The ultimate guide to achieving future-proof fitness
As you age, fitness and a healthier lifestyle become more critical than ever. Yet while many of us have the best intentions to get fit and make positive changes, sustaining significant, long-term improvement is challenging. In fact, a recent poll showed that only 21% of adults stick to a new habit for a month and, on average, people make it to seven weeks before the new habit stops. Therefore, your outlook should focus on the bigger picture. If you lead a healthy lifestyle already, you will likely continue to age with strong physical and mental health; if there’s room for improvement, don’t start introducing anything radical, as it’s almost impossible to sustain. Instead, take note of the following research-backed advice to build a body resilient enough to withstand the tests of time.
1. Keep moving
Whatever you do, don’t lead an entirely sedentary lifestyle. “The adage ‘use it or lose it’ is true,” says PT James Davis. “We need to keep moving our bodies. Specifically, we need resistance training to maintain muscle mass and regular cardio to maintain overall cardiovascular health.”
He adds, “Regular, intense exercise will temporarily boost testosterone levels and human growth hormone (HGH), so although we can’t increase them back over our baseline, we can slow the rate of decline by regularly boosting with exercise.”
2. Consider why
This is important. Unless you understand the reasoning behind your fitness, it’s unlikely you’ll gain genuine commitment or motivation.
“Since the pandemic, there has been a shift in mindset as people tend to come to me now with long-term intrinsic goals,” says Mandy Wong Oultram, PT and nutrition coach. “Vanity goals still exist, but they’ve become secondary. For example, ‘I want to get fit, so I don’t feel breathless walking up the stairs. I’d also love to lose a few pounds’.”
3. Lift more
In the US, the National Cancer Institute found that weight training could increase life expectancy. They found adults who did regular weight lifting benefitted from a 14% lower risk of death, and those who met aerobic activity guidelines and did regular weight lifting had a 47% lower risk of early death.
Quite simply, strength training never goes out of fashion, whatever age you are. Over time, a sad fact is that your muscles will shrink, bones will become more brittle and you may find your energy levels deplete. However, strength training can increase skeletal muscle mass and bone density, improve balance, coordination and posture – and the feeling of being physically strong may enhance psychological wellness.
Tom Cuff-Burnett, fitness coach and movement health specialist, agrees that strength training is a non-negotiable for anyone looking to get fit for life from their 30s onwards. He believes you should follow some simple tips before you embark on any strength or resistance training:
“Get proper help to dial in on correct technique and movement standards, and don’t do too much too soon. Jumping in at the deep end will result in extreme DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) or injury, so take it slowly and gradually build up.”
4. Ease off
A heavy one-rep max day or brutal CrossFit class is fine. However, not every session should be a pain-fest.
“Hammering yourself every day creates cortisol and stress responses, so your central nervous system takes a beating,” says Sean Lerwill, a PT with a degree in molecular genetics.
Your exercise should be regular – 40 minutes, five days a week, will cut your biological age by nine years, according to Brigham Young University. But moderate exercise is fine: a study by Appalachian State University showed that moderate-intensity resistance training is as good as hypertensive medication at lowering blood pressure.
5. Sleep soundly
A study in Biological Psychiatry found that sleep deprivation heightened inflammatory markers linked to cardiovascular disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes. In addition, an American study suggested people who sleep less than five hours a night had an ‘excess heart age’ 5.1 years beyond their real age.
6. Take your time
At the 2022 London Marathon, there were a record number of older participants. And while ageing doesn’t stop you from exercising, trying to reach targets you managed in your 20s may not be helpful. Fitness for life is about maintaining technique, avoiding injury and continuing to work out; it’s not necessarily about breaking PBs.
“It’s about a ‘finish is just as good as a time’ attitude,” says Tom Garrod, fitness and running coach. “Many people are so obsessed with time,” he says, “and it puts so much more pressure on everything. We’re so used to things happening quickly, but sometimes you need to be patient and listen to your body.”
7. Stretch yourself
Pilates builds flexibility and strength. It can also improve coordination, joint mobility, balance and posture. Equally, yoga is an effective low-impact workout that encourages a wide range of motion, stretching and meditation. One study found that your brain cells develop new connections when you practice yoga, and changes occur in your brain structure to improve cognitive skills (e.g. memory, attention and learning).1
Pilates and yoga require you to take notice of and control your breathing while you perform different movements. Both encourage relaxation and stress relief – and if it’s good enough for Andy Murray and Ronaldo, it’s probably worth trying.
