Fitness for a Lifetime

How much exercise - and what kind - do you need for lifelong fitness?

From the WebMD Archives

As each New Year begins, we're bombarded with enticing ads for everything from fitness equipment to health club memberships to home workout videos -- all purporting to be exactly what we need to get in shape.

But in reality, no two people's fitness needs are identical. Further, experts say that our fitness needs can change -- sometimes significantly -- in every decade of our lives.

"While there are certain fitness basics that hold true from person to person and decade to decade, there are also certain types of exercises specific to each decade -- they are age-related as well as related to health risks," says Chris Carmichael, personal coach to Lance Armstrong and one of the experts behind the "Keep Moving" motivational workout program for older adults.

To help you find the workouts that suit you best, Carmichael, along with exercise pro Kelli Calabrese and bone and nutrition expert Deborah Litman, MD, helped WebMD put together the following guidelines. (Remember that no matter what your age, you should check with your doctor before beginning any exercise plan.)

Your 20s and 30s

If you're like most women, your 20s and 30s are filled with energy and activity. As such, you may not see the need for a formal exercise program.

But regardless of how active your life is, experts advise, don't overlook the power of a regular fitness routine to increase your health now and in the future.

"Fitness in the 20s and 30s is really all about creating good health habits, and that should really be your main goal," says Calabrese, an exercise physiologist who was Personal Fitness Professional Magazine's 2004 Online Trainer of the Year.

To affect your health right now, experts say, concentrate on workouts that help build a healthy skeleton.

"During your 20s you are still building bones, so it's important to do exercises that help you build the strongest bones possible," says Carmichael.

That means doing weight-bearing workouts (those that work your muscles and bones against gravity, like walking or jogging) for 30 minutes, twice a week.

"The idea is to put stress on your bones, which encourages them to become stronger," says Carmichael.


In terms of your future health, nothing is more important than regular cardio workouts. You can reap benefits from just 20-30 minutes, twice a week, of an aerobic activity like running, swimming, biking, or even dancing, Carmichael tells WebMD: "You will reduce your risk of hypertension, high cholesterol, or even heart attack later in life."

And the sooner you incorporate fitness into your daily life, the more likely you will be to carry the habit into the next several decades.

"It's a lot easier to carry a behavior from one decade to the next, than trying to change a behavior in later years," Carmichael says.

Your 40s

Although she may still feel as powerful and energetic as she did in her 20s and 30s, by the time a woman hits her 40s, her body begins to change. One of the most significant changes is a decrease in hormones that not only affect bones and heart health, but also weight.

So your main fitness goals this decade are to build muscles, protect bones, condition your heart and control your weight. The best place to start: Strength training.

"This can help you build new muscle, which in turn will burn more calories and help control weight," says Calabrese. "It can also help put stress on your bones, which will encourage the growth of new bone cells."

She reminds us that "a woman loses at least 5 to 7 pounds of muscle every decade, and that loss begins as early as the 20s." Strength training is one of the only ways to compensate, she says.

Among the best strength-training workouts, she says, is lifting weights. And she advises you to do your lifting while standing, not sitting: "This gives you an added edge and turns a muscle-building exercise into a bone-strengthening exercise."

If you spend a lot of time in high heels, or if you're concerned about knee problems, your workout should include exercises to strengthen your thigh muscles, or quadriceps, says Litman, a rheumatologist.

"If you start in your 30s and 40s to keep these muscles aligned and strong, you will avoid many mobility problems in your later years," says Litman, a clinical assistant professor at Georgetown University in Washington.


One of the best ways to strengthen quad muscles, she says, is to ride a stationary bike -- and you can get results from just 10 minutes twice a week. Don't have a bike handy? Litman says you can get similar results by sitting in a chair, then standing up, 20 times -- using only the power of your legs to lift your body.

"I always encourage my patients in their 40s to start protecting their knees with the quad workouts, especially if they have a family history of knee problems," says Litman.

In terms of cardio workouts, Carmichael says, it's safe to continue the routines you started in your 20s and 30s. This can include any form of activity that gets your heart beating faster -- like power-walking on a treadmill or doing step aerobics -- at least twice a week.

To get the most benefits from these workouts in your 40s, Carmichael suggests, work out shorter but harder.

"Studies show if you cut down on duration but increase intensity after age 40, you get more benefits than if you do that before age 40," says Carmichael. "The cardiovascular benefits will increase and that can help reduce the onset of hypertension."

