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First of all, let me caveat this article by saying that at the time of writing, I’m 37 so I haven’t lived through my own 40’s just yet, but i have coached hundreds of people in their 40’s to achieve their health & fitness goals and make considerable lifestyle improvements. Of course, I could reel of my textbook learnings on how someone in their 40’s ought to train, but what might be more useful is to tell you what I’ve seen work over and over again and highlight some of the patterns I’ve recognised over my 12 years as a personal trainer.
Generally speaking, if you’ve found this article, you’re in one of two places, you are either.
1. Trying to get in shape for the first time at some point in your 40’s and want to know how to start
- 2. You are trying to get back in shape in your 40’s and want the best strategy to achieve that given that it could have been some time that passed since you considered yourself at your physical peak
It’s also worth saying that there are exceptions out there, who will defy everything I’m about to outline, and that’s perfectly fine, the exceptions prove the rules and how you treat your fitness in your 40’s will depend on how you lived through your thirties, for example if you are in peak condition right now, you’re unlikely to have found this article, so let’s assume a standing or slow rolling start and see how quickly we can get you where you want to be..
Let’s discuss the most linear route to get you there, and if you take it to an extreme after that, then more power to you.
To sum up my biggest observation from working with hundreds of clients in their 40’s and reflective with older clients in their 50’s and 60’s is that this is likely going to be the decade to determine how the quality of your life is going to look as you get older, which is why I theme this decade ‘preventative medicine’.
How to get fit at 40
Correct the problems of your thirties:
One of the greatest things you can do when you first turn your attention to health & fitness in your 40’s is to correct the mistakes of the past.
If you are like the vast majority of people, the thirties were a time of work, familial and societal pressures, I’m not here to say that all of that is going to go away in your forties, it isn’t, but it is an opportunity to take a look at your current lifestyle, and reassess your priorities, if you track back and you’ve often lacked sleep, allowed relaxed personal boundaries and expectations on your time to add unnecessary stress in your life, not exercised consistently and not consistently eaten well enough, then your track record suggest that health has not been your priority.
That’s not a scorning statement, nor a judgemental one, just a reminder that it’s easy to say or even believe that you treat your health as a priority, in a conversation you’d probably confirm that it was important to you, but if we are honest with ourselves only our demonstrable behaviour over time will determine whether that's really true, only you can make that call.
With a laundry list of improvements to be made, it can seem intimidating as to where to start out, and significant lifestyle change is unlikely to be achieved overnight, in fact in my experience it's actually less likely to be sustained if it’s done overnight, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a host of small changes you could make right now to see significant improvements.
For example you might be surprised, how much a difference some morning light exposure, a short walk, 5 min sun salutations and a cooler room temperature at night would make, to your waistline and your base level of energy if you can establish a 30 day habit streak of executing the above. Believe if you want to make long-term change, invest in daily incremental improvements, not short-term quick fixes.
Anyway, I say all that to say this, if you’re thirties weren’t all that you wanted them to be, this is an opportunity to correct course and ascend to new heights.
Introducing your ‘Health Span’:
We all know the term ‘lifespan’ but you may not have encountered the term ‘health span’? This is the period of life that we live in health, free of chronic illness or the debilitating effects of ageing. It’s in our forties that we should really be starting to strategise as to how to expand our health span and maximise the portion of the lives we live in great health and remain fully functional.
One of the most powerful techniques for enhancing your motivation to exercise is to deliberately think about moments that you believe being in great health & fitness would help you access, or indeed conversely, moments that failing to deliver on your healthy intentions might deprive you of. These would be things like your ability to be active with your children or grandchildren, what health and fitness might mean for your relationships or your career etc.
These are emotionally charged moments and storing these in your memory or ‘anchoring’ them for deployment on the inevitable days that you just don’t feel like working out. They also often serve to put life into perspective.
