In her younger years, Jacqueline Hamilton, a corporate art consultant in Houston, played tennis or swam whenever she was so inclined. But she says middle age brought an end to purely spontaneous exercise. "I started to feel stiff. My back and hips were hurting," says the 53-year-old Hamilton. And that made it difficult for her to jump back into physical activity after a hiatus: "I realized my body was getting older and [that] I'd better use it or lose it."
Today, spurred by her gynecologist and readings on fitness, Hamilton follows a regular routine, stretching first and then biking, swimming, or walking almost every morning. Her aches and pains have diminished, and her body "just works better," which she says makes her feel younger. "If you exercise only when you feel like it, you're going to feel your age," she says.
TICKTOCK. Indeed, doctors and physical therapists agree that a consistent exercise program can ease and even minimize the effects of aging, especially after 40. Dr. Lewis Maharam, a New York sports-medicine specialist who writes a monthly health column for older athletes in Masters Sports Newsletter (800 562-1973), says: "Routine exercise is the best way to slow down the aging process. It lengthens and improves quality of lives."
That's the good news. The bad news is that physical activity will not stop the clock. Bodily degeneration is a biological fact of life, and most people feel its effects acutely during middle age. Necks and backs start to ache inexplicably, impromptu one-on-one basketball games result in days of muscle soreness, and a persistent twinge in the knee makes that last mile of what used to be an easy jog seem an almost intolerable strain. "I see a lot of middle-aged people who are frustrated that they can't do what they used to do," says Dr. Terrence Glennon, director of Medifit Human Performance & Rehabilitation Center, a division of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "I tell them it's natural, that it is a part of getting older, but it's hard for them to accept. Humanity is rough."
LESS RANGE. The key for middle-aged people, Glennon says, is to understand the changes going on in their bodies and, like Hamilton, alter their exercise programs accordingly. Otherwise, they risk speeding up their bodies' decline. After some 40 years of use, joints naturally are stiffer and less pliable. Wear causes the cartilage to become drier and increasingly brittle. Range of motion decreases, and predictably, a person in the middle years is more apt to suffer from knee, hip, and elbow pain. Midlife is also the time when most people first experience arthritis, which occurs when the cartilage wears away so completely that the bones it used to connect and cushion grind together.
Similarly, muscles become shorter, tighter, more resistant to change, and less flexible. Strains and tears are consequently more common at 40-plus. Oxygen levels in the tissues also tend to drop, resulting in reduced performance and a slower healing rate.
Given these grim realities, what to do? Fear not: A zipper sweater, lap rug, and Barcalounger are not prescribed. Rather, routine moderate muscle stimulation is especially important. Glennon and other experts recommend that instead of engaging in long, grueling workouts, middle-aged individuals exercise for 30 minutes--not three or four days a week, but at least five, to consistently loosen their aging tissues. Aerobic exercise gives the body the most benefits. But anaerobic conditioning, such as weight lifting, is a good supplement for toning and shaping muscles.
To prevent injury, be sure to stretch muscles before, during, and after exercise. This will help to maintain youthful flexibility, promote oxygen flow, and reduce strain on joints. Periodic stretching throughout the day is also a good idea--especially for the deskbound. Take time out at work to do a few shoulder and neck rotations, calf extensions, and twists at the waist.
Additionally, fitness experts advise varying exercise activities to preserve tone and strength in all muscle groups and ensure that the same muscles and joints are not taxed every time. Douglas Kelsey, a researcher, physical therapist, and rehabilitation guru in Austin, Tex., advocates cross-training as particularly beneficial to the 40-plus crowd, because "cumulative trauma is what causes the body to break down." But do not switch activities every day. Kelsey suggests picking a sport or workout program and repeating it regularly for two months before changing. After another two months, return to the original regimen, and so on.
Therapists and physicians alike urge their middle-aged patients to engage in more low-impact sports such as walking, swimming, and biking. High-impact activities such as running and tennis are far more traumatic and wearing on bones, muscles, and joints. When pursued unrelentingly, they abet and even accelerate the body's natural degeneration.
TALK OR SING? Middle-aged individuals should also remember that their cardiovascular systems are not what they were 20 years ago. The heart, like all muscles, weakens over time. On average, the maximum heart rate decreases 10 beats per minute every decade. Even worse, blood vessels become more rigid and, depending on a person's diet, may develop plaque deposits. Those obstructions, along with diminished heart-pumping capacity, slow circulation.
That's why exercisers in midlife should have a physician reassess their cardiovascular health yearly--regardless of fitness level. "No one, not even the greatest triathlete, should be lulled into thinking that because they are in shape, they won't have a stroke or heart attack," Maharam says. "Many cardiovascular problems are just plain hereditary, and that is something you need to pay attention to--especially after 40."
To safeguard the heart while deriving benefit from a fitness program, individuals should raise their heart rate to 75% of their maximum. The maximum heart rate is generally 220 minus a person's age, but individual health issues may lower the upper limit or "safe zone." How much is too much? Kelsey says an easy way to know if you are exercising with appropriate intensity is the talk/sing test: "You should be able to talk but not sing while you're exercising. If you can sing, you're taking it too easy. If you can't talk, you're going too hard"--which means the heart is beating too fast.
NO BLAHS. Finally, age brings with it a slower metabolism. Calories are not burned as efficiently or quickly, and thus feelings of sluggishness and incremental weight gain of up to a pound every year is normal. That's why frequent exercise, which speeds the body's metabolism, is crucial after age 40 to counteract the blahs as well as age-induced weight gain.
Unfortunately, a high-fat diet can cloud the results for even the most dedicated exerciser. That's because the fat from those cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes that you've enjoyed since college is less easily burned in the middle-aged body--and more likely to take up residence in tummies, hips, and thighs.
So Glennon warns the middle-aged not to use their girth--or lack thereof--to gauge the success or failure of their exercise programs. "They could be getting wonderful benefits musculoskeletally, cardiovascularly, and even psychologically from their programs but get discouraged because their waistline may be very slow to change," he says.
In fact, the consensus among physical medicine professionals is that an exercise program's true measure of success is the fun factor. If an activity is fun, there is more incentive to keep doing it. And if you've reached middle age, aren't you entitled to some fun?
Help For Staying Fit In The Middle Years
The American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine 1510 W. Montana, Chicago, Ill. 60614, 312 528-1000. Hosts a yearly anti-aging conference and sells videotapes of the proceedings; also makes physician referrals.
The American College of Sports Medicine P.O. Box 1440, Indianapolis, Ind. 46206-1440, 317 637-9200. Offers a free brochure, Fit Over 40, to those sending a self-addressed, stamped business-size envelope; also publishes a quarterly newsletter called Fit Society ($20 per year).
The American Running & Fitness Assn. 4405 East West Highway, Suite 405, Bethesda, Md. 20814-4535, 800 776-2732. Provides free materials on fitness, publishes a monthly newsletter called Running & FitNews ($25 per year), offers over-the-phone advice and referrals.
Biomarkers: The Ten Determinants Of Aging You Can Control by
William Evans and Irwin H. Rosenberg (Simon & Schuster, $12)
Fit or Fat by Covert Bailey (Houghton Mifflin, $5.95)
How and Why We Age by Leonard Hayflick (Ballantine Fawcett, $24)
Power Foods: High-Performance Nutrition for High-Performance People by Liz Applegate (St. Martin's Press, $12.95)
Stretching by Bob Anderson (Random House, $12)
The "E" Factor by Dr. Bob Goldman (William Morrow, $24.95)