Your 50s

If you were an avid exerciser in your 20s, 30s, and 40s, by age 50 you may begin to experience the cumulative effect of wear and tear on joints and bones. So you might not be able to participate in the kind of fitness activities you enjoyed before.

But if you haven't worked out much, experts say you're likely to begin feeling an entirely different set of aches and pains -- those that result from years of inactivity. And this can curtail your daily activities.

The good news is that no matter where you find yourself on the fitness scale, there's a safe and healthy workout for you. But where do you begin?

"By age 50, women start to experience some serious loss in muscle tone and bone density, so these are two of the areas your fitness routines should focus on," says Carmichael.


After menopause, Calabrese says, a woman's rate of muscle loss doubles -- going from about 7 pounds per decade to 14 pounds per decade.

To get the most from your workouts, incorporate weight-bearing exercises along with resistance training. Resistance training includes weight lifting and any exercise that forces your muscles to overcome, resist, or bear force. Among the most effective resistance workouts, says Calabrese, are those done with exercise bands -- strong, flexible cords made of rubber tubing.

"You place the tubing around a pole or any stationary object and do pulling or rowing-type motions," says Calabrese. You can also place the bands under your feet, much as you would a jump rope, hold the ends in your hands, and pull up.

Alternately, she says, you can sit in a chair with a gallon of water in each hand, and use only your legs to boost you out of your seat.

"Any movement that gives your muscles resistance will do the trick, and the more resistance you can tolerate, the stronger your muscles will be," she says.

A bonus: These same movements will help you combat middle-age spread.

"For every pound of muscle, your body burns 35 calories while every pound of fat only burns 2 calories," Calabrese says. "So the more muscle you have, the more calories your body will burn at rest, and the easier it will be to control your weight."

Also important: Continuing your cardio workouts. If you're limited by injuries or other health concerns, experts, say riding a stationary bike is an excellent cardio exercise.

"If your knees or hip joints or lower back are bothering you, try the bike," says Litman. "It's great for the heart and you're not likely to harm anything."

If you haven't worked out regularly in earlier years, you can start now. But, the experts say, be sure to take it slow.

"You want to start with lower-impact activities, like swimming or walking, and you should do some cross-training, meaning you vary your workout activities so you don't do any one repetitive motion over and over," says Calabrese.

She advises avoiding running, jogging, or any sport with quick, cutting motions (like tennis) until your body is conditioned.


60, 70, and Beyond

Once you pass 60, experts say, fitness becomes "functional," with your goal being to live an active, mobile life.

As such, Calabrese says, choose workouts that imitate activities you do every day.

"Think about the motions you make when picking up groceries, lifting your grandchild, getting in and out of your car, working in your garden -- your exercises need to mimic these movements," says Calabrese.

And, she says, you don't necessarily need a formal workout routine to keep in shape.

"Try squatting and lifting a laundry basket, or getting down on the floor and getting up again several times; stand on one foot while you're waiting in line at the grocery store to help improve balance," recommends Calabrese. "Remember, your goal is to increase your ability to do everyday things."

You may feel a bit sore at times, but Litman says -- unless you have an injury -- don't stop moving: "If you do, you will further reduce flexibility and that, in turn, will increase pain when you do move, and ultimately it will become harder to remain on your feet."

If you feel strong enough for a regular fitness routine, look for programs with gentle movements, such as tai chi, yoga, or Pilates.

Stretching exercises, particularly for the upper body, are especially important now.

"Women tend to get very loose back muscles and very tight chest muscles, which cause you to pull your shoulders forward, leading to a stooped posture -- and a very aging look," says Calabrese.

To remedy this problem, she says, stretch the chest muscles by lacing your fingers together behind your back and lifting your hands up. To tighten back muscles, use a pulling motion -- like wrapping an exercise band around a pole and pulling both ends toward you like you're rowing.

"This can be done seated or standing, and it will really help with posture and sometimes even balance," says Calabrese.

If your health allows, be certain to work in some cardio conditioning.

Says Litman: "It doesn't have to be as vigorous as what you did in your 40s or even 50s, but you should do something to increase your heart rate at least once or twice a week."


If knees and hips are in good shape, she recommends the elliptical trainer. If you have problems staying on your feet for an extended period, try a stationary bike.

For overall fitness and conditioning -- at any age -- all our experts say that nothing beats going for a brisk, long walk!

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Exclusive Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on January 27, 2006


SOURCES: Chris Carmichael, exercise physiologist, personal coach to Lance Armstrong. Kelli Calabrese, exercise physiologist; author, Feminine, Fit and Firm. Deborah S. Litman, MD, clinical assistant professor of rheumatology, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

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