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Fit into 50 Listen to Body As You Grow Older

September 16, 2008

By JOANNE KEMPINGER DEMSKI

If you’re middle-aged and have been working out for years — good for you. You probably look and feel far younger than your friends from high school.

But do you still feel as great after your workouts, or are you a bit stiff and achy? Or maybe you’re gaining weight, even though you exercise as hard as ever?

In addition to listening to that voice in your head that motivates you to exercise, it’s also a good idea to listen to your body as you age. And it might just be saying it’s time to change your workouts.

Due to age-related metabolic, hormonal, ligament and muscle changes, even longtime exercisers can start seeing differences in the way their bodies respond to exercise and diet starting in their late 30s and early 40s, said Phyllis Hanson, fitness director at Innovative Fitness in Franklin.

“Your muscles and ligaments are no longer as pliable as they used to be, and you’ll notice you’re not as flexible. And you could have knee issues or back issues due to imbalances in your muscles . . . usually that’s a wake-up call for us to say ‘Now we have to be much more aware of what we’re eating and what we’re doing in our exercise program,’ ” said Hanson, a nationally certified personal trainer and Pilates instructor who turns 48 this month.

She said muscle imbalances are common as we age and are caused by working certain muscle groups and ignoring others. For example, an exerciser may work his abs hard but forgets about strengthening his back. Or a woman loves to do lunges but has been doing them the same way for years.

Arthritis can also be an issue because as we age, our bodies can no longer handle a high level of wear and tear from weight training and frequent high-impact exercise, said Asher Sharon, owner of Fitness for Life. He is an independent trainer at Animal House Gym, 2030 W. 55th St. in West Allis.

He has a degree in exercise physiology and specializes in helping people improve posture and alignment.

“In strength conditioning, when you get older you should treat your body the way a collector treats a vintage muscle car. You can’t push it like you can a brand-new car — you’ll destroy it. And you can’t do an overhaul on a human body like you can on a car,” he said

Hanson suggested changing strength-training exercises every six weeks — even if the changes are minor. Cardio workouts should be changed every two months. It’s also important to be sure you’re doing a full body workout that includes flexibility, balance and core strength, she said.

“When you get older you need to rotate your exercises more frequently, and you should also adjust your workouts by lowering the intensity of your lifts,” said Sharon.

But for those who lift heavy — for example, those involved in power lifting or bodybuilding — it can be mentally difficult to make these adjustments, he said.

Sharon, 45, who has competed in power lifting for 11 years and has won national and international titles, said he had to put his “ego in check” when he adjusted his workout for his age.

When he was younger he focused on very heavy lifting, but he said he now walks daily and although he still does lift heavy weights, he doesn’t do the intense workouts as often.

But it’s not only weight trainers who need to change their workouts. Hanson said some exercisers focus on one type of cardio training and never make changes, and others do nothing but cardio and ignore strength training and stretching.

“Maybe someone started doing a 9 a.m. step class every day 25 years ago, and they’re still doing that step class. The reason why it’s important to change your workouts is that your muscles adapt,” Hanson said. “The workouts are no longer as challenging, so you don’t burn as many calories. You can completely change the cardio workout or just mix it with something. It approaches the muscle groups in a different way, which helps to increase your calorie burn.”

Mixing up cardio might include adding elliptical training, treadmill work, spinning or walking.

She said it’s important to add strength training and stretching to cardio workouts for a well-rounded program.

Those two components are “as important if not more important than cardio because strength training builds better bone density, improves reflex response and flexibility, which helps prevent injury so you can function better in everyday life things,” she said.

A RESOURCE

If you want specific information on workouts for those golden years, a good resource is “Strength Training Past 50: Your Guide to Fitness and Performance” (Human Kinetics, $16.95).

The book, by Wayne Westcott and Thomas Baechle, provides exercises that can be done with free weights and machines; workout plans for increasing size, endurance and strength; sport-specific workouts; and eating plans. Information is based on current research to provide safe and effective workouts for individuals older than 50.

The book starts with a chapter on assessing an exerciser’s strength level. The book also details the advantages and disadvantages of different exercise machines and information about free weights so you can pick the right equipment and lots of exercises with text on proper form.

Westcott has been involved in strength training for more than 38 years and is recognized as a leading authority on fitness. Baechle has a wide variety of credentials and has authored, co-authored or edited 12 textbooks on fitness.

— Joanne Kempinger Demski

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