The Over-40 Workout Pyramid

Exercise to meet your over-40 fitness needs and stay in good health through middle age. Learn what workouts you need and how to get motivated.

By Bari Nan Cohen

The Bricks: Physical ExerciseThe "why" part of exercise is easy: Physical activity keeps you young by improving balance, mobility, strength, and stamina and reducing your stress level as well as your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. It’s the "how" part that can get you stuck: how much, how often, how hard, how long? There’s no one place to go for answers, so we did the legwork and put together this exercise pyramid, highlighting the building blocks of a workout for an over-40 woman. The bricks are the physical components of your activity plan — the must-do items to tap the longevity benefits of exercise. The mortar is the mental component that holds your fitness plan together (and helps you stick to it). Use this template to build your own routine, one that you can live with and, most important, enjoy.Everyday moves: 200 calories a day Try to torch a couple of hundred calories each day by ratcheting up your regular activities: Take the stairs, walk to get your errands done, do some of your own housework, and try to beat your time to the mailbox. "These activities alone are not enough to get you in shape, but you will burn those extra calories responsible for fat rolls and weight creep as you get older," says Barbara A. Brehm, PhD, chair of exercise and sports studies at Smith College. Look for any exercise opportunity: If you work in a high-rise building, try to climb 10 flights of stairs a day. You’ll burn 85 calories in just 10 minutes. Carrying groceries for five minutes gets rid of 13 calories. Every little bit gets you closer to your daily goal. For more about how many calories you burn just living your life, go to 30 to 60 minutes, four to five times a week "Cardio really is your key to keeping disease at bay after 40. As you age, your circulation decreases, putting you at greater risk for blood clots and heart disease," says Leslie Sansone, creator of the Five-Mile Advanced Walking DVD ( With cardio, you’re not only building more blood vessels, you’re making all your vessels and capillaries more efficient, thus increasing your heart and lung strength. "In your 40s, the payoff for working out to stave off disease is actually greater than it was in your 30s," Brehm says. "Cardio keeps your weight stable, which reduces your risk for hypertension and type 2 diabetes." Whatever you’re doing, do it with gusto. "If you are walking, head to a hill or go faster; if you’re on the treadmill, crank up the incline — you can’t get away with cutting corners, the way you could in your 30s," says Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Fit to Live. "You lose muscle faster after 40 — mostly from disuse — so ramping it up helps counteract that." For each session, aim to burn at least 300 calories.Strength training: 20 to 30 minutes, two to three times a week "After 40, the key is lifting weights heavy enough to make a difference in fighting bone and muscle loss," Brehm says. "If you can easily do eight to 12 reps, it’s time to increase the weight to something that feels tough after six to eight reps." Peeke’s favorite strength-boosting trick is to hold the movement. "You don’t have to increase weights to get results," she says. "When you think you’re at the top of a biceps curl or the bottom of a squat, hold and squeeze just a little more out of that muscle." To get the most weight-loss bang for your exercise minutes, do compound exercises — moves that hit multiple muscle groups simultaneously — recommends Robert Ferguson, creator of the weight loss program Diet Free for Life ( "Exercises such as squats, lunges, and lateral pull-downs have a greater metabolism-boosting effect because you’re activating more muscles."Specialty work (yoga, Pilates, core): 10 minutes daily "Women think they have to make a huge commitment to yoga or Pilates," Brehm says. "Just a few exercises give you benefits." Cherrypick the best moves, and tack them onto the end of your cardio and strength workouts. Get more ideas from The Pilates Body by Brooke Siler, or the Power Pilates Beginner Workout DVD ( Strong core muscles will help prevent injury and protect your posture. "If you start to slump, your shoulders round and you look older," Brehm adds.Flexibility: 10 minutes daily "Stretching and other flexibility work becomes more important as you get older," says Mitch Gaylord, creator of The Perfect 10 Workout DVD ( Tendons and ligaments dry out, so pushing more blood to them by stretching helps you stay flexible. You’re also helping your heart. "Stretching squeezes the blood right through the muscles and back to the heart," Peeke says. Refresh your stretch repertoire with The Stretch Deck ( or Karen Voight’s Pure & Simple Stretch DVD ( Mortar: Mental MotivationPassion Use something you love — a sport, a new challenge — to help you set fitness goals. "Think about goal-setting as a way to guide your focus," says Gaylord. By your 40s, you know which kinds of exercise you enjoy and what makes your workouts fun. Joining a tennis league or tackling something specific, like a mini triathlon, can give you the structure you need to get your best workouts.Variety "If you do the same workout all year long, you get diminishing returns in terms of results," Sansone says. "It takes about 12 weeks for your body to hit a plateau, so switching your workouts with the seasons makes sense." And since you’re more injury-prone with age, you’ll avoid repetitive stress injuries by mixing it up. Keeping a workout journal can help you tweak your routine regularly. "If you don’t track your progress, you won’t be able to tell if you’re slacking off," Gaylord says. "Writing it down keeps you honest."Rest (ahhh!) When you allow your body to fully recover from exercise, you perform better at the next workout. Alternate tough cardio sessions with mellow walks. Between strength sessions, take at least 48 hours to recover. (Some recent research even suggests that women 40 and over need to give muscles a 72-hour break between workouts.) You can alternate upper- and lower-body exercises on strength-training days to build in rest for the different muscle groups. Originally published in MORE magazine, May 2007.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:27

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