Senior school: PE Class for the over fifties
As children we learned that keeping fit is crucial for a long, healthy life - but as we age, we need to consider the impact of exercise on our changing bodies. Here, Meadhbh McGrath and trainer Karl Henry teach you the most effective ways to work out after 50
On hitting midlife, many people tend to sit back and accept some extra weight around the waistline as though it's unavoidable. Even the terms we use to describe it are unthreatening - the spare tire, the love handles, the muffin top. It's just another one of those things that comes with age. Or is it?
"Not at all. The middle-age spread is absolutely avoidable," says Dr Jennifer Grant (pictured below), a GP with the Beacon HealthCheck screening programme at Beacon Hospital, Dublin. "When we are aged over 30, a pound of muscle gets converted to a pound of fat every year. If I see someone who's 40, and they say they're up two stone on what they were 10 years ago, I can automatically say that's normal, unless you fight back, watch your diet and exercise regularly."
She adds, "In our 20s, we did exercise more - we didn't have kids, we were going out playing five-a-side soccer with the lads, we were meeting up with friends and going for a walk, we didn't really realise we were getting our exercise in. When we hit 30, the mortgage kicks in, kids start to come along, and time constraints are a natural part of our lives."
However much we may have dreaded it, at least school PE classes forced us to get moving, whether it was playing rounders, running basketball drills or enduring sprints in the relay race. In the years since, some of us may have dedicated more time to sitting on the couch with a glass of wine and a box of Ferrero Rocher than working out, so how much exercise should you be aiming to do a week? Dr Grant explains that that depends on your overall health, your past history of exercise ability and your history of orthopaedic surgery, musculoskeletal injury or prescription medications. "If you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure or are at risk of type 2 diabetes, then you should exercise for 40 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise for three or four days per week. If you are fit and well, then 25-30 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardiovascular exercise three days per week is sufficient," she says.
Cycling or walking to work is an easy way to boost your daily exercise, but Dr Grant notes it may be necessary to get up early to train at 6.30am a few mornings per week. She encourages starting out with a clear aim in mind, but it doesn't need to be based on weight loss.
"We all perform better with a target, but it's important to set realistic goals. It's got to be within reason, whether it's a 10k run, a mini triathlon or being able to hike for an hour-and-a-half up the Dublin mountains with your grandkids. If needed, set goals with the help of a professional, whether it's a personal trainer with a lot of experience, a physiotherapist or a GP," she says.
"The only measurement I'd recommend taking is your central adiposity (an accumulation of fat around the abdominal area). Put a measuring tape around your belly button to see how much abdominal fat you're carrying."
If you're worried you're carrying too much fat, Dr Grant advises finding out your BMI using a free online calculator, which only requires you to know your height and weight. The target is 18.5-25 for a woman and 20-25 for a man. If you are above that point, particularly in the obesity range over 30, she suggests taking it slow initially.
"Patients with sedentary lifestyles or obesity should start with small amounts of physical activity and gradually increase duration, frequency and intensity over time. I would suggest starting with a beginner class of something you have always wanted to try. If there is nothing, then simply get walking regularly and build it up from there," says Dr Grant.
The most common mistake people over 50 make when exercising, she adds, is pushing themselves too hard too fast. "It's not realising your age and thinking you're 16 again. You need to know your level, know your body, know your history of trauma to your joints and your family history," she says. To prevent injury, Dr Grant advises, "Always stretch well before exercise and warm-down. Watch your technique and get a personal trainer or group training for weight-resistance training. That is one area that I feel you need expert supervision unless you have an abundance of knowledge and experience."
If you are feeling pain after a workout, rest, apply ice, elevate the limb and take some painkillers. Dr Grant warns not to rush back to exercise too soon and, depending on how severe the pain is, if it persists for more than a week or if the joint is swollen, you may need to see a GP or physiotherapist.
As we get older, our bone density diminishes, we lose muscle mass and we need to take better care of our joints. People over 50 are at greater risk of musculoskeletal damage when exercising, which can include muscle strains and tears, stress or traumatic fractures, tendinitis or bursitis (the inflammation of fluid-filled sacs that cushion the bones, tendons and muscles near the joints).
To increase bone density, Dr Grant recommends weight-bearing exercise, which includes hiking, Zumba, step aerobics, running, jogging or using a skipping rope. "Brisk walking is sufficient but you have to do it for maybe 40 minutes. A 10-minute walk with the dog in the evening won't do it," she says.
To target declining muscle mass, resistance training is key, as it strengthens the muscles by putting them to work against a weight or force.
"You don't have to be lifting huge weights," she says. "At something like CrossFit, you might use free weights or kettlebells. Reformer Pilates is fantastic for building muscle mass, as are yoga and TRX."
Pilates and yoga can also help improve posture - and this is one area where the lessons you learned at school still apply. "It's chin up, shoulders back, like your granny told you when you were younger. Not slouching over, not looking at your phone when you're walking, it's common sense," she says. "Pilates and yoga are so good for your core and for helping your spine stay strong and prevent curvatures."
Our joints suffer from wear and tear as we get older, and some of us are more prone to arthritis. Dr Grant says there's no way to prevent it, but joint damage puts you at higher risk, so it's important to protect your joints and maintain muscle mass around the joint to prevent injury.