Stretch & Mobilise:
One of the most important health & fitness factors as we age is going to be maintaining mobility and a healthy range of motion. Failure to do this may lead to poor posture, avoidable injuries and an ever-growing list of exercises and training modalities you feel that you just ‘can’t do anymore’, believe me I hear that all time, but you’d be surprised just how good your body can feel again after a little mobility work.
It’s not uncommon for those new to my online personal training service to feel they can’t squat, lunge, jump, do deadlifts or run, only to discover that there is no structural reason this is the case, it’s just been years of poor conditioning and a lack of mobility holding them back, i.e. a completely reversible situation.
Many of those I've worked with have seen significant improvements in quality of life and pain free movement with the simple addition of a 10 minute daily mobility regime, in fact in a recent survey of my clients in this age bracket some 82.5% reported noticeable improvements in pain and mobility by carrying it out for 30 days. I’ve embedded the routine below for you, try it for yourself and let me know how much better you feel!
At this stage you may be thinking to yourself, all this health talk is important, and I hear you, but what if I mostly want to get in great shape through my forties, will it be harder than it used to be? Is it still possible?
The good news is, the answer to those questions is Yes, absolutely, and whether that is your future is in your own hands.
I can tell you what will work, and pepper on some age specific tips I’ve seen work over the years, but ultimately, it’ll be determined by the decisions you make over the next few years and how much of these lifestyle habits you can get consistent with.
For years we’ve been taught about the declining opportunity to get in shape brought about by advancing years, in fact, conventionally, this article should be me telling you to take it easy now that you’re 40, don’t train too hard, and basically don’t expect too much, but that’s not my message because with proper training and recovery you can achieve an excellent physique into your 40’s and well beyond.
But don’t just take my word for it, recent studies have shown that the dreaded age-related muscle loss and slowing of the metabolism or sarcopenia is actually as mild as 3-8% per decade between 30-60, hardly anything to stop you.
So what is my message? It’s a call to action that involves training smarter and re-prioritising your health, which I’ll go into in a moment, and i don’t even mean not to train hard because you because your body can’t handle it at 40, but because more than likely your lifestyle can’t, and like many other you may still be paying the bill for some of the mistakes you made in you thirties. Ultimately this article is my attempt to help you clear that debt and get right back where you want to be.
That’s my philosophical side entertained for a little while, let’s look at the practical tips you can apply to how you eat and exercise in your 40’s to be lean, full or energy and fully functional.
Nutrition - Beyond the numbers
This is a great age to start thinking about how food impacts your long-term health, not just your waistline. Of course, you’ll want to take care of the basics at any age, i.e. knowing how many calories you are eating and what the right macronutrient distribution is for your goal (you would be amazed how far off people can be on this)
Tip: Calories and Macronutrient distribution don’t have to be 100% accurate all the time, I would rather take a consistent 80% accuracy overall on calories + macronutrient distribution than 100% on one and no consideration of the other. This way you are thinking in terms of a mental model for healthy eating, rather than a dogmatic adherence to a diet plan.
Understanding your ideal caloric intake for your goals is one of the basic facets of nutrition you should have covered, and one of the first things I take care of for my clients, so for the remainder of this article, let’s take having all of that in place as red.
If you haven’t already filled it out, I will calculate your numbers for you on my free health audit.
So let’s take having all of that in order as red, there are some other considerations you should take in your 40’s to consider your overall health.
Managing Blood Sugar
Being mindful of your body’s insulin response to your meals is going to play a large role in keeping your body in good health, firstly it’ll be the greatest preventative weapon you can deploy against becoming diabetic or pre-diabetic (which is reversible by the way), it’ll also play a huge role in staying lean and managing your energy levels.
This chart shows the glycaemic index of various foods, essentially the higher the number the quicker the carb source is turned to sugar and enters the bloodstream.
If you are eating foods containing a lot of highly processed sugar, you are constantly spiking your blood sugar causing energy turbulence and setting you up for fat gain or at least making the loss of body fat very difficult to achieve. The idea here is to minimise this turbulence and allow your body to have a balanced release of energy.
