Midlife fitness: what you should be doing to stay healthy for life

A new government campaign suggests we are dangerously unaware of how active we need to be in our forties and beyond. Matt Roberts shows what you can do to stay fit.

Never mind a few yoga sessions and the odd run thrown in, middle age is actually the time to do more exercise, not less. Get on your feet and get moving is the message that will be reverberating from billboards and TV ads in the form of a new government campaign, One You, which has just launched. The premise is that forty and fiftysomethings aren’t doing enough exercise — and if they did more, they would be twice as likely to have an active old age. In fact, even those who have been active in their twenties and thirties will need to increase the amount of exercise they do, particularly adding weights to offset the muscle mass that gradually decreases with age.

Critics have labelled efforts to get the middle-aged moving “patronising” but many experts believe the campaign is a good idea. For those who have found themselves shifting towards slothfulness as the children grow up and financial pressures ease, the statistics are sobering. More than two thirds of adults in this age bracket are overweight and, increasingly, prone to eating and drinking excessively. It’s all too easy to slip into bad habits, find that your waist has widened seemingly overnight and that suddenly you are at heightened risk of associated illness and disease. Experts behind the One You campaign, the first government drive targeting the middle-aged, say that urging the over-forties to drink less, exercise more, eat better and give up smoking will also relieve a considerable burden on the NHS.

Middle age is actually the time to do more exercise, not less

Although overall life expectancy has been steadily rising over the past few decades, the extra years people are living are often not spent in good health. More than two fifths of those aged 45 to 64 are living with an illness or disability in England and 40 per cent of deaths in that age bracket are linked to an unhealthy lifestyle. About 75 per cent of middle-aged men and two thirds of middle-aged women are overweight or obese because of poor diet and lack of exercise. With smoking and drinking added to the equation, the NHS is spending £11 billion every year treating lifestyle-related illnesses. And yet reversing this trend is realistic.

Dr Peter Herbert is an exercise physiologist and director of the human performance laboratory at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. Over the years he has helped to hone the Wales rugby union team and several world and Commonwealth champion boxers. Now his work is focused on finding the best ways to improve the fitness levels of the ordinary, and slightly chubby, middle-aged. “So many of us fall into the trap of letting things go a bit in terms of activity when we hit 40 or 50,” says Herbert. “Unfortunately, the ageing process means that we can lose a lot of definition, tone and cardiovascular fitness quite rapidly. You look down and there’s a roll of fat or a paunch that you hadn’t seen before. But we can get it back, and be as fit as we were when we were younger, with the right kind of effort.”

Encouragingly, it doesn’t mean you need to be a slave to the gym. What Herbert’s research — and that of others — has shown is that, although you need to exercise daily, the workout can be short. “In many ways, less is more as you get older,” he says. “You need to focus your effort into shorter sessions and not necessarily think about running a marathon.” In studies of 40 to 60-year-olds he has found that results come relatively quickly, but patience is required. “One of the key problems is that middle-aged people launch into weight training and gym work and wonder why they aren’t seeing results after four weeks,” he says. “It takes a bit of time to undo the effects of inactivity and to see changes but they do tend to become startlingly apparent after four to six weeks of consistent effort.”

So, where to start? Here are Roberts’s top ten tips for middle-aged fitness.

Yes, you can get rid of your middle-aged spread and moobs
The appearance of moobs, along with the dreaded paunch, are among the main triggers for men in their forties and fifties to start getting fit. The good news is that you can get rid of them. A flabby chest on men develops as a result of an accumulation of body fat along with fluid retention, so lose that fat, build some muscle — and cut down on your alcohol and sugar intake too. Weak pectoral muscles will add to a saggy chest, so include strength exercises such as the shoulder press and bent-over row that will help to restore tone. Make indoor rowing one of your interval activities too — it’s great for the pecs, core and all-round body fitness.


You should work out four or five times a week

Walk for 25-30 minutes a day minimum
Nothing is as important as simply increasing your general daily activity. Walking is what matters more than anything as we get older, and a lack of time on our feet impacts disastrously on our body shape and fitness. You should be walking every day for at least half an hour — a short stride is the most efficient (a long stride means you lose momentum and power). If nothing else, make this your minimum.

Why you should lift weights after the age of 40
Too many middle-aged exercisers assume that strength training is for gym bunnies. However, that’s wrong. If anything, weights are more important at this stage in life (and onwards) than at any other. From around the third decade of life we lose an average of a fifth of a pound of muscle a year. Beyond the age of 50 those losses accelerate to a decline of about one pound of muscle every 12 months. Diminishing muscle mass is likely to raise blood lipid levels (mainly fatty acids andcholesterol) and body fat, particularly the visceral fat that accumulates around vital organs — which is why the loss of muscle mass has been linked to obesity and heart disease.

Building strength by doing weights will also ensure that your joints are stable and your metabolism is faster. A combination of bodyweight exercises (squats, jumps, push-ups, etc) and weights is most effective because overloading your muscles by adding weights speeds up your rate of progress.

Studies have shown that middle-aged men who lift weights for 30 minutes a day, five days a week may be able to reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 34 per cent. You will look leaner and more toned and feel better too.

You need to work out four times a week
At this stage of life you need to increase the frequency, intensity and time spent exercising — which means four or five days a week. Out of these, do two 25-minute weights sessions (with 10-15 repetitions of each exercise in each set) — one focusing on your chest, biceps and thighs, the other focusing on your back, biceps, hamstrings and abs. On the other days do cardiovascular exercise, such as walking, swimming, cycling, rowing or running, alternating between long and steady sessions of about 45 minutes, and 20-minute interval sessions involving bursts of speed. You should also aim to complete the circuit overleaf on top of these workouts.

