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Your 50’s are a time where a significant switch to thinking of exercise as an investment in the future would be a smart move. Often simple adaptations to your workouts and making sure that you have all your bases covered can really help you not just stay in great shape but also protect the decades to come.
Investing in your health span - If you haven’t heard the term before, this is the term used to describe the length of the period of your life in which you have full health, function and are free of any debilitating effects of ageing.
I believe your 50’s should be dedicated to this pursuit, rendering ‘getting in shape’ more of an output of your activity and healthy lifestyle choices, as opposed to the main driver for them.
One of the most powerful techniques for enhancing your motivation to use activity to enhance your ‘health span’ 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.
Is it harder to get in shape in your 50’s?
Whilst I’ve argued that the real goal of the 50’s ought to to be largely health related, of course I’m asked by my online personal training clients in their 50’s whether, in my experience, it’s harder to lose fat and gain muscle at this age.
My answer is generally “not particularly” and I’ve coached many people to a leaner, healthier and more athletic physique, to inform that response. Studies have shown that we do start to lose muscle mass after age 30, but only at a rate of 3-8% per decade which isn’t a rate I would consider a serious impediment to success. Ultimately your body is still more than capable of great things throughout your 50’s, accounting for a few age-specific nuances, whether you personally will be in great shape through your 50’s is going to come down to your priorities and staying consistent with them.
We’ve discussed losing muscle, but I am also often asked how to gain muscle after 50. Essentially, it’ll be done in the same way it always has been, with some nuanced considerations for assessing fatigue and the need for rest, then steering more into multi-joint lifts to protect your range of motion for the future.
Addressing menopause: Of course as I’m confirming that it’s still almost as easy to lose weight and get in shape during your 50’s as it is in earlier years, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that some of the hormonal changes that occur during menopause can and will make your fitness goals more challenging to accomplish.
These changes can include oestrogen fluctuations (which can lead to fat accumulation in either direction), lower energy, poorer sleep, and a loss of muscle mass leading to a lower metabolic rate.
The only way to combat these changes (without medical assistance) is to double down on healthy lifestyle changes, any attempt at restrictive diets and over-exercise in order to fast track results should be strongly avoided and will likely yield only very short lived results, you’ll then soon be back at a point where the restriction cannot be sustained and you’ll face a severe bounceback, Also bear in mind that with severe caloric restriction, you’re leaving yourself open to losing muscle, which would further exacerbate the effects menopause has had on your metabolism. This can be a frustrating time, and perseverance is going to be key.
Andropause: The andropause is a term given to the process of a man's testosterone slowly declining with age, which happens at a rate of approximately 1% per year after age 40. A drop in testosterone can have big effects on energy, mood, even decision making and will influence your body composition quite substantially.
The extent to which you will feel that 1% decline will depend on your lifestyle choices and your baseline level of testosterone before the decline. Testosterone replacement therapy is an option to counteract this, you’ll need to speak with your medical adviser about that, in the absence of TRT you’ll be best served taking lifestyle steps to naturally enhance your level of testosterone and avoiding actions that would suppress it.
Consider a coach: Your 50’s could be a good time to work with a coach, because mistakes can be less forgiving during this decade than they were before, whilst your metabolism is still working well for you right now, in your 60’s this tends to slow down, so my advice would be to seek guidance on your goals to avoid wasted efforts and time. Another consideration is that injuries may be slower to recover from in your fifties, so guidance on exercise form could be very valuable there.
What you can and can’t do
If you’ve been reading around the internet about how you should best go about training in your 50’s, you’ll note that much of it is very cautionary, suggesting that you avoid sprints, plyometrics, overhead movements and certain isolation exercises. This can be good advice but remember those articles are written based on your entry point to exercises, we have ten years to make progress on that, so of course more is going to be possible after concerted training than it would be if you’re just starting out.
Whilst you shouldn’t be taking unnecessary risks with your health, as with everything in health & fitness it’s a lot more nuanced than surface level information.
To expand on that, if you are in fantastic shape and have been training well throughout your whole life and then turn 50, should you drop all of the above? No, of course not, that would essentially be like inviting an old person to come and live in your body decades early, if you’ve maintained a high level of fitness and athleticism in your 40’s the chances are you will be able to carry that through your 50’s too.
Where the caution is warranted, is when we try to reprise the abilities of previous decades purely because we have a frame of reference for having been able to do them but have nowhere near the conditioning to perform or recover from that type of training.
I say that to reassure you that there is really nothing you ‘can’t’ do in your 50’s and the extent to which you ‘should’ do certain things in your 50’s will depend on your intuitive understanding of your body and the amount of prerequisite groundwork and conditioning you’re willing to put in to reprise your full ability.
To be clear then, if you’re reading this knowing you’re out of shape, stiff and unconditioned should you go out and run 100m track sprints or start doing HIIT kettlebell work, just because we know it ‘works’, of course not, whilst those are very effective workouts, they are likely to be counterproductive to you right now because of the lack of conditioning, it's all relative to where you are right now. But equally, it would not be faithful to my experience and observations to state that you will not be able to or should not do these workouts ever again, that’s in your hands.
Let’s take a look at some age specific considerations to help you get to exactly where you want to be with your health & fitness in your 50’s.
Body recomposition: Many of my online personal training clients will approach me looking to gain muscle and lose body fat. This is generally known as recomposition and is the main goal I help people achieve in their 50’s.
The basic methodology of this is the same in your 50’s as it always was, progressive overload with force adaptation as long as you can recover from the stimulus which equates to muscle gain. Likewise, steady state cardio will support your fat loss efforts without accompanying fatigue and short HIIT training can be implemented to benefit from the ‘thermic effect of exercise’
To achieve recomposition we will be pursuing contrast, progressive overload, and recovery. This can be massively miscalculated, so ensuring the training is appropriate to your current conditioning and appropriate to your overall lifestyle taking into account health issues. The amount of sleep you’re getting and the amount of stress you’ve been under in the run up to starting your new fitness plan.
