Health & Wellness

Keeping fit in your 50s

Getting older doesn’t have to mean slowing down. Stay fit, healthy and strong in your 40s, 50s and beyond.
Published 8 October 2018

Stay fit, healthy and strong

Our 40s are the new 20s; our 50s are the new 30s. And it can be true. We’re lucky – modern medicine is helping us to live longer and it means we have more time to enjoy life! To ensure we’re living to the max, we need to be our healthiest self and in the best possible shape as we age. And it’s more important now than ever before. According to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, if current trends continue, 70 per cent of our population may have overweight or obesity by 2025. But, by adapting to the natural changes that occur in your body with each passing birthday (which often become more apparent once you hit the big 4-0), this trend can be reversed.

A better sense of self-worth and wellbeing

There are so many reasons to celebrate getting older, especially as you enter your 40s and 50s. While it’s important to prioritise your health at any age, at this stage of life you may find you have more time for yourself, particularly if you have kids who are older and more independent. That means more time to plan and cook delicious and healthy meals, more time to be active, and more time to do what you want, which works wonders for your mental health. Plenty of studies also show that as we get older we get happier. University of Chicago researchers studied the happiness of thousands of Americans aged 18 to 80-something for more than 30 years. They found positive mental benefits can come with age and that maturity can foster a better sense of self-worth and overall wellbeing.

Fact: Your body changes as you get older. Embrace it and focus on aging healthfully!

Forget ‘forever young’, you want to be ‘forever strong’. But to know how to do that, you need to be aware of what’s happening to your body. “At about 50-ish years of age, sarcopenia can occur, which is age-related loss of muscle mass,” says exercise physiologist Andrew Schwartz. “The loss is up to one per cent per year and can have many repercussions, including loss of strength, a higher risk of falls and breaking bones, and reduced quality of life,” he says.

Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom: you can fight this ageing process. To enjoy a long, healthy life and be active with your kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, resistance training is key. “Resistance training – lifting weights and/or doing body-weight exercises such as push-ups against a wall – challenges the muscles to maintain mass and combat the change,” says Schwartz. If you’ve never done resistance training before, don’t worry. Schwartz believes hitting the gym at middle age or older can be the perfect time to start. He says, it’s a chicken and egg scenario. “Are people less active because they’re older or does doing less activity make them older?” He asks.

“People might say, ‘I’m too old to go to the gym’, but you’re not! I had a 91-year-old start training with me the other day,” he says. “It might require effort, but the benefits can be enormous.” Especially in building and maintaining strength for everyday tasks. “It’s great that retirees are going for nice walks along the beach, but I’d prefer to see them doing strength training,” explains Schwartz. “While people can be relatively fit by walking often, they need the mobility to get up a ladder to change a light bulb, and strength to take groceries upstairs and lift grandchildren or golf clubs out of the car,” he says. Struggling to do these day-to-day activities as you age can affect your self-esteem, too, as you feel a loss of independence.

Fact: Weight gain and loss of muscle mass happens after the 40.

“Body shape changes are influenced by sex hormone levels in the body,” says general practitioner Dr Andrew Kwong. “Muscle mass is often replaced by adipose tissue (fat), as less active lifestyles gradually set in.” A change in weight is normal from middle age, especially among women going through menopause. The Women’s Health Australia longitudinal survey tracked almost 60,000 women between 18 and 75, finding that women aged 45-50 gained an average of 3.4kg over eight years. There are a few reasons for it.

Fact: You can prevent or reverse unhealthy changes in your body.

“Safe weight loss can absolutely prolong a person’s life,” says Dr Kwong. “The best thing is to stick to a habit of regular moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, for at least 150 minutes a week, and to eat a well-balanced diet,” he advises. An article published in the Japanese Journal of Geriatrics echoes the doc’s words and has some advice: “It may be possible to delay the ageing process of various physiological functions by changing dietary habits and physical activity,” they conclude.

Fact: Your metabolic rate – the rate at which the body uses energy – slows with age.

This means we may need to consume less kilojoules as we get older. The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends men require 800kJ less per day between the ages of 51 and 70 than those aged 31-50. Similar story for women: instead of needing 8000kJ per day when they’re 31-50 years old, it reduces to 7600kJ a day for those aged 51-70. What does 400kJ look like? It’s about the size of a small can of tuna.

How men and women age differently

While everyone is affected by the physical signs of ageing, including losing muscle mass and experiencing a decrease in metabolic rate, there are slight differences in how men and women age:

Men aged 40+

Testosterone levels may start to decrease at an average rate of one per cent per year. Although, poor health, including being overweight, can also cause levels to decrease. A deficiency in this hormone can contribute to low energy levels, mood swings, irritability, poor concentration, reduced muscle strength and low sex drive.

Men aged 50+

As men get older, the prostate gets bigger: growing to twice its size between the ages of 50 and 80 years old. While the enlargement isn’t necessarily a precursor to cancer, it can lead to benign prostatic hyperplasia, which may cause bladder problems. From this age, it’s a good idea to have regular prostate checks.

Men aged 65+

Generally speaking, men age more rapidly than women after the age of 65. As with women, it’s important for men to keep up a regular exercise routine that incorporates strength, balance and flexibility to prevent falls and decrease muscle and bone deterioration.

Women aged 40+

You may start to experience fluctuating hormone levels as your body prepares for menopause. Amp up your daily movement and include lots of strength work to combat bone density loss that happens rapidly once menopause kicks in. The rewards of being active can also improve stress and sleep.

Women aged 50+

A speedy, sudden decline in oestrogen levels happens during menopause, which affects bone health, so talk to your GP about bone density checks. The drop in oestrogen can also lead to weight gain, especially around the midsection, so eat well and keep up your exercise routine.

Women aged 65+

The risk of falls, fractures and breaks increases in your 60s. More than 30 per cent of Australians have a fall each year with the incidence higher in women, largely due to women not doing as much strength and stability exercise as they age and because they’re more prone to poor bone health and osteoporosis than men.