How to exercise as you age: 6 tips from an orthopedic surgeon

woman at the gym flexing her bicep muscle

By Dr. Pier Boutin, MD

Exercising as you age can get a bit tricky. As we get older, the importance of exercise magnifies. But at the same time, your body starts to react to it differently. So your old workout routine can actually hurt you — if you don’t make a few changes.

I’ve learned these truths professionally and personally — I’m an orthopedic surgeon who treats sports injuries, and I’ve been an athlete all my life.

For one thing, it gets much harder in your 40s and beyond to build muscles than it was in your 20s. And old injuries or arthritic joints often make exercise more difficult.

How do you keep getting the benefits of exercise as you age? I’ve learned answers to that question both from my patients and from doing triathlons into my 50s. So here are the six tips I recommend to women like me who want to continue their regular exercise routine.

1. Get enough rest days

As the years pass, your body recuperates more slowly after intense workouts. That’s why rest days become more important than ever. Rest days can vary from walking to a light spin on the bicycle to sometimes doing nothing. I find that it’s best to include two to three days of lighter exercise or rest per week.

2. Learn to cross-train

Since older bodies recover at a slower pace, varying workouts from day to day becomes essential. If you do an upper body workout at the gym one day, you could follow it with a hike the following day to focus on your legs. The next day might be a rest day or a 30-minute stationary bicycle day (fast-paced with little resistance) or a fast walk. It’s important to mix cardiovascular exercise with muscle-building workouts.

People tend to stick with their exercise if they incorporate activities they enjoy — especially when in company of others trying to reach the same goal.

3. Keep — or add — strength training to build muscle

Weightlifting is not only for the young. Don’t let the jocks in the gym intimidate you.

Curling 20 pounds at the age of 60 is a much bigger accomplishment than lifting 60 pounds at the age of 20.

Although walking improves your heart health, it’s not a great muscle-building exercise unless you walk steep hills or stairs. Strengthening exercises include moderate hikes, bicycling, kayaking, swimming, weightlifting, stair climbing and strength classes.

woman stretching outside in park after workout

4. Transition to low impact activities

The rate of injuries with higher impact sports increases with age. This is something I know from experience, and most of us should transition to low impact activities.

Common injuries that can end older athlete’s dreams include tendon ruptures, muscle tears and painful joints. Age naturally selects out singles tennis players. But the good news is that people can achieve the same physical fitness level without injury by using low impact activities.

5. Warm up

Muscles tend to start up more slowly as the years go by. And your muscles take longer to respond to challenges. Warming up the muscle slowly before an intermediate or intense workout becomes critical to avoid injury. For me, a 15-minute spin on the stationary bicycle is a great warm up.

6. Stretch warm muscles

Stretching becomes more important as our tendons and ligaments tighten and tear more easily with age. It’s best to stretch warm muscles. That means gentle and sustained stretching during or immediately after exercise.

As you age, your body will begin to resist intense workouts. However they are invaluable to making sure you keep your physical independence and extend your life. In fact, studies show a correlation between lifespan and the ability to rise from the floor independently. And rising from the floor requires both strength and flexibility.

I understand that working out becomes harder with age — but it is much more critical too. So follow these tips to keep your exercise routine and its benefits working for you!

See what Dr. Boutin recommends to help you prevent the need for surgery in her blog Arthritis is your warning not to stop moving.