How to start exercising in middle age, stay injury-free and keep it up long-term

Specialist physiotherapist Eimear O’Brien shares her 10 tips for building a new fitness routine you can maintain, and build on safely

Studies show people are more likely to be consistent with an exercise if they enjoy it. Photo: Getty Images

Make an action plan and write down your daily fitness goals. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

thumbnail: Studies show people are more likely to be consistent with an exercise if they enjoy it. Photo: Getty Images
thumbnail: Make an action plan and write down your daily fitness goals. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Eimear O’Brien

As January ends and spring is in sight, many will endeavour to ‘exercise more’ or ‘take up exercise’. Do a quick internet search or social media scroll and you’ll find hundreds of fitness programmes with detailed instructions on which exercises are best, how to do them, and how many sets and reps you should do.

Unfortunately, many people struggle to stick with any consistent exercise, due to unsustainable exercise habits. Building healthy habits should be the first thing you focus on when taking up exercising. The following 10 tips will help you to create sustainable exercise habits and minimise your risk of sustaining an injury, for a fitter and healthier 2023.

1 Choose an exercise/activity you enjoy

Studies have shown that people are more likely to stick to — and be consistent with — an exercise if they enjoy it. This can be a group sport or individual exercise activity. Whether it be Pilates, yoga, running, walking, swimming, cycling, boxing, or football, the key is to choose what you enjoy, in order for it to become sustainable long term.

2 Make an action plan

The goal here is to make time to exercise — you may have to move things around or ask for help in order to achieve this. Spend some time and effort on this and write down your daily fitness plans.

3 Introduce exercise gradually

Any new exercise should be introduced gradually. Our bodies are excellent at adapting to physical activity but this takes time, and any effective exercise programme will have graded progression at its core. To guide us here, we can use the 10pc rule. For example, walking or running, times or mileage, can be monitored and each week could be increased by 10pc as you try to build your fitness.

4 Adopt a healthy mindset and attitude towards exercise

Shifting your mindset towards exercise as a positive thing to do can go a long way in sustaining exercise as a life-long habit, while reaping the many benefits physically, mentally and socially. Surround yourself and talk to other people who love to exercise.

5 Avoid the boom and bust cycle

This means building up slowly to your chosen exercise, at a rate your body can cope with and taking regular rest. Injury is quite common with people who are just starting back or new to exercise, as they may be eager at the start and do too much, too quickly. Muscles and tendons take time to strengthen and adapt to new exercise loads, so be patient with your body and pace up with exercise consistently over time.

Make an action plan and write down your daily fitness goals. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

6 Sleep and recovery

Several processes such as the release of human growth hormone and muscle protein synthesis occur while we sleep, and these are vital to promote adequate recovery from exercise. Studies investigating the sleeping habits of athletes have shown that those sleeping less than 7 hours per night for a 2-week duration have a 50pc greater risk of sustaining a new injury. It is recommended that adults get 7-9 hours of sleep per night.

7 Strength training

Just two sessions per week of strengthening exercises has been shown to reduce the risk of acute injury by 30pc and overuse injury by 50pc. You don’t need any fancy equipment or a gym membership to add strengthening exercises to your weekly exercise regime. Instead, you can do a body-weight circuit at home including exercises such as squats, press-ups, side planks, and calf raises.

8 Fuel your body and drink up

Carbohydrate-rich foods help to fuel exercise performance and protein-rich foods will help with muscle repair post-exercise. We should aim to drink 2-3 litres of water daily to ensure optimum hydration, and readers are advised to seek guidance from a dietician for further help and support on nutrition.

9 Change your environment

If you can’t commit to the gym or an exercise class, learn how to work out at home. There are many exercise options now available online, both paid and free.

10 Don’t expect perfection and have fun

Starting from not exercising at all to exercising 3-5 times a week can be overwhelming. But remember, exercise is meant to be enjoyable. So don’t get bogged down if you need to skip a day or don’t have time or energy to complete the workout. It’s normal to stumble every now and then — forgive yourself and start again the next day.

If you’re unsure about taking up exercise that’s sustainable for you, it’s always best to check with your local chartered physiotherapist for guidance on the above. If you sustain an injury or are concerned about flaring up an old injury, seeking help early will leave you best placed to keep exercising throughout 2023.

Eimear O’Brien MISCP, Clinical Specialist Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist at Dublin’s Beacon Hospital