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The 4 Most Important Exercises You Should Be Doing After 50

By Sheryl Kraft
Reviewed by Daniel Lew, M.D.
March 08, 2024

Even if you’ve always been active, once you reach midlife, exercise takes on a whole new meaning and importance. It’s no longer just about looking good or squeezing into your skinny jeans. Now, more than ever, it’s about maintaining or improving your health, fitness, and strength.

Not only does exercise benefit you today, but it can help prevent serious health conditions tomorrow. According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, along with a healthy diet, regular exercise may be the key to lowering your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Indeed, reams of research suggest that exercise can extend your life.

“Lifelong exercisers embrace training with an appreciation of the body’s wisdom and an awareness of its capabilities,” says exercise physiologist Joan Pagano, author of Strength Training Exercises for Women.

If you can’t claim the title “lifelong exerciser,” it’s never too late to start. In fact, with some effort and dedication, you have the ability to build muscle just like highly-trained athletes of the same age, according to researchers in a University of Birmingham study. Here’s what the experts say you should focus on when exercising over age 50.

Before You Jump In

If you’re returning to exercise after a long break or you’re an exercise novice, start slowly. “It’s a good idea to check in with a [medical] professional for a screening evaluation before you begin,” says Deirdre Finn, a New York City-based physical therapist. This way, any potential problems and weak or stiff areas can be addressed to help you avoid injury and make a smooth transition into exercise, she says.

Many people equate exercise with having a regular activity like walking, running, or swimming. And they’re right. But to reap all its benefits, exercise should not be just one activity, but many different ones to target different areas of your health. Your exercise plan should include a variety of moves meant to improve endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility.

1. For Endurance: Go Cardio

We already know that physical activity is good for the heart. So it’s no coincidence that an article published in the journal Circulation concluded that “more active or fit individuals tend to develop less coronary heart disease (CHD) than their sedentary counterparts.” And even if CHD, or clogged arteries, develop, it will more likely be at a later age and less severe, experts say. This is important for preventing a heart attack or stroke.

Aerobic exercise has many other benefits. It can help you control your weight, strengthen your immune system, and reduce the risk of major health conditions like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart attack, and even some cancers. It also strengthens bones and muscles, and boosts mood and brain function. More importantly, aerobic exercise has benefits on overall risk of death, and this is seen regardless of other potential health benefits, such as getting high blood pressure under better control or losing weight.

How to Do It

Aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity at least five days a week. The Mayo Clinic and other health experts recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, each week (or a combination of the two). Moderate activity could be walking briskly, swimming, or yoga, for example. Vigorous activity is the kind that gets your heart pumping—think running, Zumba, or kickboxing.

Don’t sweat it if you don’t have 30 solid minutes of free time for exercise per day. You can break it up into five to 10 minutes of movement at a time. The most important thing to know is that any exercise is better than no exercise.

If you have pain in often-used joints (like your knees), switch to low-impact activities, like swimming. Swimming is a great exercise for any joint pain, especially those on weight-bearing joints like the hips, knees, and ankles, because you still get the same health benefits such as you would from running, but the water reduces the amount of stress on your joints. You can also try walking or any other activity where you keep at least one foot on the ground at all times, but add faster-paced intervals to really work your cardiovascular system. “You can achieve the same level of fitness without risk of injury,” Pagano says.

Try this: Take it up a notch and break your 30-minute workout into five sequences. Do three minutes at a moderate pace, followed by three minutes of higher intensity. Repeat this sequence five times before allowing a few minutes for your cool-down.

2. For Strength: Join the Resistance

Peak bone mass is achieved by the time you turn 30, and bone loss actually begins as early as in your 40s. During and after menopause, the loss of bone mass and density accelerates, then levels off several years after menopause. This is when osteoporosis can occur—in this condition, bones are so weak, that you’re at heightened risk for a broken bone when you accidentally fall, often in the wrist, spine, or hip, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Because it’s a “silent disease,” many people will not even know they have osteoporosis until they break a bone.

But strength exercises can help strengthen your bones. “Applying resistance to the muscles stimulates growth of the muscle fibers and creates bone density at the site,” explains Pagano. Other perks? These movements can speed metabolism; ease symptoms of arthritis, back pain, depression, and diabetes; and help prevent the risk of heart disease.

How to Do It

Typical strength exercises include lifting free weights and using weight machines at the gym, but if you’d like to try something different, consider using resistance tubes or bands, which can be more convenient, especially at home, and can work muscles just as well. Body-weight exercises such as push-ups, planks, squats, lunges, and pull-ups can also help you build strength and can be done at home.

Exercises for all the major muscle groups should be done two or three days each week, but be sure not to work the same muscle groups two days in a row, says Pagano. Try alternating exercises every other day to work out different muscle groups, and try to find new exercises every few weeks to get the full benefits from your exercises.

Also, it’s important to make sure you start out with the right amount of weight or resistance, to exercise on stable surfaces, and to avoid any sudden movements to avoid serious injury. If you’re unsure what to do, make an appointment with a personal trainer or physical therapist who can guide you.

3. For Balance: It Takes Practice

No, you’re not klutzy. With age, balance problems can become more common due to changes in muscles, joints, vision, and reaction time. And since falls can lead to serious problems like head injuries and broken bones, boosting your balance now will put you on better footing as you age.

How to Do It

There are a few different ways you can work to improve your balance. This includes Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese martial art that today is used as a mind-body practice. Doing this moving meditation helps ground you with a series of slow, rhythmic motions performed along with deep breathing. Studies find it significantly improves and maintains balance.

You can also practice these balance-boosters throughout your day:

  • Stand on one leg. You can do this anytime: while brushing your teeth, washing the dishes, or watching television. Either hold onto a nearby counter or chair with one hand, or make sure there’s a stable object nearby to grab in case you feel unsteady.
  • Practice walking sideways, or walking heel-to-toe.
  • Practice walking in a straight line with your arms raised to shoulder height, focusing on a spot ahead of you as you walk. Lift your back leg for a few seconds before each step forward.
  • Engage your core muscles while exercising. Strengthening and stabilizing your pelvis, hips, and lower back will help improve your balance. Any exercises that use your abdominal muscles, such as planks, squats, and toe-raises, are effective, says Finn.

Pro tip: When standing on one leg, stand tall and engage your core muscles. Hold each set for about 20 to 30 seconds, and work up to three sets.

4. For Flexibility: Stretch It Out

Muscles, tendons, and ligaments naturally tighten with age. Stretching helps lengthen them, thus preventing injuries. Plus, it can counteract back and joint pain and balance problems, while reducing the wear and tear of everyday life.

How to Do It

Work two types of stretching into your routine:

  • Dynamic stretching: Used as part of a warm-up, dynamic stretching is when you actively tighten your muscles and move your joints through their full range of motion. Walking lunges and leg swings are two examples. Dynamic stretching helps to increase blood flow to those muscles and increase joint mobility to reduce the risk of injury.
  • Static stretching: Used as part of a cool-down routine, static stretching is when your muscle is put under light tension while gently holding a stretch in a single position for 30 to 60 seconds without any pain. This can be done while standing, sitting, or lying still. Examples are a hamstring stretch and a quadriceps stretch. Static stretching after exercise loosens your muscles and can reduce any pain or discomfort and increase your flexibility and range of motion.

It’s a great idea to stretch daily, and to remember to breathe normally while holding a stretch.

Remember, no matter the exercise, a proper warm-up helps reduce the risk of injury and prepares your body for more strenuous work, says Pagano. It’s important to begin slowly and gradually increase the intensity of your workout.

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