How to Stay Fit and Healthy as You Age
Here's how to care for your body — inside and out — as you work your way through this thing called life.
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There is no Benjamin Button secret to staying forever young, and every minute of every day you’re getting older, whether you like it or not. The good news is that many aspects of aging well are within your control, and if you exercise regularly, nourish your skin and fuel your body properly, you can defy the decades.
Here’s how to age gracefully — starting in your 20s.Section divider
In Your 20s…
In your 20’s you have plenty of time to train hard and sleep well (between bouts of socializing) and, lucky you, your metabolism is red hot. Your training results come quickly and easily and losing five or 10 pounds for an upcoming vacation or reunion is not much of a challenge. “Most women hit their highest basal metabolic rate (the number of calories you burn just by being alive) in their late teens and early 20’s,” Olson says. “These women don’t need to worry much about losing weight, and time feels limitless.” According to the American Council on Exercise, your basal metabolic rate drops 1 to 2 percent per decade.
Though you might not be focused on weight loss, you should start thinking about muscle gain, because while your metabolism is chugging along nicely now, in the coming years it will slow as you naturally lose lean body mass. If you aren’t already doing so, add resistance training to your schedule to begin adding muscle and to build strong bones: Research has shown that you continue to build bone density well into your 20’s, so lift your way to a stronger skeleton, starting now.
Because your metabolism and hormones are in high gear, happy hours and late-night munchies are no big deal — for now. “This decade you’re setting up habits that you will fall back on as you get older,” says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN in New York City. Skipping meals, especially if you’re a student, is also common at this age, but while this might seem like a great dietary maneuver, it is actually killing your metabolism. Eat your three squares each day and throw in snack or two if you’re going to be out and about in class or at your new job to keep your energy up and your metabolism running.
Women in general have issues getting enough protein, and this is even more true for young adults who tend to shoot from the hip when it comes to mealtime decisions. Be conscious about the quality of the protein you eat — e.g. a grilled chicken breast, not a fried chicken tender — and include a protein source with every meal and snack.
Also make sure you’re getting enough folate. “This is crucial for women of child-bearing years, even if you’re not planning on getting pregnant tomorrow,” says Gorin. Add items like spinach, beans, lentils, edamame and Brussels sprouts to your menu.
In your 20’s your skin is still producing plenty of oil, and you likely have no wrinkles to speak of. “Your skin cell turnover is optimal and your foundation is at its peak,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Twenty-somethings also produce plenty of collagen and elastin which work to make your complexion dewy, plump and full.
In your late 20’s you may notice a little dryness, especially when the weather gets cold so invest in a solid night cream to trap in moisture while you sleep. And of course, you must always wear sunscreen, whether you’re out hiking, cycling or just going to the store. “Even low levels of UV light exposure add up and contribute to premature aging,” says Zeichner. No matter what your age, use a skincare product designed to protect against the environment in the morning and a product that promotes repair in the evening.Section divider
In Your 30s…
In your 30’s your metabolism starts to slow down, which is bad in and of itself, but add in a lack of free time and work, family and social obligations and exercise can take a back seat to other priorities. Pregnancy could also mean 25 pounds or more added to your frame, which you then may want to lose to regain some semblance of normalcy. According to the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, almost half of American women gain too much weight during pregnancy.
Your shape as you know it also changes as your body fat relocates: A Japanese study found that as women age, subcutaneous fat disappears slowly from your cheeks, neck, breasts and lower legs and begins to build up in your waist, under your glutes and on your abdomen. Areas that were never of concern before suddenly become problematic.
This decade can be chaotic and you need to prioritize exercise to make it happen. Schedule your workouts as you would a business meeting or set up a gym at home for spur-of-the-moment workouts. Cycle in some heavy strength training in the 3 to 6-rep range to add and maintain muscle and reboot your metabolism.
Even though arthritis is not currently on your radar, prevention through proper nutrition can begin today. “Omega-3 fatty acids can slow down cartilage degeneration and reduce inflammation,” says Gorin. And several studies show that omega-3’s, as are found in fish such as salmon, help boost brain health, combat metabolic syndrome and improve the risk factors for heart disease.