Eat foods that are low glycaemic index as a rule and when you do eat higher glycaemic index foods, try to eat the ones on the healthier side like fruit.
Tip: Try to strategically time high glycaemic index foods before and after exercise as that’ll be when your body is best poised to make use of them. Avoid processed, refined sugar whenever you can.
Focus on inflammation- I think sometimes in life it’s useful to think of developing a concerted focus on certain concepts and develop what we might consider a ‘consciousness’, for example if you want to improve your finances, you might develop a ‘money consciousness’ you would then strategize and see opportunities to both save and make money to improve your situation, i.e you’d see things you weren't previously attuned to noticing.
Using this mental model, I suggest that you adopt an ‘inflammation consciousness’. I think this should be a priority because almost all of our big health diseases in the modern world are diseases of inflammation, unchecked inflammation is essentially an open invitation to illness and disease and we can gain some control of our level of inflammation by monitoring various potential sources of inflammation, including the food we eat.
Below are some of the frequent causes of inflammation:
- Work Pressure
- Environmental Stressors
- Temperature Stressors
- Relationship Troubles
- Poor Digestion
- Inflammatory Foods
- Bad Posture
- Lack of Sleep
- Emotional Stress
Of course, to truly know your current level of inflammation in your body you would need to do your bloodwork, which is something you could consider to be an excellent health initiative every 6 months to a year, if you do perhaps seek out a local practitioner who can offer you a C-reactive protein (CRP) test.
In the absence of bloodwork, this simple mental model of an ‘inflammation consciousness’ may help you take steps to keep your level of inflammation at a point below the threshold at which you might start to see common symptoms, i.e. frequent illness, rashes, digestive issues, fatigue, stiff joints etc.
One of the most influential factors listed above and also one of the easiest to control is avoiding an inflammatory diet.
As I advise my clients of all ages, you’ll want to ensure that you are on an anti-inflammatory diet, and this is particularly important as we get older. This contributes to a reduction in systemic inflammation mentioned above and from an aesthetic standpoint, helps reduce your body’s tendency to retain water or store body fat.
Bear in mind that certain cancers, heart disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes and arthritis are all diseases linked with inflammation. Both fish oil and Turmeric may help here as both have been shown to have impressive anti-inflammatory properties.
Inflammatory foods to avoid may include:
- - Refined sugars
- - Processed meats
- - Fizzy drinks
- - Processed milk
- - Gluten
- - Dairy
- - Alcohol
Another important point here is to keep your protein intake adequate to preserve your existing muscle mass (and, along with resistance training, fight off the nefarious though overestimated villain of sarcopenia). This doesn't mean going overboard and eating like a bodybuilder; just make sure you have adequate amounts of quality high protein foods such as lean meat, eggs, nuts, and seeds.
You may also want to start thinking about your ratios of fat to carbs. Many of us vastly overeat carbohydrates, especially in the evening, which gives our body a surplus of energy that we may fail to burn off.
As a result, the body converts the carbs into fat and stores it away for a rainy day (where you don’t have access to food) a great evolutionary function but unlikely to ever happen in the modern day.
As I alluded to at the beginning of the article, if you’ve had a full-on training regime throughout your thirties, you’ll be able to carry that through into your 40’s with no problem, nothing is going to change overnight. For that reason, most of my recommendations about how to approach your health & fitness through this decade will be to help you start out or regain lost ground.
My recommendation is that you for your exercise efforts around these three main objectives:
- 1. Maintain muscle mass
- 2. Improve mobility, essentially to avoid myofascial problems and postural issues
- 3. Maintain a healthy weight and level of body fat that can be maintained year round
Any goals beyond this should be attempted only once you have the above managed in a stable and consistent way. This way you know you’ve secured the most important drivers of health as a priority. A way I would encourage you to look at fitness is that you’ve only really achieved it if you can maintain it, which then rules out all routes to progress spearheaded by crash diets, and overtraining.
