Over 40 and fitter than ever: a grown-up guide Olivia Parker
Something surprising is happening across middle-aged Britain. Swathes of the population over 40 are looking in the mirror and recoiling in shock. Staring back might be a careerist for whom fitness has never before been a priority – until a health warning from their doctor has forced them to reconsider. Maybe it’s a recent divorcee who has realised they need to get in shape if they are ever to feel confident meeting someone else.
Sport England says running is up 97 per cent on 10 years ago among the over-55s.
Whatever the reason, gyms, runs and sportives are filling up with individuals in their fifth decade and beyond. According to Sport England, the strongest increase in sports participation in the past decade has been among the 45-54 age group; a rise of 794,000 people (41 per cent) since 2005-06. And 3.4 million over-55s now take part in sport on a weekly basis, up 28 per cent since 2005-06. These aren’t always inherently sporty types, either: two-fifths of over-50s who exercise say they do it more regularly now than when they were younger, according to a survey by the insurance company RIAS.
Athletics (including running), cycling and, surprisingly, netball, have experienced the biggest boosts in numbers, both in the 35-54 and 55-plus age groups. Sport England says running is up 97 per cent on 10 years ago among the over-55s, with cycling up 59 per cent.
Gyms, meanwhile, are finding that their best clients are those approaching and beyond retirement. While 31 per cent more 35 to 54-year-olds are hitting the treadmills than a decade ago, this number rises to 63 per cent for the 55-plus age group. According to data collected by Nuffield Health, which owns 77 gyms across the UK and has 211,000 members, the over-65s are the most frequent gym users across all its clubs, and you’re more likely to find a 72-year-old building up a sweat on the gym floor than a person of any other age. These 72-year-olds make an average of eight trips to the gym a month, beating those aged 25-39, who manage only six visits.
“The sheer number of older gym users speaks volumes about the desire of those in the UK to remain fit and healthy,” says Dr Auldric Ratajczak, Nuffield’s deputy medical director. “We know that regular exercise reduces the risk of memory decline, muscle loss and heart disease. In fact, exercise is the super pill we’ve been looking for to live happier and healthier through our later decades.”
Perhaps more surprising than this general increase in activity among older people is the mounting evidence that the over-40s are taking on much more serious physical challenges than ever before.
Forget Pilates or the occasional 5km Parkrun: 32.6 per cent of those who took part in this year’s London Triathlon were over 40, compared with 25.8 per cent five years ago. And 2,393 more over-40s completed the London Marathon in 2016 than in 2010. Ironman challenges, long-distance triathlons in which participants swim 2.4 miles (3.86km), cycle 112 miles (180.25km) and run a marathon, have more than tripled in popularity among Britain’s over-40s, with 7,181 men and women in this age group competing this year, compared with 2,040 in 2011.
Also helping drive fitness among the over-40s, however, are new ways of looking at ageing that prove a person’s age is not an automatic indication of their health or capabilities. A recent study by the University of Chicago looked at more than 3,000 people aged 57 to 85 and showed that age played virtually no role in determining differences in health and wellbeing – but mobility and psychological health were key factors in predicting mortality. So forget the number on your most recent birthday card: it’s never too late to discover your inner athlete and get moving – as our case studies have shown to phenomenal effect.
How the body changes when you hit your 40s - and why exercise matters
The physiological changes that happen to the body at this age are mostly hormonal in nature, says exercise physiologist and older athlete specialist Richard Brennan.
They cause loss of muscle, reduction in bone quality and loss of functional capacity, which affects how and how often you move throughout the day.
The body will also experience a reduction in maximal oxygen uptake – how much oxygen it can take in and use – which essentially means a reduction in the size of the body’s “engine”, crucial for sports performance.
“There’s nothing we can do about these changes; however, they are nothing compared to the changes that sedentary lifestyles impart on our body,” says Brennan. “I can’t recommend physical exercise highly enough. It’s the panacea.”
