How to Make the Most of Your Workouts as You Get Older!

Have you noticed working out feels a bit different as you’ve gotten older?   

Some of our clients notice a change in their endurance (some better, some worse) … 

Others notice aches in muscles or pain in joints slowly creeping in (and sticking around longer than they used to) … 

Most share they have a harder time building strength and maintaining muscle mass.   

If you’re noticing some of these changes, I want to let you in on a little secret:  

What you do to stay in shape in your 50s, 60s, and beyond will be much different than what you did in your 20s and 30s.  

The focus of your exercise program should change based on what decade of life you’re in! 

When you’re younger, you’re typically focused more on performance 

As you get into your 50s and beyond, however, I recommend focusing more on function.  

In this blog post, we’ll break down:  

  • The difference between performance- and function-focused workouts 
  • 5 elements of a function-focused exercise program  
  • Why these elements matter for someone trying to stay fit in their 50s and beyond 
  • When to involve a professional in your fitness journey 

One quick sidenote: 

If you’re having pain that’s preventing you from working out, it’s important for your future health to tackle it before it becomes chronic.  

You can avoid chronic pain and complications from pain-medications, injections, or surgery by consulting with a physical therapist and getting an individualized treatment program that will get you back in action in no time.  

Okay, let’s dive in. 

The Shift: Performance-focused (PF) vs. Function-focused (FF) 

Performance-focused (PF) workouts typically include pushing your body past its limits on a regular basis, with the goal of breaking the body down so it can rebuild stronger.  

Examples include:  

  • Lifting very heavy weights until muscle failure 
  • Running sprints until exhaustion 
  • Movements that mimic an athlete’s sport (plyometrics for volleyball players, for example) 

Function-focused (FF) workouts, in contrast, are typically more whole-body movements that train your muscles to work together to more effectively tackle daily tasks like walking for miles, getting on and off the floor, balancing on ladders, or carrying grandkids up the stairs.  

Examples include:  

  • Squats and lunges for the legs and core 
  • Push-ups and pull-ups for the upper body and core 
  • Walking, swimming, or cycling for aerobic training 

Function-focused workouts aren’t as tough on your joints, muscles, and ligaments (but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be challenging!).  

Now, does this mean that you shouldn’t strive to run faster, jump higher, or challenge yourself with tough workouts?  

Heck no! You most definitely can (and should) keep those goals if they motivate you!  

Function-focused workouts can still help you reach your goals of losing weight, gaining muscle, and improving your overall health. 

I only want to share with you that it’s 100% normal if you’re noticing you can’t (or don’t want to!) “work out like you used to” when you were in your 20s or 30s. 

I see this mindset stop a lot of our patients in their tracks because they mistakenly see it as a sign that they’re worse off than they actually are, and then lose motivation to work out regularly.  

When you stop working out regularly, you put yourself at risk of developing a whole host of life-shortening diseases.  

One study in Australia even found high levels of physical activity increase the likelihood of surviving an extra 10 years free from chronic diseases, mental impairment and disability.” 

Who doesn’t want 10 extra wonderful years!? 

While everyone is different, my general recommendation is that when you reach your mid-50s, you should start making this shift in focus.  

It will pay dividends as you start to notice increased flexibility, less joint pain, and more energy to do the things you really enjoy.  

Not to mention, if you already have this focus when you enter into your later years (70s and beyond), you’ll see an incredible difference in the quality of your life day-to-day compared with colleagues who don’t take up this mentality.  

In the next section, I’ll talk about the components of a function-focused exercise program. 

5 Elements of a Function-Focused Exercise Program 

Here are the types of exercises that I recommend if you’re 50+ and want to focus on maximizing your functionality and longevity: 

Stretching 

Why: Over time, muscles become tighter due to a combination of factors like dehydration, lack of dynamic stimulation, and so forth. Tight muscles can increase the likelihood of joint pain and muscle strain. Stretching regularly is similar to putting grease on door hinge – that door will perform better because of it! 

What: Find a stretching routine that feels good to you and hits your ankles, knees, hips, low back, spine, shoulders, and neck. Work with a physical therapist for a tailored routine or try out a yoga or Pilates class. 

How Often: 10 minutes minimum, 5-7 days per week. 

