It's Better Late Than Never
Sure, the baby boomers made The Complete Book of Running a bestseller, were the first to use the Nautilus machines at the gym, and sweated in front of their VCRs to Jane Fonda. Yet not everyone was part of the revolution; after all, only about 30 percent of American adults report getting regular exercise. But forming a workout habit in middle ageor beyondstill has a host of benefits. "We were designed to be mobileaging in a sedentary way is new to us," says Vonda Wright, director of the Performance and Research Initiative for Masters Athletes at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Here's what you need to know about starting up a routine.
Realize that it's not too late. "The human body is very responsive," says Edward Coyle, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas-Austin. He studied a group of male heart-attack survivors who were about 55, on average. The first six months of training were spent getting the men walking again. They progressed over the next year until they were running or biking 40 to 60 minutes a day, five days a week. The last six months were spent raising the intensity through interval training. Not only did their heart function improve; the men completed a 5-mile run and did just as well as 55-year-olds who didn't have a history of heart attack. "They ran faster than when they were 30," says Coyle.
Check with your doctor first. If you haven't exercised regularly for six months, get your physician's all-clear. This is boilerplate advicebut follow it. The risk of heart disease increases for men in their mid-40s and women about a decade later, and exertion can trigger heart attacks in people with no previous symptoms.
Start with something you enjoy. Why plan to finish a 5K if you don't like to run? If you'd rather be swimming (or walking, or ballroom dancing, or playing badminton...), do that instead.
Vary your routine. If all you do is run, say, you'll work certain areas so hard you risk tightening and injury (hamstrings, calves) but neglect others (abdominal muscles, upper body). So mix it up. Optimally, the routine will have at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five times a week, and two to three days of strength training, says Miriam Nelson, director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University.
Don't forget the weights. Did we mention strength training already? Well, it's imperative. "Muscle is central to overall health," says Nelson. Ignoring its upkeep can affect immunity, bone density, and maybe even depression, she says. One recent study suggests that healthy older adults can actually reverse skeletal muscle agingit's not just that the muscles look and act younger but that they are actually genetically similar to much younger tissuewith a six-month strength program.
Start slowly. Ever notice how the gym is crowded in January and quiet by March? Those New Year's resolutionists often overdo it and burn out or get injured within a few months. Instead, plan slower progress. Nelson likes to prescribe just 15 minutes of physical activity at the outset, three to four times a week, and building from there.
Invest in good advice and good equipment. "I always encourage a good pair of shoes," says Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon. "You can walk in running shoes, but you really shouldn't run in walking shoes." You may also want to pay for a session or two with an athletic trainer or physical therapist to make sure your form is good. "When you start a program, pay special attention to posture and balance," says Coyle. "When you start in your 50s and 60s, much of the challenge is keeping your body balanced and aligned."
This story appears in the June 25, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.