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The keys to maintaining — and improving — your fitness are the same at any age: It’s all about how hard, how long, and how consistently you exercise. Your ability to handle the stress of exercise is what changes.

“The first thing aging fit people usually notice is that we don’t recover as quickly from our workouts,” explains elite triathlon and cycling coach Joe Friel, author of more than a dozen books, including Fast After 50 and the Training Bible series. “We might also be feeling a loss of power. Hills seem steeper and we will probably see certain performance markers declining.”

So, start slow and build — and be kind to yourself, with ample rest and recovery.

Stretching

Stiffer joints are an almost universal complaint as we age. Movement of any kind floods joints with oxygenated blood and helps build mobility and flexibility. As you get older, stretching becomes more important than ever — and feels better than ever.

Gently stretch before and after exercise, plus as often as you like during the day. You might also try a yoga class, water exercises, or other movement classes such as SilverSneakers.

Balance Exercises

A declining sense of balance is a common and early factor of aging, often beginning at age 40 or 50; falls are the No. 1 cause of accidents for people over 65. This can be due to inner-ear issues, vision issues, lower blood pressure, and slowing reflexes as well as declines in muscle and joint strength.

“A lot of older adults ignore or are unaware of the importance of balance exercises in their routine. When you get older, they are as important as strength and aerobic training,” says physiologist and researcher Anoop T. Balachandran, PhD, assistant professor at the City University of New York’s Queens College. “Drugs could lower the risk of breaking bones from falls, but exercise will prevent you from falling in the first place.”

He recommends simple exercises such as standing on one leg, and straight-in-line, heel-to-toe walks. If these seem easy, try doing them with your eyes closed.

All strength-building exercises — especially core-strength work — will aid your balance.

Strength Training

Many people concentrate on cardio exercise as they age, but Friel explains that age-related declines in fitness are primarily due to loss of muscle mass. “If you want to be highly fit, focus first and foremost on your muscles. Your heart will follow suit.”

Regular resistance training can help you retain — and regain — muscle mass at any age, Friel says. “Forget the myth that you can’t build muscles in your 60s and 70s. Though it may not happen quite as quickly as in previous decades, you definitely can. Sedentary people of all ages, including those in their 80s, have successfully improved muscle strength with weightlifting.”

Cardio Training

The heart, too, is a hard-working muscle, and you need to challenge your cardiovascular system and aerobic capacity to keep it strong.

Earlier studies suggested that older people were not as responsive to aerobic training as their younger counterparts, but recent research has reversed this theory, according to exercise researcher David C. Nieman, DrPH, FACSM, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at North Carolina’s Appalachian State University. “There is now a growing consensus that gains in aerobic fitness are similar, albeit at a lower level for the elderly. In general, the same basic exercise programs used for young adults can be applied to the elderly, but with an emphasis upon greater caution and slower progression.”

Nieman explains that maximal aerobic fitness, or VO2 max, normally declines 8 to 10 percent per decade after 25 years of age. “At any given age, however, people can have a much higher VO2 max if they exercise vigorously and keep lean. Studies of masters athletes show that those who are 65 to 75 years of age can have the VO2 max levels of young sedentary adults.”

Cardio training can be as simple as a spirited walk or gardening session to get your heart working harder than normal. Or you can step it up with interval training — brief bursts of high-intensity exercise alternating with low-intensity periods. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) strengthens the aerobic system by increasing the heart’s pumping capacity and the blood vessels’ elasticity. HIIT can be high- or low-impact; pushing effort and your rate of perceived exertion are key.

If you’re going to do intervals, start easy; too much too soon can result in injury.

Rest and Recovery

When you stress your body with exercise, you are forcing muscle and other tissues to break down; your body then needs time to “supercompensate” and recover, rebuilding and getting stronger in the process. You can tell you need this rest and recovery when you’re fatigued, have sore muscles, are lacking motivation to exercise again, feel irritable, or, counterintuitively, are sleeping poorly. Nutritious meals and sleep are ideal recovery tools.

This was excerpted from “Fit for the Ages” which was published in the November 2021 issue of Experience Life magazine.

Michael
Michael Dregni

Michael Dregni is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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