In the last 20 years, our concept of aging has radically shifted. While past generations might have slowed down as they grew older, now people over 50 are embracing vigorous activities to stay fit and healthy.
While exercise is a key part of staying in shape, it’s important to remember that your 50-year-old body is quite different from the 25-year-old version. It injures more easily and is slower to recover. So, if you’re thinking about a half-marathon, a cross-country bike ride or adopting a new sport, go in with a plan. In other words, learn how to stay fit and healthy while avoiding injury.
“As we age, the most important aspect is foundational fitness, which establishes a strong baseline on which to build your fitness and health,” says Lawrence Schlitt, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Del Mar. “Gearing up for an event without training for it may result in injuries, from minor to severe, that will put you on the sidelines.”
Injuries that could put a stop to your fitness fun include damage to the rotator cuff, Achilles tendon, quadriceps, knees or hamstrings. The risk of these injuries increases without foundational fitness, whether you are training for a big event or enjoying a spirited game among friends each weekend.
“The challenge is the time required to train,” says Dr. Schlitt. “If you’re only doing your sport once a week, you need to do something three other days a week to maintain muscle and tendon health.”
Foundational fitness is a good starting point to staying healthy and injury free. But each workout, whether it is a short run or an afternoon playing soccer, requires a specific regimen to warm and stretch muscles and connective tissue. Dr. Schlitt recommends a five- to 10-minute warm-up that loosens the body and includes dynamic stretches and foam rolling for tight areas. Focus on the muscle groups you will be taxing during the workout.
One of the toughest decisions when it comes to staying fit after 50 is when to take part in an activity and when to pass.
“When you’re young, you can work through fatigue,” says Dr. Schlitt. “But as you get older, pushing forward with your workout despite fatigue can increase your chances of injury. Sometimes you have to listen to your body and say: ‘Maybe today’s not the day.’ It’s a difficult decision because we derive a great deal of satisfaction and enjoyment from participation.”
The other side of staying fit after 50 is what to do if you feel discomfort while exercising. Dr. Schlitt notes that if the pain is severe, you should stop your workout immediately. Importantly, you need to gauge how you feel the following day. If you’re still feeling the strain, you may have to modify your program or suspend it temporarily. If you are experiencing extreme pain, or having trouble with your daily activities, see a physician.
If you’re over 50 and just starting to work out, proceed cautiously. Check in with your primary care physician if you have questions on how to stay fit and healthy without running the risk of getting hurt.
In general, choose low-impact activities, such as cycling, swimming, yoga or the elliptical trainer. Gear up slowly and make sure you are warmed up and stretched.
“Most importantly, choose an activity you enjoy and have fun,” says Dr. Schlitt. “Exercise boosts your mood, as well as your physical fitness.”