Let’s address each of the main three goals here:
1. Maintaining Muscle Mass
To maintain your existing muscle mass, you need to send signals to your body that you’ll be using your muscle rigorously and often, to offset muscle loss you basically need to convince your body that you need your muscle, which makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint because it takes energy to maintain muscle.
The above is going to be achieved with resistance training, whether with free weights, dumbbells, bands or even household items.
For most people who are beginner to intermediate, I would recommend total-body workouts 2-3 times per week. Ideally, aim for 6-10 exercises with a weight that's heavy enough so that you can comfortably perform 8-10 repetitions with good form but no more.
An example workout might look like this:
- Front Squat 4 x 10
- Barbell Deadlift 4 x 10
- Kettlebell Swing 4 x 10
- Seated Shoulder Press 4 x 10
- Barbell Upright Row 4 x 10
- Incline Dumbbell Fly 4 x 10
- One Arm Dumbbell Row 4 x 10
- Barbell Bicep Curl 3 x 12
- Overhead Tricep Extension 3 x 12
Performing this simple workout twice per week would be a great place to start to cover your bases with resistance training.
2. Improving Mobility
There are many ways to enhance and maintain mobility. The degree to which you’ll need to focus on this area, and indeed the route you take will largely depend on how you have lived your younger life. If you feel like your mobility is already ok, then great: just keep doing what you've been doing up to this point. Just make sure that your workouts also include plenty of core strength exercises.
However, if you are getting regular aches and pains, especially in the neck and back and feel like your mobility is restricted, I would strongly recommend that you deliberately follow a mobility sequence every day (try mine above) alongside regular stretching.
3. Maintaining Base Fitness
Your core aerobic fitness is something that you always want to keep at a good standard because it makes so many of your everyday bodily functions more efficient and helps lower your risk of encountering a number of serious health complaints.
However, you might want to be calculated in how you spend your time here, particularly if time is hard to come by. Try High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), where you blast your body for a minute or so, get your breath back, and then do it again. A bit like old-school circuit training.
Excellent HIIT training protocols include Tabata training (20s work vs 10s rest x 8) or intervals, for instance on a rower machine, one of my favourites is 6x100m sprints with 20s rest periods. This way when you do get more time available you can lean into more socially oriented activity such as relaxing hikes or cycles for your longer sessions.
Differentiate light vs hard sessions: One big distinction that it pays to start making at 40 is the difference between a big training session and a lighter one, not all sessions have to be full pelt, learning to listen to your body and distinguishing when you would be better served with a light session is crucial for managing recovery and energy levels.
An easy way to do this is to monitor your resting heart rate, you can do this by holding your thumb over your wrist to check your pulse or on your phone, once you know your baseline, if you notice a rise of around 10 beats per minute that's a red flag and a sign that you’re fatigued, so pull back on your training and take it easy when you find yourself in this situation, often if I find myself in this situation I’ll play with some novel movements, make sure I get some core work in and add rotations to an otherwise more static workouts, this helps tick some activity boxes without having to leave it all in the gym.
If you want to take this further, you might want to check out heart rate variability testing - I wrote an article about it for the telegraph, check it out here: Using Heart Rate Variability Testing To Improve Health
Active recovery: In a similar vein to the above, getting to grips with active recovery is a great idea, this could mean a few things, firstly as with the above, lighter training sessions, secondly making sure that you build scheduled ‘de-load’ or ‘rest’ weeks into your training workouts or building in active/hobby pursuit into your weekends and evenings over harder workouts or inactive pursuits, Think things like hiking, swimming, cycling and racquet sports are all great options.
There is no reason at all you can’t get into great shape and maintain an excellent fitness level throughout your 40’s, furthermore there is no reason you can’t maintain an excellent physique through your forties, staying lean and athletic.
Ultimately, it will come down to prioritising your health & fitness, resting well between tougher training sessions, avoiding needless health risks and working on a more active lifestyle overall, all of which will combine to extend your ‘health span’ and set you up in good stead to enjoy great health in the decades to follow.