Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Aging isn’t a reason for slowing down athletically. In fact, there’s been a substantial growth of sports participation among women between 45 and 64 over the last six years, according to the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation’s Women’s Participation in Sports and Physical Activity report.
But there is good reason for 20- and 30-somethings, juggling an ambitious work, family and social schedule, not to blow off exercise, either. Maintaining a dedicated fitness routine in the early years is a great way to stay slim and sculpted and build sizzling stamina while creating a rock-solid foundation to prevent body breakdown in later years.
High-impact workouts like running and plyometrics are great calorie zappers and cardio boosters in our 20s and 30s, when muscles are supple and joints resilient. They also build bone density that we start to naturally lose in our 40s.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, our bodies build bone until about 30 years old, which then slowly whittles away in later years.
“As we move out of our 30s and 40s, resistance training becomes increasingly important since we naturally lose muscle mass as hormones shift and lifestyles become less ‘intense,’” says Michele Olson, Ph.D., FACSM, CSCS, professor of exercise science at Auburn University in Alabama, explaining that in our 40s, muscle strength and lean muscle mass begin to lessen, a condition known as sarcopenia. “Since heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, all women should do cardio three to five days per week, plus strength training.”
No matter your age, women can stay fit and fabulous for life with a strategic training, nutrition and recovery plan that embraces the natural changes that come along with every wonderful decade.
At this fun, freewheeling stage of life, women are often on their own, starting new careers and relationships. Although it can be a juggling act between work, friends and hitting the gym, it’s critical not to ignore working out.
“Gaining lean muscle mass early will help prevent muscle loss later on,” says Olson, who recommends two to three days of resistance training and three to five days of cardio per week. “Strengthening muscles, bones and organs now will pay off in the future.” She suggests resistance exercises for each major muscle group, including free weights and machines, with three sets of 12 to 18 reps for each exercise.
“Renegade rows are a great way for young, fit women to increase the intensity,” says Jason Strong, NASM-CPT, an Equinox personal trainer in New York City. He suggests starting in a push-up position with your hands on moderately weighted dumbbells. Then while keeping your core engaged, alternate arms pulling the dumbbell to your chest and return to the floor. Do three sets with 12 to 15 reps.
Olson advocates 20 to 60 minutes of cardio three to five times a week, balancing intense workouts like running, boot camp and CrossFit with lower-impact sessions.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, active women 19 to 30 years old require 2,400 calories. Following the national guidelines for female athletes, women should get at least 55 percent carbs from whole grains, legumes and leafy greens; 15 percent protein from lean meat, fish and soy; and less than 25 percent fat, ideally polyunsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds and olive oil. Ample hydration, fruits and veggies are also key to a fit, healthy lifestyle.
While younger bodies heal relatively quickly from intense workouts, recovery days are still important to avoid injury by allowing muscles to heal and grow. “Women should take one to two recovery days between intense strength-training sessions,” Strong says. Strength training creates micro-tears in muscles that rebuild and strengthen on recovery days.
At this full-throttle multitasking time of life, many women are deep into family, work and trying to squeeze in workouts. Bottom line: Time is tight. But don’t forget to take care of yourself.
“This decade is about turning up the resistance by adding heavier weights that max you at 12 reps,” says Olson, recommending two to three days of resistance training and three to five days of cardio per week. “[High-intensity interval training] and hardcore boot camps can be ideal for women in their 20s and 30s when they are tight on time and their bodies are resilient to quickly repair from intense efforts,” Strong says. He explains that it’s best to alternate high-exertion intervals (running, cycling or lifting) with low-to-moderate efforts. Intense intervals and strength training also creates an “afterburn,” which sparks lean muscle mass — that is more “metabolically active” than fat — to burn more calories at rest.
To spice up ab workouts while hitting multiple muscles, Strong recommends doing a plank with up/down movements. To do this, start in a forearm plank pose, press up to a push-up position and then back to forearms. Repeat for 30 to 60 seconds and do three sets.
Cardio can be mixed between two to three days of intervals and one to two days of endurance “tempo” training for 45 to 60 minutes. Intervals may be done while Spinning, running, walking or on the elliptical.
Calcium is an essential tool to combat bone loss, which typically begins in the mid-30s. It’s recommended that women 19 to 50 get 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day with vitamin D to aid in absorption. Calcium is naturally found in dairy, kale and soybean, and good sources of vitamin D include sushi, eggs and fortified dairy. Pre-menopausal women are recommended to get 18 milligrams of iron daily to avoid anemia and boost the immune system. Sources include lean red meat, salmon, almonds, Swiss chard and legumes. Also, folic acid found in asparagus, oranges and leafy greens helps support a healthy pregnancy.