On top of these hormonal adjustments, 40-plus adults looking to start an exercise programme after a break of some time may also have to contend with the effects of years of sitting down, compromised gut health, incorrect training strategies from the past and a greater likelihood they’ll be taking prescribed medication. Tendons and muscle fascia will become stiffer, resulting in less flexibility. “Essentially you’re dealing with a weaker human being who is going to be more prone to injury and illness,” says Brennan. “But this doesn’t have to be the case.”
How to get fit over 40 - what to consider before you start exercising
“The most important part of any exercise session, which can determine how successful it will be, is the warm-up,” says Brennan. This applies whether you’re doing a gym session, running 10km or cycling a 50km sportive. “You need to start off slowly. It really is a case of the tortoise and the hare because if you start too quickly, as a 40-plus athlete, you’re not going to be able to keep up with the people younger than you who can play their main cards in the first part of the race or gym session. As you warm up, your tissue becomes more flexible, you have an increased blood supply to the working muscles and that is when you can start to move through the gears. Don’t rush into things.”
When building fitness it can also help to picture a pyramid, says Brennan, which you should move up step by step. At the bottom is stability, which is essential for improving flexibility. This refers not just to core stability, but strength of the glutes, spine and joints. Brennan recommends floor-based or body weight work such as bridging exercises, planks or cable work, and avoiding seated machines where the glutes are switched off and the back is flexed, increasing the risk of injury.
The second part of the pyramid is strength-building, which requires resistance training in the form of cables, free weights or kettlebells, for example.
At the peak of the pyramid are explosive power movements using weights. These need to be built up to gradually, says Brennan: “If you go straight into an exercise class like BodyPump where you’re moving weights and things around very quickly, it’s not 100 per cent certain that you’re going to get injured; however, there’s an increased likelihood.”
Aerobic exercise and how to train smart “As an adult, you’ve got to train smarter when it comes to aerobic exercise in order to get better results than a younger person,” says Brennan. “This means asking what box you want to tick with your aerobic training session.”
There are three physiological determinants of endurance performance, he says, which are important for anyone doing a marathon or cycle sportive for the first time to consider:
1. Maximal oxygen uptake, or the size of the “engine”. To improve this, you need to work at high intensity for five minutes, with a two-minute recovery. Complete five or six repetitions of this.
2. Lactate profile, or how well you use the engine. To improve this, complete different interval-training sessions to the above, such as 10 repetitions of a one-minute high-intensity activity, with a one-minute recovery. Both sessions should include a good 10-minute warm-up beforehand plus a decent cool down. “You wouldn’t do both these two training sessions two days in a row but maybe one on Tuesday, one on Friday,” says Brennan.
3. Movement economy, or how much oxygen it costs you to get from A to B. “If you’re stiff and weak, you’re going to have a low movement economy. So by improving stability and mobility you’re instantly improving one of the main physiological determinants of endurance performance. You will become quicker and less likely to injure yourself and you’ll feel less stiff the next day.”
Top tip: don’t under-recover
Older adults are often guilty of under-recovery, says Brennan. “One of your training sessions should be below threshold, a nice, easy 30 to 60-minute rhythmical session. At the end you should feel like you can do a lot more. You’ve got a little sweat on, you’ve got nice and warm, but it’s also helped move around the metabolic waste that you’ve built up in more intense interval sessions the day before.”
Should you get a health check before starting an exercise programme? Yes. If you’re a cardiac patient in particular, you must see a phase-four cardiac rehab trained instructor before embarking on any exercises. You should avoid floor exercises if you’re on cardiac medication, says Brennan, especially crunches on the abdomen. “If you do crunches on certain types of blood-pressure medication and so on, you’re going to hugely increase risk of death. This repetitive flexion exercise in the over-40s will change the collagenous content within the discs and make them more prone to injury. It’s not about flexion for the trunk, it’s about stabilisation.”