40 Isn't Too Old to Start Intensive Exercise

Benefits of Exercise

Story at-a-glance -

  • Men who begin intensive exercise after age 40 get similar benefits to those who started prior to age 30, including lower resting heart rate and higher maximum oxygen uptake
  • Among those who start exercising at age 50 and continue for 10 years, the rate of premature death declines dramatically, similar to giving up smoking and mirroring the level seen among people who have been working out their entire lives
  • Once you hit the age of 30, you enter "somatopause," at which point your levels of human growth hormone (HGH) begin to drop off quite dramatically (this is part of what drives your aging process)
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT) boosts your body's natural production of HGH, which will help address the muscle loss and atrophy that typically occurs with aging.
  • Starting an exercise program, even an intense one, is beneficial at virtually any age, including 40 and beyond

By Dr. Mercola

Exercising at very high intensity interspersed with periods of moderate rest, a program known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), is one of the latest, and most effective, fitness trends.

But far from being a fad, this type of activity, which forms the premise of Peak Fitness, actually mimics the movements of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, which for hundreds to thousands of generations included short bursts of high-intensity activities (not long-distance running such as is required to complete a marathon or hour-long sessions on the elliptical machine).

If you've reached middle age or beyond, you might think that this type of intense activity is too much for you, especially if you've haven't exercised much in the past. But new research shows, once again, that starting an exercise program, even an intense one, is beneficial at virtually any age, including 40 and beyond.

Starting Intense Exercise at Age 40 Offers Major Health Benefits

Are you age 40 or over? Are you reading this and wondering if it's too late for you to get in shape? Let me assure you, it's not too late, not even close. In fact, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose (except some extra pounds) by starting a Peak Fitness regimen today.

Specifically, researchers presented at the May 2014 EuroPRevent meeting, in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, found that men who begin intensive exercise after age 40 get similar benefits to those who started prior to age 30 – as well as show several health advantages compared to men who do not exercise.

For instance, both exercise groups (those who started prior to 30 or after age 40) had resting heart rates of about 57-58 beats per minute, much lower than the men who did not exercise (who had resting heart rates of about 70 beats per minute).

The exercising men also had higher maximum oxygen uptake (a measure of physical fitness) and similar evidence of exercise-related improvements in heart structure and function. According to study author David Matelot of the French Institute of Health and Medical Research:1

"...despite biological changes with age, the heart still seems -- even at the age of 40 -- amenable to modification by endurance training. Starting at the age of 40 does not seem to impair the cardiac benefits… it's never too late to change your way of life and get more physically active. This will always be beneficial for the heart and well-being. And there's no need for a high level of training for many hours a week…"

Could You Spare 12 Minutes to Get in Shape?

Spending just 4 minutes a few times a week is all that is needed to engage in a high-intensity interval type training that could significantly improve your health. That's right – just 12 minutes a week, or four minutes a day for three days was all it took to improve fitness levels in overweight inactive middle-aged men.

For the study, one group of men followed a protocol known as 4x4 training, completing four intervals of four minutes of high-intensity exercise (16 minutes a day, the "16-minute group") three times a week for 10 weeks. The second group exercised three times a week using four-minute high-intensity sessions, for a total of just 12 minutes of exercise a week, or just four minutes a day (the "4-minute group").2

Both groups showed marked improvements. The 4-minute group had a 10 percent increase in maximal oxygen intake (VO2max) compared to a 13 percent increase in the 16-minute group.

The 4-minute exercisers also experienced decreases in their blood pressure levels at amounts even greater than the 16-minute group. Those who exercised in 16-minute sessions did have greater reductions in cholesterol and body fat than the 4-minute exercisers. However, even 16 minutes of exercise three times a week should be easily attainable by most people. Other research has shown:

  • Participants were able to improve their insulin sensitivity an average of 24 percent with as little as three minutes of HIIT per week.3
  • Four minutes of exercise performed at extreme intensity four times a week may improve your anaerobic capacity by 28 percent, and your VO2 max and maximal aerobic power by 15 percent in as little as six weeks. (For comparison, those who performed an hour of steady cardiovascular exercise on a stationary bike five times a week only improved VO2 max by 10 percent, and their regimen had no effect on their anaerobic capacity.)

Middle Age Is Not an Excuse to Avoid Exercise – It's a Reason to Get Started

…In fact, exercise only becomes more important as you get older. If you're fit at 50, you're much more likely to be healthy into your 70s and 80s. The benefits of starting an exercise program are simply immense, even if you do so in mid or late life.

For instance, one study of 40 competitive runners, cyclists, and swimmers, ranging in age from 40 to 81, found no evidence of muscle deterioration -- the athletes in their 70s and 80s had almost as much thigh muscle mass as the athletes in their 40s.4 Other research has shown:

  • Even a small amount of exercise may protect the elderly from long-term memory loss and even help reverse some of the effects of aging.5
  • Women between the ages of 75 and 85, all of whom had reduced bone mass or full-blown osteoporosis, were able to lower their fall risk with strength training and agility activities.6
  • Moderate exercise among those aged 55-75 may cut the risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which increases heart disease and diabetes risk.7
  • Among those who started exercising at age 50 and continued for 10 years, the rate of premature death declined dramatically, similar to giving up smoking and mirroring the level seen among people who had been working out their entire lives.8
  • Compared to those who exercised daily, and often vigorously, sedentary people had a six times greater risk of dying from heart disease over the course of 15 years.9 (There's not a pill on earth that can bolster your life expectancy that much!)

