There is so much conflicting information about how your exercise program should change as you get older. Part of the confusion is because the answer is different for every woman. In this article, I will cover some of the things you need to aware of adjusting your exercise program.
In this article I explain some ways that your exercise routine should change once you reach midlife. If you haven’t been exercising, check out this article to find out how to get started or get back into exercise.
How should cardio exercise change?
Women are more likely than men to stop exercising as they get older and this is especially important when it comes to cardiovascular fitness.
You may have heard that you should stop doing cardio, especially steady state cardio (working at a constant intensity), after age 40. For most women this is not the case. Cardio helps to improve and maintain heart health and has several other benefits.
The myth about not doing cardio comes from the fact that cardio can increase cortisol levels, which can lead to weight gain. This is usually only true when cardio is very high intensity and usually it is a short term increase, not chronic. You may need to experiment with steady state vs intervals to see which works best for you. It is best to include a variety of exercises in your program to get the most benefits.
Now that we agree that cardio is important, how should it change? The answer to this question is complicated. If you are starting from scratch then your cardio program should be different than someone who has been exercising for a while. You also have to take chronic conditions into account.
Here is an example. If you have been running for a long time, there is no reason you have to stop just because you are 40 or 50. You may need more recovery and you may find that injuries and joint issues are more common. If you have put on weight, then running can be harder on the joints.
On the other hand if you are new to exercise, or getting back into it, then you need to take a different approach. You will want to start with lower intensity cardio and/or intervals of higher intensity and build up your cardiovascular fitness.
How should strength training change?
Your exercise program should definitely include strength training. Women lose muscle at an alarming rate as they age. With this muscle loss comes loss of strength, lower metabolism and loss of ability to do daily functional activities. Without strength training you are also more likely to have lower bone density.
It becomes increasingly harder to put on muscle as you age, so if you still in your 40s, then now is the time to build up some muscle. But if you are older, you can still add and maintain muscle.
The main way your strength training should change is that it should become more deliberate and consistent. You may have been able to get away with a once in a while approach when you were younger, but that probably won’t work any more.
One mistake that women make is using weights that are too light to provide any benefit. While 5 lb weights might be right for some exercises, 20 lb weights or even 40 or 50 lb barbells may be more appropriate for other exercises.
With strength training you want to pay attention to making sure your form is correct. This will help you to avoid injury and get the best results. This is especially important for exercises like squats which can cause knee pain, if not done correctly. If you are not sure if you are using the correct form, look into personal training or online fitness coaching.
You should also include exercises for some of the smaller, more likely ignored muscle groups, especially if you have experienced an injury in the past. This could include things like rotator cuff exercises, or clamshells for hip muscles.
What about menopause symptoms?
Two menopause symptoms that limit women’s desire to exercise are hot flashes and low energy. Exercise can actually help to improve both of these symptoms. Exercise has been shown to help reduce hot flashes, but you likely want to avoid exercising in a hot environment. You can also use a cooling towel to keep yourself cool while exercising.
If your energy levels are low, start with a lower intensity exercise like yoga or walking. Exercise at the times of day that you feel you have the most energy. The right amount of exercise will increase energy levels.
Do you need to stretch?
If you have not been stretching, you will want to add some stretching to your workout program. Stretching helps to prevent injuries, increase range of motion, and improve posture. Women can develop muscle imbalances as they get older and stretching can help to correct this.
What types of fitness classes are best?
If you are a lover of fitness classes you may be wondering if you need to make changes. Do you need to switch from bootcamps to gentle fitness or water fitness classes? If the class is working for you, keep doing it. If you are finding it too difficult, then see if you can find a class that is slightly easier.
If you are new to fitness classes, try out some different ones to find the level that challenges you a little, but isn’t too hard. Don’t be afraid to stop if the class is too hard or use easier options.
I’ve seen many people recommend water classes for women over 40 because of the low impact, less stress on joints, and the reduced risk of fall injuries (except for getting into and out of the pool). Be cautious of water classes for a couple of reasons. I have seen several instances of women who use water exclusively with very low leg strength. It also may not be intense enough to increase cardiovascular fitness.
Do you need to worry about impact on joints?
After age 40 you might start to worry about the impact on your joints from exercise. If you do not have arthritis then exercise, including higher impact exercises like running is not bad for the joints. In fact higher impact exercise has been shown to be beneficial for bone density.
If you do have arthritis, then you probably want to limit higher impact activities, but you may be able to continue with some. Pay attention to activities that worsen pain and also watch out for new pain.
Other things to consider
- Your reaction time decreases as you get older. In fact, reaction times peak at around age 24. This is especially important for activities that require quick movements like participating in sports or dance style classes.
- Chronic diseases are more common as you get older. If you have been diagnosed with a chronic disease, then follow the exercise recommendations of your physician or an exercise specialist in that area.
- Your fall risk increases as you get older, especially if you have low strength in your lower body
- Get a bone density scan to see if you have lower bone density or osteoporosis. You will want to make changes to your exercise program if you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis.
- Listen to your body. Pay attention to how you are feeling during and after workouts.
Can you still have fun?
You may be thinking that fitness won’t be fun anymore. But you can still have fun. You may have to make some changes to keep activities safe and fun. I know many women who are post menopausal who still enjoy sports like mountain biking, skiing and hiking.
If you are already exercising don’t worry about making too many changes to your exercise routine. Maybe get a little more deliberate about making sure you are getting muscle and bone building weight training and some heart healthy cardiovascular exercise. If you haven’t been exercising then slowly start to add some exercise into your routine. If you are looking for a plan to get you started check out this workout plan.