Smart Fitness for Grown-Ups: 11 Tips for the Over-40 Exerciser

Whether you have a wall full of medals or haven't moved since P.E. class, here's some workout wisdom.

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Whether you're looking forward to riding your bike across the country after you retire or you haven't put on sneakers since you were 6, there are things you need to know about exercising after the age of 40. If you'd really like to start exercising but don't know how, have we got a plan for you: After you read this, check out our 10-Week Workout Routine and let us do the thinking for you, at least until you're in the groove. And if you're the aforementioned endurance junkie, don't assume the tenets that got you fit in your 20s and 30s are automatically going to translate to the rest of your life. Here's what both newbies and veteran exercisers need to know about smart fitness for grown-ups:

Get comfortable. Yes, in your own (running) shoes, but also in the setting where you work out. If you're new to exercise, that may mean joining a low-key gym like Curves or a walking group rather than a gym full of 100-pound dumbbells. Conversely, if you are used to an intense level of exercise and have retired to a new city, you're probably going to get bored at the aqua-cise class in your gated community's pool. Get out and find like-minded athletes of all ages.

Find activities that are right for you. "Do what you like to do. Do what you can—whatever fits into your schedule," says Gene Schafer, an athletic trainer and owner of Arc Athletics Sports Rehabilitation in New York. If you get the warm fuzzies when you think back on your Little League days, join an adult baseball league. If you were never athletic but always wished you knew how to tap dance, sign up for a class. Don't do something you don't enjoy because it fits your idea of what's appropriate for your age. "Many people find walking boring," says Jennifer Huberty, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha's School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation. (Someone finally said it!) Not surprisingly, if you're one of them, planning a walking program is setting yourself up to fail, she says.

It's not all about aerobics. "There are so many changes that happen to our bodies when we age, and changes to our heart are only part of it," says Dr. Vonda Wright, director of the Performance and Research Initiative for Masters Athletes at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (and creator of our 10-Week Workout Routine, which is based on her book Fitness After 40). "There's a shortening of muscles and tendons, weakening of our bones, and a decrease in pathways between the brain and muscles that can hurt our balance," she says. So, yes, get in your 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise on most days. But also be aware of the need for strength-training, flexibility, and equilibrium-building exercises. (If this is gibberish to you, check out that 10-Week plan we keep talking about; it will explain everything.)

Start slowly. "There is never an age or activity level that is too old or sedentary to start exercising," Dr. Wright says. But if you're new to exercise or haven't done it in years, start with simple plans—like walking every day after dinner, she suggests. Once that becomes a habit, build on it. Start slowly during individual workouts, too. No matter how experienced you are, a good warm-up becomes more essential as you age.

Change it up. You're vulnerable to injuries, not to mention boredom, when you do the same thing every day. Changes in the body as you age only make overuse injuries more likely. More than ever, cross-training is your friend. (Runner, meet bicycle. Cyclist, meet swimming pool.) That goes for strength training, too. You're going to make progress only by steadily jacking up the amount of weight you lift. And switch up your routine, too; add and subtract exercises to increase variety. If you need help, consult books or pay for a trainer session every couple of months.

Make it a priority, and don't make excuses. As part of Women Bound to Be Active, a book club program she runs to encourage women to become more physically active, Huberty has participants write down their three top barriers to working out—time, kids, whatever. They also write on cards strategies for overcoming those barriers, laminate them, and carry them around. The point is that people need to treat exercise the way they treat other essentials in life, she says. We schedule office meetings, so why not workouts? "If I don't feel like going home to kids and a husband one night, do I check into a motel?" asks Huberty. "No. Tough. We get over it." Apply that same tough love to your physical activity.