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.
Don't underestimate yourself. If you're a newbie, don't think you can't make giant leaps in your fitness; plenty of age-group champions in running, for example, never laced up a pair of shoes until their 40th birthdays were well in the rearview mirror. And if you've been exercising for years, don't assume your performance is going to fall off a cliff once you exit the MTV demographic. Research that Dr. Wright published last year found that top-flight senior athletes saw their performance edge down only about 3.4 percent a year from age 50 through 75. Only after that do the sharper declines begin. "The bottom line is we can continue to achieve high levels of performance into our eighth decade," she says.
Speed up. That means you are not consigned to a plodding pace. If you're in good health and have built a solid base of fitness, interval training—alternating intense bursts of activity with periods of rest—is a great way to burn more calories in less time. Schafer recommends starting with the stationary bike: Go one minute hard for every four of rest. (Just keep tabs on your heart rate to make sure you're not redlining.) "It's a nice way to break up the monotony," he says.
Get social support if you need it. "This is huge," says Huberty. "If you need it, ask for it." It really helps to get your family and friends on board, in spirit if not in body. And if you don't want to exercise solo—and some of us do relish the time alone spent listening only to AC/DC on the iPod or the sound of our own breath—find companions. Local running, walking, cycling, and swimming clubs offer a chance to do a normally solitary sport with others, while classes at the local Y or gym can give you built-in companionship.
Mind old injuries. "Work within the bounds of your health," advises Dr. Wright. Almost everyone, except the very ill and very frail, can exercise. But if you blew out both knees as a college linebacker, running is perhaps not your best option for a consistent form of exercise. Pick an activity that your body can tolerate, if not embrace. And if you're hellbent on re-creating your high school hoops glory days despite the way it makes your back bark, find a game with folks your own age, do it less often, and cross-train with something that's easier on your bod.
Don't obsess over weight. Here's the thing: Many people start an exercise habit thinking only of the potential for weight loss. When progress on that front is slow or nonexistent—there are 3,500 calories in a pound of fat, and 30 minutes of walking briskly may burn off only 200, so you do the math—they get discouraged and stop working out. Instead, try thinking of exercise in terms of the other, less visible health benefits it's providing, like reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer. And there are other bonuses, like helping you get better sleep, feel strong, or enjoy the moment, advises Huberty. If you do need to lose weight, focus on developing healthful eating habits—smaller portions, more nutrition-dense foods—rather than tracking every twitch of the scale dial.