We grilled an expert and combed through the science to find the answer.
Exercise is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet when it comes to the effects of ageing on the body. But the truth is, achieving and maintaining fitness is a lifelong journey, and it becomes trickier as you move through the decades.
If you spent your 20s and 30s giving the exercise mat a wide berth, it might feel like you've missed the boat. But is it genuinely too late to start your fitness journey? Let’s explore…
As we get older, our bodies undergo some pretty significant changes. Joints feel stiffer, flexibility can decrease, and those hangovers tend to pack a punch. These changes can make it tougher to stick to a regular workout routine.
But here's some good news: getting fit, no matter your age, is not only doable but also incredibly beneficial. While it's true that the physical challenges might be different compared to your younger self, they're not impossible to overcome. In fact, a large-scale review of multiple studies, conducted in 2020, consistently found that all adults – even those over the age of 75 – can make gains in muscle mass and strength by doing progressive resistance training at least twice a week.
In another (much smaller) study, nine older people aged 86 to 96 embarked on a strength training program. After just eight weeks, the group’s mid-thigh muscle area had increased by an average of nearly 10%, which is equivalent to the muscle typically lost over a decade. Even more remarkably, the participant’s overall strength skyrocketed by a whopping 174%.
As James Dabbs, a personal trainer and founder of Dabbs Fitness, explains, "Most people notice a decrease in muscle mass, a slower metabolism, and creakier joints as they age. Starting a fitness journey in your 40s, 50s or beyond might seem intimidating, but there’s so much scientific evidence to show that even if you've never really exercised before, you can significantly improve your health with the right approach."
So, what's his secret? “Don't attempt to work out like you did in your 20s,” Dabbs stresses. High-intensity workouts, like trendy HIIT classes, are all well and good, but they may not be suitable as you get older, as your joints get weaker, stamina wains, and the risk of injury increases.
Instead, he says you should focus on functional fitness instead. This type of training is all about enhancing your ability to perform everyday activities smoothly. It involves exercises that mimic real-life movements, like bending, lifting, twisting, and reaching. Dabbs adds, "I work with many clients over 55, and our training shifts from focusing on looks or performance to simply moving well and feeling good. We work on movements that make a difference to daily life, such as correcting posture that’s ‘a bit off’ or mobility that’s decreased.
“Improving strength, range of motion, and endurance can be transformational on a basic level. It means that people can pick up their grandkids or climb stairs without aches, pains, or twinges."
For those who've been active in their 20s and 30s, the benefits of exercise are even more pronounced. "The earlier you start, the easier it is to preserve muscle mass, bone density, and overall fitness,” says Dabbs. “It also makes the transition to a fit lifestyle in later years more manageable."
That being said, every bit of exercise at any age is beneficial, and there's no age limit to reap the rewards. TLDR: It's never too late to lace on your trainers.
Understanding the biomechanics of ageing helps us appreciate why it's crucial to stay healthy as we grow older. While we can't entirely halt the effects of ageing, we can significantly slow them down through regular workout sessions.
First off, let's talk about muscle. As we hit our 30s, we start losing around 3-8% of our muscle mass every decade. This is a natural age-related process known as sarcopenia. While we can't entirely stem the tide, exercise, especially strength training, can slow it down. So, it's a key player in maintaining muscle mass and strength.
Our joints, particularly the knees, also take a hit as we age. “Joints become more prone to wear and tear, which can lead to conditions like osteoarthritis,” warns Dabbs, “but staying active keeps them flexible and strong.” And you don't need to hip-thrust a heavy barbell either; even gentle weight bearing activities like walking can help keep your bones healthy and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
Exercise isn't just about muscles and joints though; it's a powerful shield against diseases and even mortality. “Studies show that being active can fend off various chronic conditions, many of which become more common as we grow older,” warns Dabbs. Think cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain cancers.
Further studies have found that balance-focused activities can also lower the risk of falls, and there might be some big benefits for the brain too. A 2020 review found that being physically active doesn't just help prevent Alzheimer's disease; it could also improve outcomes for those already diagnosed.
From juggling mortgages to dealing with older kids and more work responsibilities, stress can pile up as we get older. A lot of people find that exercise is a great tonic, as it releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which can blitz stress. Think of it as a healthy, free and simple mood booster that reduces the risk of depression and anxiety.
For women specifically, exercise is a powerful ally during perimenopause, as studies have found it helps alleviate symptoms like hot flashes and mood swings. Further evidence points towards it promoting better sleep, reducing stress, and maintaining a healthy weight, making the transitional months and years leading up to full menopause more manageable.
And last but not least, as we age, our bodies become less efficient at turning food into energy. You've probably heard of the ‘middle-aged spread’, that often creeps up after 40, even if your lifestyle and diet haven't changed much. “Managing your weight can be a bigger challenge in these years, so regular physical activity is the most reliable way of revving up the metabolism, making weight control easier,” assures Dabbs.
Try these quick tips if you’re new to the gym floor…
Instead of jumping straight into an intense TikTok fitness challenge, kick off your workout journey with low-intensity exercises like walking, gentle yoga, cycling or swimming. All adults should aim for at least 150 minutes a week. “You can slowly increase the intensity and duration as your fitness level improves,” says Dabbs. “This gradual approach reduces the risk of injury.”
Rewards teach us which actions are worth remembering in the future. Studies on the brain have found that giving ourselves immediate, positive experiences at the end of an action can reinforce the behaviour and help to create a healthy habit. So, whether it's treating yourself to a barista-made flat white or unwinding with a Netflix episode after a workout, rewarding yourself sets you up for future success.
As we get older, mobility becomes a big priority. Between our mid-fifties to mid-eighties, we tend to lose about six degrees of flexibility in our shoulder and hip joints every decade. To stay mobile, make sure to include some stretching in your exercise routine before and after your workout. Or try sneaking in two minutes of stretching each day, whether during your TV time or while waiting for the coffee to finish brewing.
Music can be a game-changer for your workout. Research has found that the right tunes can boost the levels of serotonin and dopamine, aiding in motivation and the recovery process. Additionally, the tempo of your music matters; songs with a beat of 130 to 140 bpm can provide a performance boost. So, stick to upbeat bangers rather than slower, mellower ones.
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