How to Be in the Best Shape of Your Life After 40

Story at-a-glance -

  • People aged 40 and over should focus on strength training, flexibility training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT)
  • Adequate core work and regular walking (10,000 steps a day) are also important in middle age
  • As the intensity of your exercise increases, be sure to take adequate time for proper recovery (most HIIT workouts should only be done three times a week or less)

By Dr. Mercola

Age-related changes can occur in your body in your late 20s and 30s, but for many people, it's the big 4-0 birthday that really hits home the idea of "aging."

Let's first be clear that aging is more of a mindset than something that's set in stone. And, your lifestyle can be instrumental in slowing down (or speeding up) the hands of time.

Toward that end, exercise is about as close as you can get to a real-world fountain of youth. The right types of exercise can prevent age-related muscle loss, stave off cognitive decline and even trigger mitochondrial biogenesis, a decline of which is common in aging.

This reverses significant age-associated declines in mitochondrial mass, and in effect stops aging in its tracks.1

How to Optimize Your Fitness After 40

The first step is to simply get moving, but beyond that you'll want to tweak your workouts for your 40-year-old self. This does not mean taking it easy — it means tailoring your workouts so you can be in the best shape of your life, even if you're 40 or beyond.

Work on Flexibility

Research published in the American Journal of Physiology found that an inability to touch your toes while in a seated position (sitting on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you) might mean your arteries have become stiff, and you have an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.2

The study found participants' flexibility scores correlated with their blood pressure, cardio-respiratory fitness, and other measures of heart health. Plus, losing flexibility — which happens as you get older if you don't do anything to stop it — increases your risk of injuries and makes it harder to stay active.

Yoga and foam rolling can be useful for increasing flexibility, and I also recommend active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes.

With Active Isolated Stretching, you hold each stretch for only 2 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 and increase flexibility.

Ditch Long Hours of Cardio

Extreme endurance exercises, such as marathon and triathlon training, pose significant risks to your heart, some of which may be irreversible and life threatening.

Long-distance running can lead to acute volume overload, inflammation, thickening and stiffening of the heart muscle and arteries, coronary artery calcification, arrhythmias and sudden cardiac arrest. In fact, the following can occur when you exercise too much or too hard:

  1. Your body can enter a catabolic state, in which your tissues break down
  2. Excess cortisol (a stress hormone) can be released, which not only contributes to catabolism but also to chronic disease
  3. You can develop microscopic tears in your muscle fibers (which may fail to heal if you continue over-exercising), and increased risk for injuries
  4. Your immune system may be weakened

There's little benefit, and possibly some harm, to doing cardio for more than 45 minutes at a time, and if you exercise effectively, your workouts should be even shorter.

High-Intensity Exercise Is for People Over 40 Too

Research 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 to 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.

Four minutes of exercise performed at extreme intensity four times a week may also 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.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) even boosts your body's natural production of human growth hormone (HGH), which will help address the muscle loss and atrophy that typically occurs with aging.

Your production of vital human growth hormone increases by as much as 771 percent during an HIIT workout. The higher your levels of HGH, the healthier, stronger and more "youthful" you will be.

Try Exercises That Work Your Core

With exercise, sometimes the simplest of movements result in the greatest gains to your fitness, and this is certainly the case with core exercises, such as planks. To do a plank, you hold your body (the trunk portion) off the ground, making sure to hold it in a straight line.

Planking will help build your deep inner core muscles that lay the groundwork for that six-pack look. As your abdominal muscles become stronger, your mid-section will tighten. While building strength, planks also increase flexibility in your posterior muscle groups.

The muscles around your shoulders, collarbone, and shoulder blades will expand and stretch (an area that often receives little attention), as will your hamstrings and even the arches of your feet and your toes.

They're also excellent for balance and posture, because in order to do a plank correctly you must engage your abs to stay upright. Side planks or planks with extensions are particularly beneficial for building balance, as are planks performed on a stability ball.

Recover Between Workouts

This is especially important when you're exercising at high intensity. One of the key concepts of HIIT is that the intensity and amount of time spent working out are inversely proportional.

Meaning, the greater the intensity the less time you spend working out. Moreover, as intensity goes up, you also need longer recovery times in between sessions, so the frequency of your workouts also goes down. At most, you might be able to do HIIT three times a week. Any more than that will likely be highly counterproductive.

Get 10,000 Steps a Day

Taking 10,000 steps a day is a basic requirement for optimal health, like drinking adequate amounts of water each day. This is in addition to, not a replacement for, regular exercise, and will help to get you up out of your chair and counteract some of the effects of too much sitting.

Strength Training Is a Must for the 40 and Over Crowd

Without weight training, your muscles will atrophy and lose mass. Age-related loss of muscle mass is known as sarcopenia, and if you don't do anything to stop it you can expect to lose about 15 percent of your muscle mass between your 30s and your 80s.3

Even if you've never done strength training before, now is the time to start. In addition to helping you maintain your muscle mass, strength training can help to build bone density, decrease your risk of falls, provide relief from joint pain and even improve blood sugar control.

Strength training also increases your body's production of growth factors, which are responsible for cellular growth, proliferation, and differentiation. Some of these growth factors also promote the growth, differentiation, and survival of neurons, which helps explain why working your muscles also benefits your brain and helps prevent dementia.

Give Super Slow Weight Training a Try

People of all ages can benefit from super-slow weight training, but this is definitely a method to consider if you're middle-aged or older. By slowing your movements down, it turns your weight-training session into high-intensity exercise. I recommend using four or five basic compound movements for your super-slow (high intensity) exercise set.

Compound movements are movements that require the coordination of several muscle groups — for example, squats, chest presses and compound rows. Here is my version of the technique. I also demonstrate a number of exercises in the video above, starting around the 15-minute mark:

  • Begin by lifting the weight as slowly and gradually as you can. In the video above, I demonstrate doing this with a four-second positive and a four-second negative, meaning it takes four seconds, or a slow count to four, to bring the weight up, and another four seconds to lower it. When pushing, stop about 10 to 15 degrees before your limb is fully straightened; smoothly reverse direction.
  • Slowly lower the weight back down to the slow count of four.
  • Repeat until exhaustion, which should be around four to eight reps. Once you reach exhaustion, don't try to heave or jerk the weight to get one last repetition in. Instead, just keep trying to produce the movement, even if it's not "going" anywhere, for another five seconds or so. If you're using the appropriate amount of weight or resistance, you'll be able to perform eight to 10 reps.
  • Immediately switch to the next exercise for the next target muscle group and repeat the first three steps.

Remember, if you're fit at 40 or 50, you're much more likely to be healthy into your 70s and 80s. The benefits of starting — and continuing — an exercise program are simply immense, even if you do so in mid or late life.

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