eat anything and everything they want. Not true. But you can eat more than the guy who lies on his couch all night and still lose weight.
Let’s say we take our freind Claire from the example. Let’s say she decides to exercise at high intensity six days out of seven. Let’s see how that changes what she should eat.
BMR: 1498, High Activity: BMR x 1.725, so she needs 2584 Calories to maintain her current weight.
If this woman cuts out 500 calories a day, she has 2084 calories she can eat and still lose a pound a week. This is a lot of calories, especially when you use the good food guidelines I’ve posted here.
Once you figure out how many calories you ought to eat to lose weight, 25% of the battle is over. You will conquer another 25% when you write everything down and keep track of your calories.
Actually restricting your calories to your optimal range is another 25%. In other words, just following these simple guidelines is 75% of what you need to do to maintain permanent weight loss. The last 25% is what you choose to put in your mouth.
Once you begin exercising and eating right you will notice a difference. You will have more energy, feel more optimistic, and fit into smaller clothes. You will also lower your chances of having a heart attack or dying of cancer.
40 is a special age. It’s a time when you reexamine your life and take stock of the person you have become.
It is also the time to start getting your cholesterol, blood pressure, and body fat percentage checked. You can consider having your first mammogram.
If you take my advice you will do all of this before you start exercising. You may want to go in after three months of exercise and healthy eating just to see how much you have improved. That is purely optional, however.
(1) The Journal of the American Medical Association: Physical Fitness and All – Cause Mortality a Prospective Study of Healthy Men and Women
(2) Medibank: The Cost of Physical Inactivity
(3) Bulletin of World Health Organization: Physical Inactivity as a Risk Factor for Coronary Heart Disease
(4) American Psychological Association: Sedentary Lives can be Deadly; Physical Inactivity Poses Greatest Health Risk to Americans