Whether you’re just entering your 40s, are well acquainted with them, or can see them in your rearview mirror, you may wonder if there are changes you should be making to your fitness and nutrition routines to optimize your health and feel as fit, vibrant, and young as you'd like. Your 40s can be years when you’re just as in shape and active as ever. Although our bodies do experience loss as we age (bone density decreases, metabolism slows, hormone levels drop, etc.), maintaining a consistent fitness routine can help counteract the signs of internal and external aging.
There's conflicting information and mixed messages about what workouts should look like in your 40s, however, and what you should and shouldn’t be doing. It’s hard to know what to focus on and how to separate the myths and stereotypes from the hard science. So, to arm you with all the best information to crush your health and fitness goals in your 40s, we turned to two fitness experts who specialize in this very thing.
Read on for their expert exercise and nutrition tips and advice to stay fit, active, and healthy in your 40s and beyond.
Start With Your Mindset
This first one seems easy, but it can be difficult in practice. Both our experts agree that the foundation for feeling and looking how you want to is ignoring any messaging that tells you such a goal is unattainable after your 20s and 30s.
"[People] used to be questioned for being in great shape and focusing on fitness past a certain age. Now the question is, 'Well, why the heck aren't you in great shape?'” says Stokes. “The game has changed in terms of how we look at age, access to healthcare and wellness offerings and products, and just in terms of how we look at societal norms. It is tough to look at a Salma Hayek, Gabrielle Union, or Reese Witherspoon and say, 'That's past prime.'"
Shelton says you shouldn't let your age stand between you and any sort of athletic endeavor. “Unfortunately, because [we] are given messaging around aging that isn't always the most supportive, it can lead one to think you are not valuable as you age, and that could not be further from the truth,” says Shelton. “As long as you have breath in your body, there is an opportunity for you to try new things, challenge yourself to move in new ways, and discover more about yourself and what you can do.”
Stokes recommends high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in combination with strength training as the powerful one-two combo to keep your metabolism humming as you enter your 40s and beyond. HIIT improves your cardiovascular fitness and strength and provides an efficient calorie burn. While exercise is about a lot more than burning calories and losing weight, your metabolism may begin to slow down as you age, and if you don’t make compensatory dietary changes, your weight may start to creep up. HIIT training is so demanding for the body that it keeps your metabolism revved up even once the workout is over.
Strength Training Is Key
“Building and maintaining muscle as we age is a key component to keeping our bones strong,” notes Shelton. “Muscle mass begins to decline with age, so it's very beneficial to incorporate resistance training into your routine.” Because muscle is what keeps your metabolic rate cranking, the more you can build your muscle mass (or at least preserve it), the better.
Focus On Flexibility
Shelton says that flexibility work and stretching are especially important as we age because our muscles and connective tissues like tendons and ligaments get stiffer. “I always tell my clients that stretching is the most important part of the workout,” she says. “Staying loose and limber can help stave off injuries and help with your range of motion during your workouts.” Be sure your fitness routine includes stretching and flexibility work such as yoga as a regular mainstay. “Also, a lot of sitting during the day causes us to be stiff, especially in the hips, so getting in some stretching to aid with flexibility is key,” adds Shelton.
Join an Exercise Class
The camaraderie of an exercise class helps keep the workout fun, social, and engaging. “Find a class that you really enjoy, [and it] will keep you going back for more,” remarks Shelton. Plus, having an instructor means there's a fitness pro right there with you, should you have any questions or need modifications. And, with choices from Spinning to Zumba and CrossFit to Pilates, there’s something for everyone.
Always Use Proper Form
"Stay away from anything that isn't form-focused and [use] methods that [place] emphasis on training properly," says Stokes. If you aren't working with proper form, she warns, you may injure yourself or completely defeat the purpose of your goals to strengthen, condition, and sculpt your body.
Seeing a trainer can help with this (most gyms have staff on hand who can help you for free if you have questions about machines or moves). Or reference digital trainers by watching workout videos from highly rated streaming platforms.
Take to the Water
If you have access to a pool or a safe body of water, consider giving water workouts a go. From simple swimming to aqua aerobics and water jogging, water-based exercises are gentler on the joints while still offering a great total-body workout. Plus, with the resistance provided by the water, you get a strengthening benefit along with your cardio workout.
Try Jumping Rope
One of Stokes' favorite moves for those over 40 is jumping rope, or "what I often call a great way of squeezing in 'sneaky cardio,'" she says. "It keeps the heart rate up and fuels a higher level of fat burning and increased stamina." She says that jumping rope help strengthen joints and is a great cardio exercise to boost your circulation.
When you’re just getting started, Stokes recommends splitting your jump rope sessions into three- or five-minute chunks during the day, aiming for 15 minutes in total.
Extend Your Warmup
Don’t treat your body like a race car and expect it to go from sitting at your desk all day to powering through squats or flying down the road on your bike within minutes. Though a proper warmup is important at any age, as we get older, this component of the workout becomes even more crucial. Blood flow and blood perfusion of tissues like tendons and muscles decrease with age. Give your body ample time to ease into an activity and loosen up by starting every workout with some light cardiovascular exercise, mobility work, and stretching. This will help prevent injury and allow you to move more efficiently during your workout.