Exercise vs Rest on 1:1 ratio: One interesting mental model with which to approach your health & fitness is to start to think of exercise and rest on a 1:1 ratio. What I mean by this is that you need to consider rest of equal importance to your training (after all adaptation takes place during rest). An easy way to do this is to train one day and take the next off to recover, this pretty much guarantees that you build a good deal of recovery into your week.
One thing to bear in mind is that a rest day is not the same thing as a day of complete inactivity, as humans we’re evolved to move everyday regardless of any particular training goals. Simply remove the outcome focus and need for any result as such and enjoy more passive activities such as walking, cycling and sports on your non training days.
Primal patterns & suggested exercises: To expand beyond the normal aesthetic fitness goals that may have been the driving force for your fitness efforts in earlier decades, I would suggest that you make simple adaptations to your workouts and maybe even introduce some novel exercises that will really help you protect and enhance your functional movement.
I first came across the concept via the work of one of the godfathers of the fitness industry and holistic lifestyle coach, Paul Chek. Others have also run with and expanded the concept.
A primal movement pattern is essentially a natural human movement pattern that we need to invest in and protect to maintain functional activities throughout our daily lives, in essence movement that we were involved for. Ideally you want to make sure you are doing these movements as often as you can, never allowing a long distance to accrue between doing them, this way you keep hold of your ability to perform them.
Let’s have a look at them and how you can make simple adaptations and not affect your overall fitness progress:
Push = Consider replacing some of your traditional chest pushing movements with a cable push-pull exercise
Pull = Consider replacing some fixed latissimus dorsi pulling movements, like the classic lat pulldown, with pulling a heavy weight on a rope every now and then
Twist = Often rotation is completely absent from many modern workout programs, cable woodchoppers are an excellent addition
Squat = consider a Sott’s press if squat and press exercises to replace your big hack squats or an alternative to the typical heavy barbell squat
Lunge = Make sure your leg workouts aren’t too squat heavy, and incorporate lunges into your leg days, these are functional movements you need for traversing different levels of terrain, don’t neglect them.
Bend = Consider making a bending motion a part of your warmup routine for every workout, over time as you can get more conditioned you can even load these bends, but only do this under supervision
Gait = Whilst you’ll walk every day anyway, experiment with different gait from jogging and sprinting (once conditioned) to experimenting with Fartlek runs and hill work
- Honourable mention, a favourite of mine:
Throw = Consider adding some functional throwing movements into your workouts with a medicine ball either against a wall or out in an open field, throwing and chasing. I actually have a fairly heavy cannonball that I take to woodland areas for this purpose it’s very portable and I look a lot like the chap below doing it…
Nutrition: More than just mathematics
Your 50’s are an excellent time to start to consider the influence the food you eat has on your overall level of health, beyond just changing your composition.
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) but there are further nuances that can really set you up for great health.
Suggested workout week:
Mon - Total body multi-joint exercises (moderate rep range, low volume)
Tues - Yoga / Pilates, sports of extended movement
Wed - Counterpart to Monday with different exercise selection (moderate rep range, low volume)
Thur - Novel Movement ‘play’ session (a workout where the intention is to explore movement)
Fri - Short low impact HIIT (<20minutes)
Sat - Sports / recreational activity
Sun - Rest
Notice that whilst we’re not moving through the week on a strictly training day vs resting day basis, only Monday & Wednesday represent a significant load on the central nervous system which would need significant recovery. Friday would be a tough workout but mild on the body and every other day I would argue would generate a net increase in energy or represent what you might consider a ‘work-in’.
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 read, there are some other considerations you should take in your 50’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.
Tip: Calories and Macronutrient distribution don’t have to be 100% spot on every day, I would settle for 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.
This chart shows the glycemic 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 of a low glycemic index as a rule and when you do eat higher glycemic 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.
Eat for joint health: Both the omega 3 fats in fish oil and Turmeric may help here as both have been shown to have impressive anti-inflammatory properties which can aid joint health and reduce tightness and pain. Foods like nuts and seeds, cold-water fish, olive oil and certain root vegetables can also contribute to overall joint health
Medicinal foods: Keep an eye out for the addition of certain herbs and spices that might be good for your overall health, either to address a specific problem or to generally just make incremental improvements. These small enhancements to your culinary repertoire may yield big benefits when it comes to your health.
Let’s take a look at a few examples:
Thyme - Powerful antioxidant, supports immune health
Oregano - Anti-bacterial properties to help fight infections
Ginger - Helps lower blood sugars and may be useful in the battle against osteoporosis
Garlic - Antifungal, Antibacterial and anti-viral properties make this popular flavour enhancer a powerful ally for all-round immune function
And there are many, many more…. Remember nutrition is more than just making macros work, sourcing quality ingredients and foods with medicinal or adaptogenic properties could really change what cooking and meal preparation means to you and your loved ones.
Overall, throughout your 50s your body is still capable of achieving great aesthetic change and the right lifestyle choices will carry you through into later life. One of the biggest battles I’ve observed with my clients in their 50s that I haven’t touched on yet is the battle to garner the belief that it’s still possible for them to lean up, gain muscle and regain good movement.
Whilst I never advocate short term measures, with belief being half the battle, it’s important to get early wins, which I believe is best done with optimisation and contrast to the lifestyle you lead on the way into a new regime, gaining the right advice or carrying out adequate research will serve you well to get the initial momentum you need and prove to yourself that you can achieve your goals in your 50s and beyond.