“Even if you are young and doing marathons, you require protracted [extended] recovery,” Olson says, noting that recovery rate is directly related to the speed with which the body can grow new cells to repair itself. And don’t skimp on sleep. Seven to eight hours in the sack is an essential part of recovery and athletic performance. According to a study in Medscape Neurology, sleep deprivation may slow glucose metabolism up to 40 percent, which equates to slower storage of glycogen needed for endurance events exceeding 90 minutes.
The kids are in a groove with their school and extracurriculars and work life has settled, but it’s not the time to back off training.
Olson recommends that women older than 40 “add an extra day of strength” and continue with three to four days of resistance training, which can include yoga or Pilates as a session, to improve waning flexibility. With age, comes a loss of muscle elasticity and new opportunities for injury. But don’t fear, studies have shown stretching can combat the aging effects while increasing muscle strength. Stretching not only increases flexibility by lengthening muscle fibers and tendons, allowing muscle to grow and get stronger, but also improves blood flow, which has been proven to lower cardiac disease, according to a 2009 study in the American Journal of Physiology.
While metabolism naturally slows in women 40 and older, it’s not the absolute. “Despite what many think, our metabolism doesn’t have to decrease with age if we exercise regularly and vigorously,” says Reyna Franco, MS, RDN, CSSD. “Since metabolism is driven by lean tissue and physical activity, older women who are physically active will have the same energy needs as a younger, active individual.” Therefore, a woman with a high percentage of lean muscle will have a faster metabolism than her less fit friend who may weigh the same.
Those time-squeezed will love metabolic resistance training, an intense multijoint/multimuscle circuit that may include 30 consecutive seconds of squats, overhead presses, push-ups and more. “It hits all major muscle groups with about eight different strength moves — including abs/core — and rips calories,” Olson says. As estrogen levels decline during peri-menopause (pre-menopause), menopause and beyond, fat storage tends to settle in the abdomen, making more fat circulate closer to the heart, which may lead to cardiac issues. Olson emphasizes the importance of doing cardio three to five times per week for 45 to 60 minutes at an endurance-building pace with some interval training built in to spike speed and shake things up.
“While hydration is important at any age, our risk of dehydration increases as we age,” warns Franco, who suggests drinking water before, during and after exercise and adding electrolytes during especially hot conditions. In addition, aim for potassium-rich foods and at least 25 grams of fiber daily, which is found in fruit, legumes, leafy greens and whole-grain breads. These will help you feel full while aiding in digestion.
With age, we need more recovery time because soft connective tissues lose some solubility, making muscles stiffer and tighter, which can lead to injury without prudence. “Women over 40 should take one to three days of recovery or active recovery after an intense workout and not do two high-impact sessions back-to-back,” Strong says. A study by the World of Sports Science found that injured athletes 45 years and older recover between 15 to 18 percent slower than a 30-year-old with a similar injury.
You have more time to travel, read and relax. But it’s no reason to quit the exercise game. As women move into their 50s and beyond, they naturally lose muscle mass and strength as their hormones shift — and have to fight against the body’s tendency to curve forward.
Olson recommends continuing strength training three to four times weekly and doing three to five days of cardio with an extra focus on flexibility through yoga and daily stretching. “At this time, women may want to include low-impact, ‘joint-saving’ Spin and aqua workouts and minimize impact running with power walking on a treadmill and hill intervals,” she says.
Strong recommends a solid abs/core program that includes planks along with yoga or Pilates. Keep in mind that many post-menopausal women don’t handle heat as well as in earlier years. “Our sweat glands change, so we produce less sweat as we age,” Franco says. The body sweats later during exercise, she explains, which tricks it to sending more blood to the skin rather than relying on sweat for cooling during activities, creating heat flashes and assorted issues. Hydration and a cool, wet towel on the nape of the neck is a good way to quickly cool an overheated body.
“Perhaps the most astounding difference as we age is proper hydration,” Franco says. “Our total-body water is reduced, along with the sensation of thirst and changes in kidney function, which require more water to remove waste products.” At this stage, women need less iron. Franco suggests athletic women 50 and older may benefit from a “senior” type of multivitamin-mineral supplement that contains less iron and more vitamin B-6, B-12 and D. B-6 also can be found in bananas, brown rice and pistachios; B-12 can be found in sardines, salmon and tuna; and vitamin D (also aids in calcium absorption) can be found in fortified cereal, oysters and mushrooms. Load up on blueberries, dark greens and Brussels sprouts for antioxidants, and seek out phytoestrogens like strawberries, chickpeas and tofu, which have been found to relieve menopause annoyances.
By 50, bone density may have reduced by as much as 10 percent, making fractures more of a risk. The National Institute on Aging emphasizes the importance of “balance and flexibility exercise to loosen tight muscles, preserve range of motion and prevent falls.” Strong recommends sufficient recovery time between hard efforts and to include cycling, swimming and yoga in fitness routines. He suggests that runners find soft trails versus hard asphalt — or pool run.