Make Exercise Social
“I always say that accountability goes a long way when you are trying to stay consistent and motivated with an exercise routine,” notes Shelton. “Enlisting your partner or friends to join you with a workout program is a great way to stay on course.” Whether you meet up with your neighbor for an early morning run a few days a week, stream dance classes at home with your partner, or enlist a coworker to go to a weekly yoga class, having a buddy adds support, accountability, and a social aspect that can make the activity more enjoyable. “When you have other people depending on you, you are more prone to show up on a more consistent basis,” explains Shelton.
Walk After Each Meal
Walking for 10-30 minutes after each meal will not only help you hit your steps goal for the day, but it also aids digestion, lowers blood sugar, and supports a healthy metabolism. As we age, digestion can slow down because the body secretes fewer digestive enzymes. A gentle walk after eating may support regularity and proper digestion.
Listen to Your Body
Shelton says it’s crucial to listen to your body and respect its needs. This becomes increasingly important with age because you might not be able to get away with some of the training mistakes and overexertion your body could tolerate in your younger years without suffering injuries. “Our body is always giving us clues as to what it needs, and the more in tune we are, the better off we will be,” she says. “There is a tendency to want to push through pain and discomfort, and it's important to know if your body can do more reps of those kettlebell swings and you need to challenge yourself, or if you are doing too much and on the way to an injury.”
Shelton says your ability to read your body’s needs comes with experience. “The more active you are, the more you will be able to distinguish between the two and make sure the movement you are doing is helping [and not] hurting you. Take a moment to stop, assess, and listen.” Remember, it’s safer to err on the side of caution and give your body rest rather than overdo it and risk injury.
Don't Compare Yourself to Your Younger Years
Because of changes in hormones and the natural aging process, it’s normal to have a decline in fitness and physical performance after your 30s. Comparing your best times, personal records, and workout abilities can lead you down an unproductive and unhelpful path. “It's tempting to obsess about how you felt or looked 20 years ago, but that was 20 years ago! The key is to learn to embrace and accept your body at every stage,” advises Shelton. “Take time to find things you can appreciate about your body at 40 and beyond.” Set new goals or focus on less quantitative metrics. For example, instead of trying to beat that blazing 5K time when you were 31, start with a blank slate and set new records for each decade, or try an obstacle race or different distance to mix things up. “Your body has supported you for many years—learn to love it and how you move it, and how you see it now, not a younger version of yourself,” says Shelton.
Stay Active Throughout the Week
While you might have gotten away with the "weekend warrior" lifestyle in your younger years, as you get into your 40s, it's especially important to be active throughout the week. Piling on all sorts of unaccustomed physical activity on the weekend and then being sedentary during the week may be a recipe for injury.
Stokes says to aim for four days of cardio and strength per week, with an additional emphasis on strength training at least two days per week. On rest days, she encourages you to make sure you're still staying active, perhaps by going for a 20-minute walk. Continuing to move will aid recovery and maintain your stamina.
Fuel Your Body Before and After Workouts
Essentially, the same nutritional tips for staying in shape and optimizing muscle definition in your 20s and 30s apply in your 40s, too. "I need to eat a snack 45 to 60 minutes prior to a workout (typically a complex carbs/healthy fat combination—one of my go-to snacks is brown rice, avocado, and cucumber Maki) to perform at my best, and again within 30 minutes post-workout to ensure the recovery process is underway (this is typically a protein shake to ensure my muscles have what they need to begin the rebuilding process),” says Stokes. However, Stokes says it's up to you to decide what feels the most comfortable, based on your workout schedule and the caliber of your workout.
Stokes says it's important to have healthy snacks to keep blood sugar stable. "When you are experiencing hormonal shifts, it's easy to go for energy grabs. Remind yourself what this craving is, and don't give in," she advises. "The smart snacks I would suggest are nuts (in moderation), veggies (cucumber, celery, broccoli), hard-boiled eggs, hummus, apple slices with a bit of almond butter, and, when truly on the go, a low-sugar protein bar with balanced nutrition."
If you're unable to meet all your nutritional needs through your diet, consider supplementation. But always consult your physician first. Common supplements include multivitamins, calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, and zinc. Your doctor may recommend additional nutrients like vitamin B-12 if you follow a vegan diet.
Respect the Process
Shelton urges you to remain patient and give your body time to adapt to your training and show improvements. “It's human nature to want a quick fix, but the more you can slow down and respect the process, the better you’ll [feel],” she advises. “It takes time to see and feel progress when working out, and this can increase with age—as does atrophy—but the key is to keep showing up.” Not only may it take more time to get in shape as you age, but you might also lose fitness faster if you’re not training regularly. “Creating a consistent routine around movement should be the main focus,” Shelton says. “The only limitations we have are the ones we put on ourselves. Shut out the noise about what you should or should not be doing for your age. Do what feels right and what feels good to you!”
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