I’ve never been what you’d call a gym rat. But after a medical scare in my early 20s, I splurged on my first health club membership, and began exercising regularly—three to four days on the elliptical, the occasional yoga class, a slow jog in the park. I loved the endorphin buzz and my new muscles, plus I dropped a size or two.
Thirty years on, I still exercised regularly, but I wasn’t getting the same results. Everything was starting to hurt—my feet and ankles when I rose out of bed in the morning; my left hip when I walked too long lugging a bag of groceries; my lower back after a day of sitting at my desk. My body was starting to feel old, I was starting to feel old, my walking pace slowing, my willingness to sprint for a bus (or sprint for anything for that matter) wavering.
Which is how I found myself in the fitness studio of certified personal trainer Julie Gerrish. Julie, at 48 with two nearly grown kids, has the quads, glutes and arms of a college athlete. As we chatted, I inventoried all the spots on my body that hurt. When I finished, Julie asked me to do a squat while raising my arms above my head. “Your thoracic is really tight,” she said, touching my upper back. “Your hips, too,” she added. “See how your feet and knees angle inward when you go down? That means you need to work on your feet and ankles.”
After I performed a series of similarly simple moves (walking a straight line, balancing on one foot), Julie sat me down and gave me the bad news, in the nicest possible way. My workout routine may have been fine when I was in my 20s and 30s, but if I wanted to stave off injury and pain, it was time for a serious reboot. Here are her suggestions for keeping your body supple and strong, whatever your age.
Don’t get into a fitness rut.
“Even people who exercise make the mistake of doing the same thing, over and over, because it’s easy,” Julie says. As you get older, however, repetitive stress injuries can happen, your body compensates, muscles get tight, and suddenly there are aches and pains that aren’t going away.
“People don’t want to hurt themselves more, so they start to do less,” Julie told me. “The trouble is, the less you move, the less blood circulation there is to the problem areas, and the worse those problems become.”
In a study that tracked the physical activity of over 24,000 adults ages 39 to 79, one finding was that elderly people who did something each week were 14 percent less likely to experience a cardiovascular event than folks who were sedentary.
In other words, the most important way to stay fit as you get older is to mix up your workout and keep moving, every single day.
Do push yourself as hard as possible—for just 30 seconds.
As the body ages, metabolism slows and muscle mass declines, even if you continue with your same workout. “Unless you compensate for those natural losses by continuing to challenge yourself, you’ll lose ground,” says Julie. She suggests adding interval training—timed intervals of more vigorous activity—to your usual routine. That might mean cranking up the incline on the elliptical, speed walking to the next telephone pole during a stroll, or using an app to remind you to pick up the pace for 30 seconds, then slow down for 60 seconds, repeating for the duration of your activity.
The results are well worth it: A 2014 study in the journal American College of Cardiology found that running for five paltry minutes a day at a relatively easy pace (i.e., a 12-minute mile), significantly reduced the risk of death from all causes in 55,000 adults with a mean age of 44 years. If you can’t run, “Walk as fast as you can for 30 seconds, swinging your arms and squeezing your glutes and abs,” suggests Julie.
Do add some balance training to the mix.
“I have clients who have run marathons but who can’t stand on one foot for more than a few seconds,” recounts Julie. Given that falls are the leading cause of death among older adults (and one of the most common reasons they’re admitted to the hospital) working on balance every day is crucial. During our twice-weekly sessions, Julie has me stand on one foot, close my eyes, and look to the left, right, up and down. Merely balancing on one foot while you’re brushing your teeth at night, however, can shore up your steadiness. If you can’t balance on one foot, try keeping one hand lightly on the wall, or just lift your heel up so only your toe is touching the floor. The point, as always, is to keep progressing.
Don’t forget your feet and ankles.
One surprise of working with Julie was how much time we spent focusing on my feet before we’d get to actual cardio and strength training. I started with rolling my bare soles on a small bumpy rubber ball and giving my toes a self-massage every day (a ritual that quickly did away with the morning stiffness I’d been feeling below the knees). Julie explained that foot and ankle immobility often lead to low back and hip pain: “Tight ankles can cause you to stand with your hips tilted back and your butt sticking out, which leads to tightness and pain in the calves, low back, upper back--all the way up the chain.” To stretch your ankles, stand facing a wall, palms on the wall, with one foot forward and the other back. Bend your forward knee toward the wall until you feel a stretch in your ankle; repeat five times. Then bend that same knee toward the wall but angling out slightly, again for five pulses. Repeat on the other side.
Do roll with it.
“My husband jokes that I think rolling cures everything—but it’s almost true!” laughs Julie. By rolling, she means using a foam roller to massage your mid-to-upper back (just lay back over it, knees bent, feet on the floor and let yourself glide back and forth); then do the same with your calves and hips, for a total of 5 minutes a day. If you don’t have a roller, you can use a tennis ball. Rolling helps release tight muscles, the same as a good massage might, and research backs up this claim: A Canadian study found that people who used a foam roller experienced less muscle soreness and had a greater range of motion than those who didn’t.
Don’t skip weight training.
You probably already know that the risk of developing osteoporosis—and more fragile bones—increases after menopause. The best defense is weight-bearing exercise. You can increase lower body strength by doing squats; upper body by doing pushups against a wall, no dumbbells required. “The point isn’t just to build muscles, but to be able to do everyday things easily, like lifting a gallon of milk with one hand or screwing off a tight mayonnaise jar,” Julie says.
In other words, being able to move through the world confidently, with strength and agility, whether rising out of a low chair with no hands or breezing through a boot camp class. As for me, two years after starting with Julie, I stride with more energy, free from pain of any kind, my arms sleek and toned; my thighs (even my solid thighs!) a bit more contoured. “You walk like an athlete now!” a close friend remarked recently, and I felt a surge of pride. I may be in my 50s, but fitness-wise, I’m feeling a whole lot younger.