Eating plenty of protein is still high on your nutritional to-do list to promote satiety and hamper muscle loss and timing your intake could be the key to success. “People often eat the majority of their daily protein at dinner time, but it’s a good idea to include a protein source at every meal,” says Gorin. Case in point: A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that when individuals in their mid-30’s spaced out their protein consumption over the course of the day, getting about 30 grams per meal, they built more muscle than when they ate their protein all at once.
This decade you might want to investigate the magical powers of retinol. “In your 30’s the first signs of aging show up as skin cell turnover begins to decline and new collagen production slows down,” says Zeichner. Your night cream should contain a retinoid product as well as alpha hydroxy and glycolic acids to help combat fine lines and spots. And while you should be eating plenty of antioxidants in your diet to prevent free radical damage, you can also apply them topically. “Antioxidants act like fire extinguishers, tamping out damage caused by UV rays,” says Zeichner. Serums with vitamin C, vitamin E and ferulic acid can help repair the skin during the day.
Though you’re well past the blackhead and pimple stage of life, if you’re breaking out like a teenager your workout may be to blame. “The longer sweat, dirt and oil sits on your skin, the more likely they are to block pores, promote inflammation, and cause breakouts,” says Zeichner. His advice: Wash your face immediately after training using a salicylic acid cleanser to thoroughly remove dirt and oil from the skin.Section divider
In Your 40s…
In your 40’s your levels of estrogen, progesterone and human growth hormone decrease, your metabolism continues to slow and your energy starts to fade — all of which could mean additional body fat gain and muscle loss. But research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that people who lift weights put on less belly fat as they age than cardio junkies.
There’s not a lot you can do about your waning hormones, but you can push back against their effects. First, abandon those pink, plastic-coated dumbbells and lift some real iron, urges Olson. Choose a weight that is heavy enough to promote failure between 12 and 15 reps, the range which causes your muscles to rebuild and grow. Also swap some of your longer cardio workouts for HIIT sessions, which have been shown to boost anti-aging hormone release, boost energy and promote fat metabolism.
Your roller-coaster of hormones also affects your nutritional needs. “Estrogen is a key factor in bone health, so when a women’s levels start to drop, bone loss can result,” says Gorin. Adequate calcium and vitamin D consumption and/or supplementation helps keep bones healthy, reducing the risk of osteoporosis and subsequent injuries. Keep your protein intake high to help stave off muscle loss and, to prevent excess weight gain, consider reducing your overall calorie intake — a little.
“If you’re working out regularly, that might amount to eating 150 fewer calories per day,” Olson explains. This means trimming about 30 to 50 calories off each meal and/or snack per day.
And of course, team up your workout and nutritional habits for optimal results: Research from Wake Forest University found that older overweight adults who cut out 300 calories per day lost 12 pounds, two of which were muscle. But those who cut 300 calories and also did strength-training lost nearly 20 pounds, most of which was from fat. According to research published in Osteoporosis International, eating five to six prunes a day has been shown to help prevent bone loss.
In your 40’s you will experience facial-volume loss due to — you guessed it — hormonal fluctuations. Your skin becomes less elastic and you lose bone density in your face. And unfortunately, being fit can mean a gaunter appearance, because a lean body also means a lean face. Your skin may also appear duller, but don’t overscrub it. “In your 40’s the skin becomes more delicate and prone to irritation,” says Zeichner. “Only exfoliate once per week to keep your skin bright and healthy.”
“Plumping” moisturizers can now be used in combination with a nighttime retinoid product, and if you are really bothered by what’s happening to your visage, see your dermatologist to talk about your options.Section divider
Your 50s and Beyond
Your estrogen levels continue to decline as you enter and then complete menopause, during which time you’ll also lose bone density and mass. But by now your children are older and your family demands are probably fewer, which means finding the time to exercise should be less of a challenge.
Maintain a consistent workout routine to promote a healthy metabolism, and regularly choose workouts with a higher impact — literally: A study in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that jumping 10 times twice a day provided greater bone-building benefits than running or jogging. You should also incorporate metabolic conditioning workouts that simultaneously burn fat and build muscle into your training plan. “These maximize the number of calories your body burns while increasing your metabolism,” Olson says.
According to a study from McMaster University in Ontario, exercise appears to combat changes in the outer layers of skin that come with advancing age.
