Building a Better Body After 40 (Really!)

Here’s a road map to doing it all (and doing it right): perfect toners, best stretches, essential supplements, injury-proofers.

By Holly St. Lifer

The New Rules of Fitness

My life in fitness: In my 20s, I ran, took aerobics classes and played tennis. Back then it was all about looking good and having fun. In my 30s, I stepped up the running to relieve stress and traded aerobics for ab work to get my stomach back in shape after having two kids.

Now I’m 46, and my priorities have changed again. All that pounding on pavement and too many two-handed backhands have done a serious number on my knees, hips, and lower back. And I needed a new routine to do a better job of fighting gravity. (I simply refuse to sag.) Without giving up the activities I love, I had to update my approach. I’m still running, but I do it on a treadmill or track so it’s less pounding. Between runs, I’m exploring kickboxing, Spinning, Pilates, and yoga. I haven’t looked back.

Follow my lead: This step-by-step guide will help you continue to reap all the stress-beating, endorphin-inducing, disease-fighting, and age-defying benefits you can only get from a really good sweat.

Whether you’re an exercise veteran or a newbie, your fitness needs change once you hit 40. Here’s how to fine-tune your workouts.

Do Cardio at All Speeds

Have you been working out at the same speed? It’s time to branch out. Varying the intensity of your cardio keeps you seeing results. There are four basic levels: A moderate zone (your breathing is slightly deeper than at rest); a steady-state zone (your breathing is deeper and you’re going at a good clip); an aerobic zone (deeper-still breathing and the pace is challenging); and a threshold zone (your breathing is sharp and your muscles are working to fatigue). You can move through these different levels within the same workout, or during different sessions or with different activities.

Try It: Twice a week, do interval training: alternating bursts of sprinting with bouts of moderate pace to recover. "By making your heart rate repeatedly spike, you hike up the calorie burn," says Wayne Westcott, fitness research director of the Southshore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Circuit training — hopping among several cardio activities within one workout — also propels you past your status quo. "Be sure to choose activities that use different muscle groups. So, for example, run, then do the elliptical trainer, and then cycle. By resting some muscles while using others, you don’t fatigue as fast, so you can keep working harder," says Westcott.

Incorporate speed play into your sweat session and your everyday life — speedwalk to a meeting or walk up the stairs in slow-mo (slowing down means you use more muscles and less momentum). Mix up your fitness routine every month or so by rotating your favorites or trying something completely new. Note to newbies: When you present your body with the challenge of a new activity, it expends more energy. That translates into quicker toning and weight loss.

Weights and Centers

Lift Some Weight

If you’re not strength-training two or three times a week, start now. Right now. Once you hit 30, your lean-muscle tissue, which acts as a calorie burner, will decrease by about a pound a year if you’re inactive. "Resistance training is your best defense. Without it, even if you run a marathon every day, you’ll still lose muscle," says exercise physiologist Douglas Brooks of Mammoth Lakes, California. Studies also show lifting weights (along with weight-bearing cardio, such as running or tennis) combats osteoporosis by arresting bone loss and building bone density.

Here’s one instance where basic moves will do — find ones that work the major muscle groups (shoulders, chest, back, abs, butt, legs, and arms) and stick to them. More important than variety is progression, notes Brooks. "The number of reps doesn’t change, but as you get more fit, to continue to see results, you have to increase the resistance regularly so your muscles always fatigue between 8-12 or 12-15 reps," he says.

Try It: Changing what you use for resistance can make the same old routine seem less so. Stretchy bands, weighted medicine balls, and cables all add resistance in a slightly different way. For more ideas, check out Westcott’s book, Building Strength and Stamina (Human Kinetics, 2003).

Get Centered

To tone and strengthen your core or inner corset of ab and back muscles, you need to work them in every direction, leaning forward, backward, and side to side. "Core conditioning develops stability in your torso, which improves your posture, balance, and range of motion while easing tightness and chronic pain in the surrounding areas like your upper back, neck and hips," says New York City chiropractor Howard Sichel, owner of Power Pilates. And it helps nip back pain in the bud.

The peak age for back pain is the 40s, and it’s most often a result of microtraumas that accumulate over time, rather than one big incident. "Strengthening your core muscles can lessen or even rid you of the pain, even if working out caused the problem in the first place," says Sichel.

Try It: If your back is your Achilles heel, do the 15-minute back workout on the "Power Pilates, Connect to Your Body’s Core, Intermediate Workout" DVD (www.powerpilates.com). Heck, do it even if you don’t have back troubles; it’s a great strengthening routine for an overlooked body part. Another core move that can flatten abs and whittle your waist is the leaning reach.

  • Sit up tall with knees bent, feet flat, and arms extended in front of you at shoulder height.
  • Tighten abs by bringing your navel to your spine and lean back slightly, still keeping abs contracted.
  • Open right arm as far as you can so that arms form a diagonal line. Turn head to look at right hand.
  • Hold for two breaths; return to start and repeat to left. Do three times.

Balances, Postures, and Flexes

Find Your Balance

"Many women think good balance is something only a lucky few are born with, but it’s actually a skill that everyone can learn and get better at," says Jonathan Fields, owner of Sonic Yoga in New York City. "Better your balance and you’ll find you’re more open to trying more new-to-you pursuits — like hiking, mountain-biking, snowboarding, and dancing." The better body payoff for practicing balance — you’re working more tiny stabilizing muscles. More muscles working means more toning for you.

Try It: Work in a balance session (like a yoga or tai chi class or tape) once or twice a week. And practice — try putting on and tying your sneakers while standing on one leg. Another move to improve your balance is the yoga tree pose.

  • Stand with both feet hip-width apart and focus your eyes on a still point that’s at eye level about six feet in front of you.
  • Put your weight on your left leg.
  • Bend your right knee, lifting your foot off the floor, and place the sole of your right foot against the inside of the left shin, knee pointed out to the side. (For a greater challenge, move the right foot up to your left inner thigh.)
  • Bring your palms together overhead.
  • Try to hold for 10-15 slow breaths and repeat on the other side. For more balance moves, check out Fields’ "Vinyasa Heat Live!" videos (www.sonicyoga.com).

Make Posture a Priority

"Woman are twice as likely as men to suffer from chronic shoulder, neck, and upper-back pain," says Sichel. The main culprit: poor posture. But you can turn a slouch around with this on-the-spot Pilates move that straightens your spine, lowers your shoulders, and flattens your abs, says Sichel.

Try It: The next time you’re sitting or standing, inhale through your nose, lifting abdominals in and up (think of pulling your navel in and away from your thighs.) Exhale while maintaining this vertical lift. Repeat three times.

Take More Flex Time

"As we get older, collagen fibers in and around our tendons and ligaments stiffen, so we lose flexibility," says exercise physiologist Robyn M. Stuhr of the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. And when an area remains tight for too long, it’s more likely to turn into an injury. You don’t have to set aside huge blocks of time to stay loose. "Taking brief, five-minute stretch breaks throughout the day (as well as during and after your workouts) is all you need to achieve and maintain full range of motion," says physical therapist J. Brent Feland, PhD, of Brigham Young University. For optimal results, hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds.

If you’re always stiff, get evaluated by a physical therapist or personal trainer, who can customize a stretching program for you. "Often, the tightness originates from another, seemingly unrelated area," says Stuhr. "Pain in your low back or knees can be related to tight hamstrings, hip flexors, or hip rotators." Stretch three days a week to maintain flexibility, five days a week to improve it.

Try It: Most of us are more likely to be tight in the hip flexors, Achilles tendon, hamstrings, and low back. These two moves should be part of your repertoire:

Stability bridge (for hamstrings, low back, calves)

  • Lie on back, feet hip-width apart and flat.
  • Lift hips off floor, so torso forms a straight line from knees to shoulders.
  • Extend left leg up. Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Lower left foot and slowly lower hips to about an inch off the floor, hold for one count and lift again into a bridge, this time extending right leg into the air.
  • Return to start; repeat three times. (This move has the double benefit of being a stretch and a strength pose.)

Pigeon pose (for hip flexors, low back)

  • Start kneeling. Extend your right leg behind you, keeping top of foot on floor.
  • Bend left knee at a 90-degree angle and slowly lower your weight toward floor.
  • Hold for 10 breaths; repeat on opposite side.

The New Science of Meal Timing

By now you know what (and what not) to eat, so we’ll spare you the Nutrition 101 lecture. But according to recent studies, when you eat can be just as important as what, when it comes to managing weight and energy.

More Is Better

"Many women skip breakfast, and then eat two large meals a day. The combination of eating a lot infrequently boosts insulin production, which increases fat storage," says University of Texas exercise physiologist John Ivy, coauthor of Nutrient Timing (Basic Health, 2004).

Instead, he recommends eating six or seven smaller meals throughout the day. Each meal should be a combo of complex carbs, fat, and protein, roughly 50 percent complex carbs, 20 percent protein, and the other 30 percent fat to keep insulin levels low and your metabolism humming along. You’ll notice the effect immediately: "Your energy level will be even all day, and you’ll no longer feel famished," he says.

Eat First, Then Work Out

Exercising on an empty stomach deprives your body of crucial energy. "When you don’t have enough calories available, your body breaks down muscle to use instead — just what you don’t want to do," says Karen Reznik Dolins, director of nutrition at Altheus, a health and sports performance center in Rye, New York. "Less muscle slows down metabolic rate." You’ll also get fatigued faster, so you won’t be able to perform as hard or as long. Think snack, not meal: For a moderate workout of no more than an hour, have an eight-ounce glass of water and a piece of fruit.

Work Out, Then Eat

Eating within an hour postworkout can actually reduce the amount of fat your body stores. "This is the time your body is most efficient at converting carbohydrate into glycogen and using protein for lean muscle growth, repair, and building," says John Ivy. Eating after a workout also reduces your cortisol levels — a stress hormone that’s responsible for fat deposits around the abdomen — which rise during high-intensity workouts and remain high until you eat. Opt for fruit and yogurt, or a peanut-butter sandwich.

Eat Dinner — Then Quit

Dinner should be the last time you eat in the evening. "You need less fuel at the end of the day because you’re less active, so any extra calories you take in are more likely to be converted to fat," says Reznik Dolins. Had a teeny-tiny dinner? You can nosh, but no more than 200 calories’ worth. Snack on a small bowl of whole-grain cereal, or a low-fat yogurt.

Injury-Proof Your Workouts

As you age, body wear and tear just comes with the territory; so does the potential for injury. Stay in the game with these guidelines.

Start slowlyBegin every exercise session with 10 minutes of rhythmic activity (try marching in place) or your intended activity at a slower pace. "This raises your heart rate and body temperature, and makes muscles and joints more fluid and less prone to injury," says Robin Stuhr. Stretching is not warming up. "Stretching cold can lead to injury," warns Douglas Brooks. Save stretching for after a workout.

End SlowlyGradually slowing your cardio activity over at least five minutes normalizes heart rate and circulation. "Blood is directed to working muscles when you exercise and then flows back to the rest of the body during the cool-down," explains Wayne Westcott. "Stopping abruptly interrupts this flow and can cause dizziness as well as increase your risk for a heart attack."

Cross-TrainIt’s a proven way to avoid injury and mental burnout, notes Jonathan Fields. If you mostly walk or run, cross-train by lifting weights or doing yoga or Pilates. If you’re into cycling or Spinning, mix it up with weight lifting, walking, jogging, and yoga/Pilates.

Take Rest Seriously During any vigorous activity, microtears occur in your working muscles. When you take a day off between sessions, muscles repair themselves and become even stronger. "If you don’t allow the repair process to take place — which happens only at rest — you won’t experience the same strength improvements and you’ll risk injury," says Robin Stuhr.

Massage Your MusclesGrab a firm small ball and roll on it wherever you feel tight or tense, such as your shoulders or lower back. You’re using your own body weight to get a deep, penetrating massage, says New York personal trainer Robert Caravetta. Over time, you’ll be stretching muscles and increasing the range of motion in the joints, which translates into fewer aches and injuries. Plus, it feels good. Caravetta recommends this self-massage as cool-down after a workout.

Consider Supplements

"Once you hit your 40s, alleviating joint and muscle pain and improving bone health should get equal billing in your effort to stay strong, healthy, and fit," says nutrition scientist Shari Lieberman, PhD., author of The Real Vitamin & Mineral Book (Avery, 2003). Here are her top picks to tackle both.

  • Vitamin D: Recent studies show that it reduces your risk of fractures by improving bone-mineral density while also helping the body absorb calcium better.Daily dose: 800 IU. (Consult your doctor if you’re currently taking more than 1,000 IUs a day.)
  • Calcium and magnesium: Calcium is essential for bone health, but magnesium is just as important: When you take calcium alone, this upsets your body’s mineral balance and can lead to magnesium deficiency, which actually contributes to bone loss. Daily dose: 1,000mg. of calcium and 500mg. of magnesium.
  • Glucosamine: May help alleviate joint pain by repairing damaged cartilage between the joints.Daily dose: 2 grams a day. (It may take four to six weeks to feel effects.)
  • Vitamins C and E: Take these together an hour before a workout. "These are powerful antioxidants that can prevent delayed-onset muscle soreness — that stiff, achy feeling that sets in 48 hours after a strenuous workout," says Lieberman.Daily dose: 400 IU of vitamin E, 2 grams of vitamin C.

10-Minute Body-Shaping Plan

Functional fitness exercises are designed to work muscle groups used in everyday movements like lifting groceries, hitting a tennis serve, or stepping off a curb in heels. "The idea behind it is to train the body for real life," says J. C. Santana, director of the Institute of Human Performance in Boca Raton, Florida. "It’s about teaching all the muscles to work together, rather than isolating them to work independently."

As a result, each move incorporates more muscles and works them in all three planes of motion (forward, backward, lateral), so you burn more calories and shape up in less time than with conventional workouts. These moves also focus on core strengthening and balance. This series can stand in as a total body workout if you can’t do your usual routine. And if you’re new to weight lifting and don’t have a routine, this is a great way to start. Do the series in order three times, resting for two minutes between each round. You’ll be done in less than 10 minutes. All you need is a pair of 5- to 10-pound weights.

Upward punch: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, holding hand weights at shoulder height. Press upward with right arm, straightening elbow, then lower back to shoulder height. Press upward with left arm, straightening elbow. Continue punching motion, alternating arms, five times on each side.

Cross punch: Stand with feet wider than shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Hold the hand weights at shoulder height. Pivot to the right, pressing right arm in front of chest, straightening elbow. Return to start; repeat with left side. Continue punching and pivot motion, alternating arms, five times on each side.

Downward punch: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Bend both arms to position hand weights at shoulder height. Lean forward slightly from the hips, keeping back straight. Press right arm down toward floor, straightening elbow; return to start. Repeat with left arm. Continue punching motion, alternating arms, five times on each side.

Side-reaching lunge: Stand with feet hip-width apart, feet parallel, holding hand weights at sides. Step sideways with your left leg, keeping feet parallel and bending left knee. Keeping back straight, bend forward from the hips and reach weights to laces of left shoe. Step back to start and repeat to right. Continue stepping to side, alternating legs, five times on each side.

Front-reaching lunge: Stand upright, feet hip-width apart, holding hand weights by sides. Step forward with your left leg into a lunge position, so left knee forms a 90-degree angle. Keeping back straight, bend forward from the hips and reach weights toward the laces of left foot, allowing right knee to bend. Step back to start; repeat on right side. Do five times on each leg.

Back-reaching lunge: Stand with feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, feet parallel, holding hand weights at sides. Step backward on a slight diagonal with left leg, bending left knee once foot is flat. Keeping your back straight, bend forward from hips and reach weights to laces of left shoe. Return to start, repeat to right side. Continue lunging, alternating sides, five times on each side.

Originally published in MORE magazine, March 2005.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 17:03

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