These Tips Will Help You Stay Fit Safely — and Affordably — as You Age
“Never give up.”
That’s the first piece of advice Janet Hamilton has for people who want to stay fit, active and independent as they age. The Atlanta-based registered clinical exercise physiologist has trained people in their 70s and 80s to improve and maintain their health through exercise.
“Just because you see a number on your birthday card doesn’t mean that physical activity is no longer an option for you,” Hamilton says. In fact, she says, being physically active becomes increasingly important to our emotional and physical health as we age — and to our ability to live independently and take care of ourselves well into advanced age.
“Physical activity should be part of your life throughout your life. As long as both feet are on the right side of the earth, you’re good to go. You can start.”
Hamilton has an associate’s degree in physical therapy, a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in exercise physiology. She spent several years working in rehabilitation clinics, where she learned how to help people recover from and prevent exercise-related injuries before founding her own company, Running Strong Professional Coaching, in the late 1990s.
Hamilton is 59 and so has firsthand experience with the power and perils of exercising in the second half of life. “From a physiological standpoint, studies show that our bodies don’t function as well at 60, for the most part, as they did when they were 20,” she says. It’s easier to injure yourself, and it takes longer to recover at 60 than at 20. But that’s no reason not to exercise. You just have to be a bit more careful and mindful.
Start by Building Strength
As people age, they lose strength in their muscle fibers and other tissues. “This is a reversible process,” says Hamilton. “If you resume doing some exercises that challenge you, you’ll stimulate your body to rebuild those muscle fibers.”
She recommends some form of strength training, either with resistance machines or just body-weight resistance exercises like sit-to-stand or push-ups. Most people can maintain strength well with twice-a-week strength-focused exercises, she says, but if you’ve lost strength over time you may want to kick it up to three to four days a week at first.
How to Avoid Exercise-Related Injury
Exercise-related injuries are the same for any age, says Hamilton. The difference is that it takes longer for older people to repair and regenerate muscle, bone and ligament tissues. People in their 20s who could heal in six weeks might take nine or 10 weeks in their 50s.
No matter what your age, exercise-related injuries result from applying more stress than your body can adapt to. So be patient and consistent, especially when you’re just starting an exercise regimen.
If you haven’t been exercising regularly, it’s important to start small and work your way up to a more demanding workout to avoid injuring yourself. “Start with where you are, not where you think you should be. Don’t look at your neighbors who are your age and are fitter than you and say, well, that’s where I should start because that’s where they are.”
The most important thing Hamilton teaches is to respect the process. “Gaining fitness is a physiological process of adaptation that takes place on the cellular level, and it takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Listen to Your Body
Hamilton stresses the importance of listening to feedback from your body. “If something hurts, don’t ignore it. Sore muscles are not unusual when you start a new routine, but sore joints are another thing altogether.”
Sore muscles, she says, usually resolve in a couple of days and get progressively less noticeable the more you do the activity because you’re getting stronger. However, joints that feel sore and stiff all the time and seem to be getting more sore and stiff are a sign that you’re pushing things too hard too soon.
Vary Your Routine
Another way to avoid injuring yourself is to vary your routine so that you’re alternating slightly harder days with slightly easier days. For example, you might walk two miles one day, three miles the next day and back down to two the following day.
This hard/easy format, she explains, stimulates improvement because you’re asking more of your body on the hard days and giving it the opportunity to make physiological improvements on the easier days.
“It’s not during the hard work that your body improves… It’s during the periods between the harder days that your body has the ability to respond and get stronger. Stress plus rest equals adaptation. Stress without rest equals breakdown and injury.”
Regain Your Balance
In addition to maintaining tissue strength as we age, we need to work a little harder to keep our sense of balance to avoid falls and remain independent and injury-free.
One reason we lose our sense of balance as we age, says Hamilton, is that we do fewer activities that challenge it. “As a kid, you thought nothing about walking across a log bridge over a rushing stream, but as an adult — you may not have done that for a while.”
You can regain and maintain your sense of balance with simple activities that make you practice it, such as standing on one leg while you brush your teeth, or even taking a weekly dance class or a yoga or tai chi class for beginners.
Keep Your Budget in Shape, Too
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that to remain healthy and independent, people 65 and older should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week and perform muscle-strengthening exercises twice a week.
Here are some ways you can do everything the CDC (and Hamilton) suggest for free or a very low cost.
Brisk walking is free and provides the moderate-intensity aerobic workout you need. It is, however, a good idea to invest in a good pair of walking shoes to protect your feet and legs. The other great thing about walking is it doesn’t need to take up a lot of time. You can incorporate walking into your everyday routine.
The internet has a wealth of free information that can help you build a safe exercise regimen. Healthline has a very useful post of basic strength, flexibility and balance exercises that seniors can do for free without setting foot in a gym.
Silver Sneakers has a basic strength training regimen that seniors can do at home with a small investment in weights and a resistance band.
Yoga teacher Jessamyn Stanley has tips for practicing yoga on a budget, from finding inexpensive classes to making your own equipment instead of buying pricy gear.
Many cities have free exercise equipment in parks.
Beware of Personal Trainers
Of course, nothing says you can’t join a pricy gym with shiny equipment, sparkling pools and good-looking, buff trainers. But even if you’re in good shape for your age, trainers who know nothing about the limitations of aging bodies can do you more harm than good by pushing you beyond your capacity.
Hamilton cautions people in their 40s and above to be especially careful in working with a personal trainer. “It’s not a licensed profession… anyone can call themselves a personal trainer.” People hired by gyms, she says, are often hired simply because they look fit. Even impressive-sounding certifications can be misleading and may not equip a trainer to work safely with people with age-related physical challenges.
Like other forms of health and well-being, your physical fitness is your own personal responsibility and you are the best person to make sure you maintain it in a way that is safe for you. Don’t do anything a trainer tells you to do if it feels like too much of a strain.
Hamilton’s best advice: “Take your time. Listen to the whispers of your body and adjust… That way, it will never have to shout at you.”