"Trying to run a marathon is not good. Non-weight-bearing exercises are good on the joints - things like swimming, cycling, brisk walking or using the cross-trainer in a gym. They're cardiovascular but they're not going to put any effect of gravity on your joints," she explains. "If you're worried that cycling isn't safe or if you don't know how to swim, you can join a gym and use the bikes there or use a cross-trainer."
Getting fit doesn't mean that you have to spend lots of money on a personal trainer or expensive classes, though.
"There are loads of group training sessions that go on locally now, in the GAA club or a local park. You can even use a home exercise DVD or borrow one from the library; a lot of them use your own body weight to maintain muscle mass," she says.
"It's just about making the effort, which we're bad at doing. But over the age of 30, it should be on everyone's mind. It will increase their bone density, it will protect their joints should they have a fall, and also it gives them confidence. They don't feel as vulnerable or as fragile: they feel stronger."
Karl Henry’s exercises for healthy ageing
As we age, our bodies change. We lose muscle mass and bone strength, our metabolism slows and we become more sedentary. A range of issues can begin to kick in: osteoporosis, arthritis, expanding waistlines and increasing risk of cardiovascular disease. Exercise can reduce your risk of contracting these conditions or help you to manage them.
As you get older, exercise plays an even more important role in your life. I recommend achieving a minimum of 180 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise for a healthier and happier life. That exercise can take any form, a form that you must enjoy and work hard at.
Most people will do some form of cardiovascular exercise and neglect the form that will bring so many benefits: resistance. Resistance exercise is any form of weight training. Your body is a weight and moving with it can improve the strength of muscles around your joints and increase muscle mass and tone.
Combining cardio and resistance exercise with some stretching is the perfect recipe for ageing healthily. Cardiovascular you can do easily: walk, swim or cycle — get slightly out of breath and you’re there. Here, are some simple resistance exercises that you can do. Repeat each movement 15 times, and do three sets of each (45 repetitions of each exercise in total). Aim to do this at least three times a week.
Start with your feet together and your arms up in the air above your head, palms touching. Keeping your arms straight, tilt the body to the left and hold for 15 seconds. Come slowly back to centre and then tilt the body to the right for 15 seconds. As you complete sets two and three, you can push the body that little bit further.
Stand in front of the couch, with your feet shoulder width apart. Place your arms straight out in front of your body, at shoulder level. Bend your legs and try to tap your bum off the couch, then return to standing and do it all over again. Aim to push all the power through your heels on the way down.
Sit on a chair, ensuring that the chair is safe to work with. Place your hands by your hips and place your feet out in front, legs parallel to the floor. Bend your elbows as far as you feel comfortable, keeping your bum close to the chair, then straighten your arms back to the starting position.
Side leg raise:
Start by lying on the floor with all of your limbs in one line. Point your toe towards your face and raise your leg to as high as you feel comfortable, returning back down. Complete 15 and then change sides.
Start by placing your back against a wall and your feet out in front at shoulder width. Lower your body down until your legs are parallel to the floor and hold for as long as you feel comfortable. As you get stronger, you can hold for longer.
10 new fitness trends
1 High-intensity interval training (HIIT): A workout that alternates between bursts of intense activity and fixed recovery periods of gentler activity or rest, such as spinning hard on a bike for 30 seconds, then easy for 15 seconds, and then another hard 30-second interval.
2 Low-intensity steady state (LISS): A counter to HIIT, LISS is a cardio-based workout performed instead at low to moderate intensity for prolonged periods — usually at least 45 minutes of jogging, power-walking, cycling or swimming.
3 TRX (short for Total body Resistance exercise): TRX is a system of suspension training that relies on body weight for resistance. The TRX is a strap with handles
on each end, looped through an anchor point, and can be applied to most traditional exercises like lunges, squats and push-ups, to help strengthen the core.
4 Ballet barre: A dance-based exercise that blends classic ballet postures, cardiovascular workout and Pilates for strength training and body conditioning. The barre is used for balance, but the workout may also involve handheld weights, balls, bands and targeted core work on a mat.
5 Aerial yoga: Like regular yoga, but on a fabric hammock held up by support chains (above). It borrows from traditional yoga poses, aerial acrobatics, dance and Pilates but offers greater freedom of movement, so aims to give more flexibility and deeper stretches.
6 Boogie bounce: A disco fitness class where each person is given their own mini trampoline with a safety bar to hold onto. Choreographed routines are performed to pop music, focusing on small, controlled movements rather than gymnastic tricks. The trampoline is used as a resistance tool to develop upper and lower-body strength.
7 Reformer Pilates: The reformer is an exercise machine that adds resistance to Pilates exercises. It looks like a sort of medieval bed with springs, pulleys and a sliding carriage, which work to build a solid core and lean muscles in more areas than the usual mat work, particularly the peripheral muscles in arms and legs.
8 Piloxing: Part Pilates, part boxing, part dance, Piloxing fuses ‘standing Pilates’ principles with pumping boxing
combinations for a high-energy workout that aims to sculpt the body, improve flexibility and strength, and build endurance.
9 Crawling: There’s more to this than the typical baby crawl. It involves keeping the back parallel with the floor and hips level, like a plank, while crawling slowly and alternating between holding each knee up for a time.
10 Kangoo: A workout that reduces strain on joints by adding low-impact ‘rebound’ shoes (like moon boots with springs) while running, jogging, dancing or other aerobic exercise.