In this post we discuss what the best exercise for over 50s is and the most useful way to think about this question.
Type ‘best exercise for over 50s’ into Google and see what comes up.
You’ll see websites with names like Gransnet and Silversurfers recommending walking, stretching and Tai Chi. You’ll also see the obligatory article on a grey haired guy with a body like Arnold and the face of an accountant from Stevenage.
I’m not far off 50 and none of these websites speak to me. I train regularly and don’t feel much different to when I was 30. I’m not in denial about my age however.
I have areas of my body that I approach with more caution, but this is largely due to injuries sustained when I was younger and infinitely more stupid. In fact I’m in less pain now than I was in my 20s.
So what’s going on?
It seems 50 is a predetermined line in the sand for the fitness industry. Past this point everything changes overnight.
You go to bed 49 and wake up 50 with a desire to either try Tai Chi and wear headbands, or kid yourself you’re still 28 with some extreme fitness goal.
I mean no disrespect to Tai Chi, headbands or ambitious goals, but it seems there’s a drastic step change with only two directions to go. Foot flat on the gas, or off it completely.
In reality ageing is a drawn out process as the word suggests. The changes are insidious and likely different for everyone in terms of what they are and when they occur.
So how should you think about exercise at 50?
A better way to frame this question is how were you thinking about exercise at 49?
If a 30 year old came to me and they’d never exercised before, I’d be more cautious with them than a 50 year old who’d been strength training for the last 10 years.
The critical point is not so much your age, but your training history, health status and your goals. In other words it’s entirely dependent on you.
That said there are some predictable changes that occur with age and the right type of exercise can go some way to ameliorating.
Your ability to utilise oxygen during exercise, as measured by a VO2 Max test, begins to decline past the age of 30. It’s common to see a 10% reduction in aerobic capacity every decade past this point.
This is mainly due to a steady drop in your maximum heart rate. Put simply, your heart can’t beat as fast as it used to.
Because your heart can’t beat as fast, it’s not able to deliver the same amount of oxygenated blood to the working muscles. This reduces your ability to perform higher intensity aerobic exercise.
Past the age of 30 you also begin to lose muscle mass at the rate of about 3-8% every decade. This reduction speeds up as you approach 60.
The cause of this process is multi factorial in nature, with hormonal and neurological changes implicated, as well as reduced activity levels and poor nutrition.
What’s clear is the loss of such a biologically active tissue has many implications for our health. These include an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and a reduction in strength and function.
What’s the best type of exercise to reduce these changes past 50?
So now we know the changes we’d like to effect, we can make a better decision on the best type of exercise to use.
Below are common exercise suggestions for the over 50s and the impact they might have on these age related changes.
Walking is convenient, cheap and doable for most people.
Unless it’s performed at a relatively fast pace however, it won’t do much for your aerobic capacity.
Likewise the loads on your muscular system are not great enough to prevent the muscle loss associated with ageing.
Despite the fact taking 10,000 steps a day has been marketed to us as a prerequisite for a healthy life, this claim has very little evidence to support it.
Perhaps walking should be best thought of as a useful addition to your exercise programme, rather than something that forms the basis of it.
Not all forms of Yoga are the same of course. Some involve more stretching, others more strengthening.
Because of this and how any type of Yoga could be applied, it’s difficult to say precisely what effect it might have.
Studies have shown Yoga is effective at producing modest improvements in VO2 Max and age related muscle loss.
The extent of these changes may depend on the initial condition of the individuals involved in the studies however.
Broadly speaking there are two types of Pilates, one form involves mainly body weight exercises on a mat, the other a device called a Reformer.
The latter uses springs to either load or sometimes unload different movements.
Much like Yoga, Pilates has been shown to produce small changes in aerobic capacity and more significant ones in muscle strength.
It’s a good idea to compare these changes to what’s possible with other forms of exercise however.
There’s little doubt that running is effective at improving your aerobic capacity. The question for most people is whether they are strong enough to tolerate it.
Every time your foot hits the ground you have to absorb forces equivalent to 2.5 times your body weight.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but your muscular system must be capable of tolerating those forces if you’re to avoid injury.
Running will also do very little to help you maintain muscle mass as you age.
Resistance training can be classified as regular activity that applies a progressive resistance to the muscles in order to make them stronger. You’ll also see it called strength training, or weight training.
You’ll notice that each form of exercise we’ve mentioned so far also does this in some way. The difference with resistance training is the deliberate way it’s applied.
Commonly, resistance training programmes are designed to target each muscle group of the body. It’s this, together with the progressive overload of the muscles that is proven to be effective at combating age related muscle loss.
What should be your priority?
Focussing on training your aerobic capacity over your muscular system is a common mistake and rather like putting the cart before the horse.
The only way your heart can be trained is by creating a demand from the working muscles. Your heart serves your muscles, not the other way around.
Cardiovascular disease aside, it’s not usually your aerobic capacity that creates limits in your life as you age, but more the function of your muscles.
People tend to reduce their activity levels because their knee hurts for example and they become limited in their ability to perform aerobic exercise.
Joint issues and general aches and pains can usually be improved with appropriate resistance training. Continuing to perform aerobic exercise that’s causing you issues can make them worse.
It’s also important to remember that resistance training provides a training effect to the cardiovascular system, something that’s often overlooked.
The best exercise for over 50s really depends on what you were doing at 49. There’s no need to make drastic changes to your exercise programme just because you’re 50.
It’s useful to understand the gradual changes that are occurring to your body however and the effect the right type of exercise can have.
Regular resistance training addresses the most significant of these changes, loss of muscle mass, and will provide you with a good foundation for other activities.