Physical exercise has also been found to protect against age-related brain changes. For example, those who exercise the most tend to have the least amount of brain shrinkage over time. Not only that, but exercise actually causes your brain to grow in size. One study found that adults aged 60 to 80 who walked for 30 to 45 minutes, three days per week for one year, showed a two percent increase in the volume of their hippocampus - a brain region associated with memory.10

Intense Exercise Helps Naturally Boost Human Growth Hormone (HGH) Levels

Why else is middle age the perfect time to start intense exercise? Once you hit your mid 20s to 30, you enter what's called "somatopause," at which point your levels of human growth hormone (HGH) begin to drop off quite dramatically. This decline of HGH is part of what drives your aging process, so maintaining your HGH levels gets increasingly important with age. HIIT boosts your body's natural production of HGH, which will help address the muscle loss and atrophy that typically occurs with aging.

In fact, your production of vital human growth hormone increases by as much as 771 percent during a Peak Fitness workout. The higher your levels of HGH, the healthier, stronger, and more "youthful" you will be. While HIIT may seem too advanced for the elderly, don't let the intensity dissuade you! Rest assured you can perform HIIT at ANY age. The only difference is that the older you are the lower your maximum heart rate will be, and the more gradually you will want to increase your repetitions.

So how do you do it? The HIIT approach I personally prefer and recommend is the Peak Fitness method of 30 seconds of maximum effort followed by 90 seconds of recuperation. I personally modified the number of repetitions from eight to six this year, as it was sometimes just too strenuous for me to do all eight. So by listening to my body and cutting it back to six reps, I can now easily tolerate the workout and go full out. Plus, I no longer dread doing them.

Another tweak I made is to incorporate Buteyko breathing into the workout, which means I do most of the workout by only breathing through my nose. This raises the challenge to another level. I will discuss more of the benefits of this in a future article, as I do believe it has many benefits. I then finish my Peak Fitness workout with Power Plate stretches, 10 pull ups, 10 dips, and 20 inverted pushups, and call it a day. When you're first starting out, depending on your level of fitness, you may only be able to do two or three repetitions of Peak Fitness. That's okay!

As you get fitter, just keep adding repetitions until you're doing eight. And if six is what your body is telling you, then stop there. If you have a history of heart disease or any medical concern, please get clearance from your health care professional to start this. Most people of average fitness will be able to do it though; it is only a matter of how much time it will take you to build up to the full eight reps, depending on your level of intensity. For a demonstration using an elliptical machine, please see the video above. Here are the core principles:

  • Warm up for three minutes
  • Exercise as hard and fast as you can for 30 seconds. You should be gasping for breath and feel like you couldn't possibly go on another few seconds. It is better to use lower resistance and higher repetitions to increase your heart rate
  • Recover for 90 seconds, still moving, but at slower pace and decreased resistance
  • Repeat the high-intensity exercise and recovery seven more times. (When you're first starting out, depending on your level of fitness, you may only be able to do two or three repetitions of the high-intensity intervals. As you get fitter, just keep adding repetitions until you're doing eight during your 20-minute session)
  • Cool down for a few minutes afterward by cutting down your intensity by 50-80 percent
One of my readers, Niles Rickey Wheeler, better known as "Bodyman47" in the Vital Votes forum, shared his personal fitness success story using high-intensity training in middle age, which he credits with helping him feel fitter than ever in his mid-60s. Like Wheeler, I too feel like I'm more fit today than I was 30 years ago—in large part due to my Peak Fitness regimen.

How to Round-Out Your Exercise Program

High-intensity activity is wonderful, but it's not the only type of activity your body needs. Ideally, you'll want to strive for a varied and well-rounded fitness program that incorporates a wide variety of exercises. As a general rule, as soon as an exercise becomes easy to complete, you need to increase the intensity and/or try another exercise to keep challenging your body. Additionally, recent research has really driven home the importance of non-exercise movement.

My interview with NASA scientist Dr. Joan Vernikos goes into great detail why this is so, and what you can do to effectively counteract the ill effects of prolonged sitting. Truly, the key to health is to remain as active as you can, all day long, but that doesn't mean you have to train like an athlete for hours a day. It simply means, whenever you have a chance to move and stretch your body in the course of going about your day—do it! And the more frequently, the better. I have compiled a list of a few dozen exercises or intermittent movements that you can do when you are standing up. That being said, I recommend incorporating the following types of exercise into your overall fitness regimen:

  1. Interval (Anaerobic) Training: This is when you alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods (aka Peak Fitness).
  2. Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a one-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program. You can also "up" the intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high intensity interval exercise, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff.
  3. Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen, and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury, and help you gain greater balance and stability.
  4. Foundation Training, created by Dr. Eric Goodman, is an integral first step of a larger program he calls "Modern Moveology," which consists of a catalog of exercises. Postural exercises such as those taught in Foundation Training are critical not just for properly supporting your frame during daily activities. They also retrain your body so you can safely perform high-intensity exercises without risking injury. Exercise programs like Pilates and yoga are also great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer.

  5. Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. With Active Isolated Stretching, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.
  6. Stand Up Every 15 Minutes. I usually set a timer for 15 minutes while sitting, and then stand up and do one-legged squats, jump squats, or lunges when the timer goes off. The key is that you need to be moving all day long, even in non-exercise or, as I now like to call them, intermittent movement activities.
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