8. Set achievable goals
Goals are important, as long as they’re realistic, achievable and sustainable – and they will differ depending on your fitness level and age.
“For event training,” says Garrod, “you might set goals weekly, but be aware that sometimes they don’t go to plan and that’s just life, so don’t get too hung up on it. You’ve got to be patient and realise you will get there.”
Goals provide guidance, motivation and often the kick we need to get moving, whether they’re short- or long-term. “Don’t say you will run a marathon in two weeks,” adds Garrod. “It’s all about self-belief and showing up: every step is a step forward – just be patient.”
9. Adapt with age
You might think you’re Superman, but the truth is that as you age, you can’t possibly train in the same way you did when you were much younger. It doesn’t mean ditching all your favourite workouts or forms of exercise, but you can modify them.
Consider activities that include an extensive range of movement, where you can reduce weight or reps. For instance, kettlebells, barbells, yoga and swimming are excellent for flexibility and strength.
“Think shorter, more intense sessions, such as HIIT (shown to lower biological age markers and boost levels of feel-good endorphins), and shorter weights sessions with adequate recovery,” recommends Davis.
10. Walk on
Walking is powerful. If your joints or knees can’t take running anymore, opt for walking as a daily part of life. According to Harvard Medical School, walking for two-and-a-half hours a week can reduce the risk of heart disease by 30%. It’s something you can always fit in, plus it’s free, you can do it anywhere and you don’t need any equipment.
11. Listen to your body
Just because you feel tired, doesn’t mean you have a good excuse not to move. However, if you’re injured, or something in your body doesn’t feel right, don’t overdo it. When it comes to recovery and age, Garrod says, “If you’ve got, say, five stages to rehabilitation, many people want to jump over the first few steps and just go straight to five. But they just get injured, then go back to stage one again, which is frustrating.”
Recovery or rehabilitation doesn’t always mean you need to stop exercising altogether. “There are many ways to keep occupied or adjust when you’re injured,” adds Garrod. “For example, if you’re injured from running, you may be able to swim or do upper body.”
12. Suspend belief
TRX (total resistance exercise) is a form of suspension training that uses bodyweight exercises to develop strength, balance, flexibility and core stability. It’s relatively inexpensive (when you take cost per use into account) and you can take the straps anywhere.
TRX is also a great piece of kit if you’re recovering from injury, as you can push yourself as hard as you want to. “It’s easier the further away from the anchor point you are,” adds Garrod, “and harder when you’re near it.”
13. Strengthen your bones
Unfortunately, bone weakening begins around your mid-30s, although it will differ for everyone. You can prevent the rate of that decline, though, with smart diet and movement choices.
Getting enough calcium and protein is essential, and reducing or stopping your alcohol and smoking intake can help to protect your bones. Strength training is an excellent way to strengthen your frame, too, and help to protect against osteoporosis (which affects around 6.5 million men in Europe).
14. Do the necessary extras
Don’t skip your warm-up or cool-down. As you age, muscles and tendons gradually become less flexible, and injuries are more likely to occur. A dynamic warm-up will increase your heart rate, prepare your body for exercise and build strength. A cool-down will help muscle recovery and may prevent soreness afterwards.
15. Buddy up
The Köhler effect occurs when someone in a team or group performs because they are surrounded by more competent people and are more motivated to achieve better results. In a study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, participants were asked to perform a series of planks independently and with a partner. The results showed that the partner work helped the participant hold their planks for longer than when they were on their own. And participants who exercised with a ‘more capable partner’ increased their plank hold time by 24%.
16. Stay mobile
Improving your mobility and movement patterns will enhance your range of motion, and even ensure you activate more muscle fibres when you lift, helping to crank up your strength gains.
“Mobility is an often-overlooked aspect of the training process, but it can reap huge benefits,” explains Cuff-Burnett. “Mobility refers to the ability of a joint to move actively through a range of motion. It is not only the muscles stretching over a joint, but also how far the joint moves within the joint capsule. Mobility also takes into account motor control within the nervous system: in other words, how much ‘conscious control’ we have over that particular joint or limb. Good mobility will contribute to how efficiently you are able to perform a movement and whether you can lift with correct technique, as well as playing a role in injury prevention and postural improvement.”