Yoga and Pilates aren’t enough on their own
Yoga and Pilates alone are not enough to get you fit and in good shape because they do not raise the heart rate and get you sweating enough to make a real difference. However, yoga has particular benefits for the middle-aged — and not only because it has been proven to lower stress levels.

A recent study found that regular yoga practice helped to prevent middle-age spread and aided weight loss. Pilates has its own benefits — another study found that regular Pilates improved muscle strength, balance and posture in men and women in their forties and fifties. Both will enhance flexibility, mobility and stability, and they are great to do in addition to your cardiovascular and strength work, but they should not replace workouts. Instead, try to incorporate moves from either or both at the end of your daily exercise sessions.

The new way to beat middle-age spread
Fat gain in middle age is linked to hormonal fluxes that occur in men and women during the middle years — and fat around the middle is considered the most dangerous because it surrounds the internal organs and has been linked to a raised risk of diabetes and heart disease.

There’s no reason why you can’t be as fit at 50 as you were at 30 or even 20

However, the solution is not endless crunches. New research shows that for a slim middle you need to include exercises that require you to stabilise your core as well as target your abdominal muscles. To achieve a flatter stomach you need a range of exercises that work the array of muscles in the midsection, including the upper and lower rectus abdominis and the external obliques. A combination of planks and plank raises, push-ups and squat thrusts, for example, is ideal because this will provide the most activity in the muscles around the waist — and will strengthen your back at the same time.

It won’t take long to make a difference. If you do a few core-strengthening activities every day (ie, 15 sit-ups, a plank for 30 seconds and 15 push-ups, which will take about ten minutes) you will see a difference within two weeks.

Exercise can offset the effects of menopause
A loss of bone mass (which results in brittleness) is accelerated by the drop in oestrogen that occurs with the menopause, which is why post-menopausal women are prone to osteoporosis. However, you can offset this decline by doing weight-bearing exercise, such as running, weights and circuits. The impact of these exercises causes muscles to pull on bones, which triggers them to build more cells and become stronger, thus increasing bone density and strength.

As oestrogen levels drop, a woman will typically gain about a pound a year in her late forties and fifties. A study found that exercise is the most effective way of preventing this gain. In the study, three groups of women followed an 800 calorie-a-day diet. One group did no exercise, one group walked or jogged at a slow pace for 40 minutes on a treadmill three times a week, and one group followed an upper and lower bodyweight circuit-training sessions three times weekly. The final group lost the most weight and burnt extra calories.


The 20-minute workout: tone your body in three weeks

To shrink the waist
Oblique plank raises
Lie on your side, slightly propped up, leaning on your elbow, with your hips slightly raised off the floor (1). Use your middle to push yourself up fully (2), supporting your weight between your forearm and feet, then lower again.
Beginner 12 repetitions on each side
Advanced 18 repetitions

Beat the bingo wings
Tricep dips

Place your hands on a bench, chair or step behind you, with your legs outstretched in front, slightly bent (1). With elbows close to the body, lower yourself until your upper arms and forearms form a right angle (2). Keep your legs outstretched and feet on the floor. Push your body up.
Beginner 12 repetitions
Advanced 18 repetitions

To get rid of moobs
Bent-over row

Standing with knees slightly bent, bend forwards, stick your bottom out and let the dumbbells (about 2kg each) hang down (1). Pull your elbows up, keeping them tight into the body with elbows sticking out to the side (2), then bring your arms back down again.
Beginner 12 repetitions
Advanced 18 repetitions

Lose the paunch
Knee crossover tuck

Put your palms on the floor under your shoulders in an extended press-up position, with legs straight, the balls of your feet on the ground and your arms straight (1). Engage the muscles in your core and keep your torso stable. Holding this position, lift one foot off the floor and bring the knee in across your upper body towards the armpit on the opposite side (2). Lower to the start position then repeat on the other side.
Beginner 12 repetitions on each side
Advanced 18 repetitions on each side

Lift a saggy bottom
Reverse lunge with rotation

Start in a standing position with back straight and feet shoulder-width apart, arms held out straight in front of you, parallel to the ground with hands together (1). Step backwards, bending both knees to 90 degrees and maintaining a straight torso. As you step back, keep your arms straight. From that position, turn your body around to the right (2). Return to the centre. Repeat on the right side for the set number of repetitions. Switch to the left.
Beginner 12 repetitions
Advanced 18 repetitions

To strengthen the core
Sit-up with weight

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet close to your buttocks. Hold on to a weighted ball or weight of 2-5kg (1), depending on fitness levels (or you can use a tin of beans or a big bottle of water). Sit up holding the weight, keeping your back straight and using your abdominal muscles and core to pull yourself up (2). Once in a sitting position, twist your upper body and arms to the right, then to the left, in a controlled manner. Return slowly to the starting position.
Beginner 12 repetitions
Advanced 18 repetitions

For a stronger back
Hyperextension
Lie on your front on the floor, with your hands flat underneath your chin and your back and legs straight (1). Then lift your chest off the floor, making sure that your chin is tucked in (2). Hold this for a few seconds, then lower slowly to the start position.
Beginner 12 repetitions
Advanced 18 repetitions

For firmer thighs
Squats with dumbbells

Hold a dumbbell or weight in each hand (they can be quite heavy because it’s your legs, not your arms, that are taking the pressure — start with a 2kg weight in each hand and increase the weight if you can). Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees and toes slightly pointing outwards (1). Keep your back straight and your head up. Squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor (2) and slowly return to the start.
Beginner 12 repetitions
Advanced 18 repetitions

Do the circuit of exercises twice, five times a week. It will take about 20 minutes to do. In three weeks you will be noticeably stronger, leaner and more toned. As your body gets used to the programme, increase the size of weights and number of repetitions for sustained fitness.