Balance and Stability Exercises  

Why: Exercises that focus on strengthening your shoulders, hips, core, and ankle stabilizers not only improve your balance, but also helps you handle all that life throws at you including rambunctious kiddos, playful dogs, and unpaved hiking trails. Better balance translates to fewer injuries, and less time spent on the sidelines. 

What: Balance exercise options are truly unlimited! You know you’re on the right track if you’re doing movements that require you to change direction, stand on one foot, reach in various directions, or get on your hands and feet.  

How Often: Throw in 10-15 minutes of balance training 2-3 times per week. 

Cardiovascular Training 

Why: 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity is recommended to help prevent chronic diseases like heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. Aerobic training also increases cognitive function, memory, and mental flexibility.  

What: Anything that makes you breathe hard and break a sweat is considered moderate activity. Ideally you can only speak a few words at a time while doing them. If you can easily speak a full sentence, pick up your pace!  

  • Walking – Start a daily walking routine. You can get fresh air and keep your muscles moving.  
  • Light running – Be safe, take breaks and drink water when you need to. 
  • Elliptical machine – This machine is typically easier on the joints and a good place to start if walking or running is painful. Found at most gyms or available online. 
  • Swimming – A great total body workout and is by far the easiest on the joints. 

How Often:  

  • 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity (aka activities that get your heart rate up) each week. This can break down to 5 days of 30 minutes.  
  • Avoid sitting for more than 2 hours at a time. Try breaking up long sitting episodes with a 2-minute standing stretch break or mini walk. 

Weight Training 

Why: Weight training – even if it’s only using your body weight for resistance – can help prevent osteoporosis (bone weakening), age-related muscle loss (called sarcopenia), and even help men and women keep their hormones balanced as they enter their 50s and 60s.  

What: A technique called Progressive Resistance Training (PRT) is one of the most effective ways to train after age 50. Over the course of a few months, participants in one study increased their strength by 25-30%. This strategy gradually increases the resistance over the course of a 12–20-week period. 

How Often:   

  • Start with bodyweight exercises like squats, lunges, wall planks, and countertop push-ups 2 times per week for 30 minutes. Add light to medium weights as you gain strength. 

Recovery Exercises 

Why: If you recently gotten injured or had surgery, you need to focus on specific exercises that will help your body recover. The best advice I can give for this would be to go to a Physical Therapist. 

What: A physical therapist will assess your joint and muscle flexibility, strength, alignment, balance, endurance, and coordination to determine the best combination of hands-on techniques and exercises to reduce your pain and assist your tissues in a safe recovery. Our recommendation is seeing a PT in a 1-on-1 setting, like we offer at Natural Fit Therapy, as this ensures you don’t get a cookie-cutter treatment program. 

How Often: TBD by you and your physical therapist after your evaluation. 

Note: If you are seriously injured or have recently had a surgery, you won’t know what exercises to do to help, so you might go to Google or YouTube, and those type of “blanket” exercises might cause further injury- something you definitely want to avoid. 

When to Involve a Professional in Your Fitness Journey 

Most people feel overwhelmed trying to put a balanced and comprehensive fitness program together for themselves. Even professionals who do this for a living have coaches!  

This is why it’s wise to consult a physical therapist – like the specialists at Natural Fit Therapy – anytime you start a new fitness program or are looking to make changes to your current routine.  

A physical therapist will:  

  • Asses your situation and see if we’re the right fit for you 
  • Construct a fitness program that fits YOUR needs and goals 
  • Keep you motivated to reach your goals and treat you like family! 

Other issues you’re dealing with that would warrant involving a physical therapist include:  

  • Osteoarthritis in your knees, hips, shoulders, etc. 
  • Hypertension  
  • Diabetes 
  • Heart Disease 
  • You have pain that has been going on > 2 weeks 
  • You’ve fallen in the last 12 months. 
  • After any type of surgery 
  • If you have pain that prevents you from doing anything you used to do 
  • You’ve noticed a general decrease in endurance, strength, or mobility  

I hope this information has been helpful if you’re someone that’s maybe struggling with exercising as you age and wondering why it’s not working for you anymore! If you takeaway anything from this blog, takeaway this – bodies over 50 benefit tremendously from moving to more functional-based exercises, as opposed to performance-based. This will ensure that your workout is matching what stage of life you’re in and prevent injury that could sideline you from doing what you love! 

Resources: https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm