Getting Fit Again
Your 30s went by in a flash. In the whirlwind of work, family, and social obligations, exercise was often the first thing dropped from your daily schedule. Now you look at yourself in a mirror and wonder, what the hell happened? Your jeans feel tight, your waistline’s got a jelly roll, and there’s some disturbing flapping coming from where your triceps used to be.
"At the end of the 30s, your hormones start to change. With estrogen levels dropping and testosterone levels rising, women often begin storing fat the same place men do — in their middles," says Michele Olson, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama. Factor in your slowing metabolism, and it looks as if the numbers on your scale might only head upward.
The good news is that you can reverse course. While dropping excess pounds won’t be as easy as in your 20s, just a few changes in your activity level can bring about big results.
"Exercise is like your personal fountain of youth," says Geralyn Coopersmith, an exercise physiologist and the national manager of personal trainer education for Equinox Fitness health clubs. "It retards the aging process on a cellular level." A recent Spanish study found moderate exercise boosts the functioning of the cellular engines called mitochondria, which helps counter the signs of growing older. Similarly, British researchers working with 2,400 twins found that the more physically active of each pair had significantly more youthful telomeres (the tips of chromosomes inside cells) than the less active sibling.
There’s no reason to overhaul your whole routine. "You simply need to adjust what you’re doing to get more out of every workout. It’s a matter of working smarter, not necessarily harder," says Keli Roberts, a Los Angeles-based trainer and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. Start with easy tweaks to your routine. You’ll soon become stronger, slimmer, and healthier, for your 40s and beyond.
Changes to Make
If you spent your 30s: Vowing to exercise three to four times a week
From now on: Do a little something every day
The best intentions can be thwarted by your calendar; if it’s overscheduled, no wonder you’re missing those triweekly dates at the gym. A better tack: Vow to do something that will get you breathing hard for at least 10 minutes, seven days a week. "Even if you just set the timer on the kitchen stove and vigorously clean the house or run up and down the stairs, you’ll do something good for your heart — and your waistline," says Andrea Metcalf, a Chicago-based trainer and MORE magazine contributing editor. (An added benefit: If you aim for a 10-minute session, you’ll often end up exercising for 15 or 20 minutes, which is even better.) A study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that women who were told to exercise for at least 10 minutes two to four times a day, five days a week, lost five pounds more and worked out on more days and for significantly longer than those who were simply instructed to exercise for a block of 20 to 40 minutes five times per week.
If you spent your 30s: Cycling through the same weight machine circuit
From now on: Use free weights
Strength training is crucial to preventing the post-30 loss of muscle mass, which can slow down metabolism by as much as five percent each decade. But using those padded strength machines at the gym is like watching TV with the sound off — you don’t get the full effect. "Weight machines are a good place to start," says Roberts, "but sooner or later you need to graduate to dumbbells." Dumbbell exercises involve a greater number of muscles because your body — and not the machine — provides stability. And the more muscles you work, the more calories you burn. Free weights are also more versatile: You can do traditional moves like a shoulder press with only one arm, or bicep curls standing on a balance disc. Just make sure the weights are heavy enough to challenge your muscles (meaning that you can lift them for only eight to 12 repetitions before you get exhausted). Aim to work with weights two to three times a week; a vigorous yoga class can also substitute for a weight session.
If you spent your 30s: Eating three square meals
From now on: Graze all day
Eating five or six smaller meals instead of three larger ones can help prevent both hunger and overeating. Mini meals steady blood sugar levels and slow down the release of insulin, a hormone that can cause your body to store more fat, explains Maye Musk, RD, a New York-based nutritionist. The emphasis is on mini: If you aim for 1,800 calories a day, you’ll average about 300 calories at each of six meals. A mix of protein and high-fiber carbs helps you stay fuller longer. Musk’s favorite combos include a hard-boiled egg with a piece of whole grain toast; nuts and dried cranberries; and a stick of string cheese plus an apple. Have the first mini-meal early in the day: Numerous studies confirm that eating a morning meal keeps blood sugar levels stable and can help ward off hunger during the afternoon and evening.
Changes to Make, Continued
If you spent your 30s: Walking or jogging three miles
From now on: Add intervals
Sure, a 40-minute steady slog on the treadmill is ideal for catching up on the nightly news or the latest episode of Lost, but your session can be a lot more productive if you add intervals. This is how it works: Increase the intensity of your aerobic routine to near your limit for anywhere from 20 seconds to two minutes, then spend about an equal amount of time exercising at a level that feels comfortable. Continue alternating the sequence during your workout. This kind of training turns your body into a more effective fat-burning machine because the harder you work during the session, the higher the energy expenditure and the longer your metabolism stays elevated. Switching intensities also teaches your body to become more adept at delivering oxygen to the muscles and taking away waste products, so you can exercise longer without getting tired. Plus, you continue to burn more calories after the session is over because your body has to work harder to recover. Some recent studies pinpoint the benefits. Australian researchers reported that women who interval-trained on stationary cycles three days a week (doing eight-second speed bursts followed by 12 seconds of recovery for a total of 20 minutes) lost nearly five pounds more than those who did a slow, steady 40-minute routine — and lost more than 10 percent of their belly fat in the process. In another small study, subjects who ran in 20 one-minute speed bursts followed by two-minute recovery periods burned twice as many calories post-workout as they did with a single 30-minute, steady paced session. Because the training puts some stress on your body, limit your interval sessions to no more than two or three times a week, Coopersmith advises. It’s fine to strength-train or do some cardio at a steady pace on the other days.
If you spent your 30s: Being a carb junkie
From now on: Pump up your protein intake
"When you reach 40, it becomes harder for your muscles to recover from exercise and you need more protein to assist in the repair process," says Lisa Dorfman, RD, a sports nutritionist and adjunct professor in the department of exercise and sports science at the University of Miami. Try to eat about half your body weight in protein grams every day. If you weigh 160 pounds, you need 80 grams of protein; if you’re 100 pounds, 50 grams is enough. As a bonus, protein makes you feel fuller, so you’re less likely to overeat. It’s a proven diet aid: One study found those who followed a six-month diet with at least 25 percent of the calories from protein lost nearly twice as much fat as those who got only 12 percent of their calories from protein. Just make sure you select low-fat sources, like chicken breasts, fish, nonfat dairy, and protein-rich legumes.
If you spent your 30s: Squeezing in a few perfunctory stretches
From now on: Schedule in five minutes a day of full-body flexibility
As you grow older, your muscles become less pliable, and that affects your health and functioning. Tight muscles can interfere with your ability to get a good workout because you may not move as quickly or freely, and thus may burn fewer calories. Becoming inflexible can also make day-to-day chores a hassle: It may get more difficult to reach for a book on a high shelf or bend down to pick up a stray sock. But you can prevent these problems by stretching major muscles — hips, hamstrings, quads, shoulders, and neck — for just five to 10 minutes at a time. Coopersmith says: "My guideline is to do one solid flexibility workout for every decade of life, so if you’re 50, that’s five days a week." For a variety of easy-to-follow 10-minute routines, check out the Perfect in 10: Stretch DVD, led by Annette Fletcher ($15; StratoStream.com).
If you spent your 30: Taking a day off when you’re feeling sore
From now on: Build in active recovery
You may notice that you aren’t springing back from exercise sessions as fast as you once did. "Your ability to recover after a workout declines," says Roberts. But instead of spending the day curled up on the couch with a great book, get moving. Research has shown that light physical activity — including walking, stretching, or just moving about — significantly reduces next-day soreness. "Exercising increases blood flow and improves circulation, which helps get rid of some of the metabolic by-products of your tough workouts," Roberts explains. Another way to speed up recovery (and ease muscle tension) is to massage sore or tight areas with a foam roller. For years, physical therapists have relied on these firm foam logs as a rehab tool, but they’re great even if you’re not injured. Start by placing the area you want to target (such as the back of your thigh or your lower back) on top of the equipment, then slowly roll your body up and down, stopping where you feel a tight spot. "Rolling out muscles increases blood flow and at the same time helps to break up some of the scar tissue that surrounds the muscles and tendons as you age," Metcalf explains. Foam rollers are widely available in sporting goods stores and on amazon.com, usually for less than $20.
Originally published in MORE magazine, December 2008/January 2009.
Want the latest beauty, fashion and lifestyle tips? Click here to sign up for our fabulous weekly newsletter!