As you pass the 50-mile mark it’s time to look inward and focus on keeping your heart and other systems in top shape. According to a recent report in the Journal of Nutrition, eating less dietary fat and more fruits, vegetables and grains was linked to a reduced risk of dying from breast cancer, and a lower risk of getting heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
“Women 50 and older should consume vitamin B12 to keep nerve and blood cells healthy, and magnesium for protein synthesis, blood pressure, and muscle and nerve function,” Gorin says. Potassium is also imperative for inner well-being, and research published in Advances in Nutrition showed a positive association between potassium intake and reduced hypertension.
During these years your skin can lose radiance. “Your skin naturally sheds cells on its surface, however with age this process slows down and dead cells accumulate, giving a dull appearance,” Zeicher says. Add a hydroxy or glycolic acid cleanser or cream to brighten your skin and improve the appearance of fine lines.
In your sixties and beyond you may notice the appearance of more sunspots and your skin may feel rough or appear crepey. Wrinkles and lines really begin to show, and the skin around your jaw and eyes starts to sag. You should chalk this up to happiness and longevity, but if you’re dissatisfied with your look, use rich moisturizers with ingredients like hyaluronic acid, which acts like a sponge to pull in hydration and fill in wrinkles.Section divider
8 Tips to Stay Healthy For Life
While certain times of life call for particular protocols, there are some absolutes that you should be doing every day of every decade to make the most of your time here on the planet.
1. Lift Weights
As you age, you inevitably lose muscle mass, and because muscle has a high metabolic rate, this loss means a sharp reduction in energy expenditure — e.g., calorie burn — making you more susceptible to weight/fat gain. No matter if you’re 26 or 62, you should be doing resistance training to maintain as much muscle as possible and optimize your metabolism.
“The ratio between your muscle to fat needs to remain balanced as [you age], and if a woman maintains muscle through consistent weight training, it won’t be replaced by fat,” Michele Olson says. Lifting weights or doing bodyweight or plyometric exercises adds muscle, making you stronger and more capable while also increasing your metabolism and optimizing your hormonal release. It also adds bone density no matter what your age and protects against osteoporosis in later years.
2. Hydrate Properly
More than half your body is made of water, and staying hydrated is important for any and all metabolic processes, including muscle building, digestion and skin health. Shoot for a ½ gallon every day, more on days you work out or when it’s hot outside, and eat plenty of water-rich veggies such as leafy greens, cucumbers and celery to add to your intake.
3. Maintain Mobility
Maintaining your flexibility will help prevent back and joint pain, will reduce your risk for injury and will improve your results in the gym. Set aside five to 10 minutes each day — even on days you don’t work out — to foamroll or do some active stretching. The more mobile and lubed up your joints are, the happier and healthier you will be long term.
4. HIIT It
High-intensity interval training improves body composition, boosts anti-aging hormone release and adds muscle. And no matter what decade you’re in, you can benefit from EPOC — excess post-exercise oxygen consumption — otherwise known as afterburn, when your body incinerates calories long after your workout is over. Do two to three HIIT sessions per week, either after a strength-training session or on a separate day, to avail yourself of these advantages.
5. Reduce Stress
Stress has no age limit and is one of the biggest contributors to poor health. Make sure you carve out time to decompress, relax and even get away from it all on occasion to prevent things from becoming overwhelming, which can adversely affect your health.
6. Use Sunscreen
Babies, adolescents, teenagers and adults — no one is exempt from the sunscreen decree. It is one of the easiest ways to prevent cancer and helps reduce the formation of wrinkles and lines on your face, chest and neck. “The skin undergoes two types of aging,” Dr. Joshua Zeichner says. “Intrinsic, which is the natural aging process that occurs as we get older, and extrinsic, which is an accelerated eating away at the skin caused by environmental exposures such as UV light.”
Reduce harmful exposure with a regular sunscreen that contains SPF 30 or greater every day on exposed areas. Apply it in the morning, after a workout or after going in the water.
7. Know About Nutrition
How you eat when you’re younger usually sets the stage for your lifetime, and the sooner you can adopt healthy habits and routines, the better off you’ll be. Nutrition and metabolism are intimately connected, and focusing on optimizing both as you age can mean the difference between fat and fit. Because like they say, you are what you eat.
8. Eat Protein
Enough cannot be said about the importance of protein for women of all ages. It increases the satiety of a meal, helps build muscles and bones, and increases metabolism. Eat plenty of lean protein throughout the day in the form of chicken breast, lentils, tofu, steak or fish.