Men: Stay Fit As You Age
Acting your age isn’t always easy. For men who have always been interested in fitness, reaching middle age can be a little rough, both physically and mentally. You may be upset that you can’t run as far, or at least as easily, as you used to. Maybe you’re having some trouble keeping up with the younger guys on the basketball court.
But this is no time to give up. “Given the tremendous physical and psychological benefits of exercise, everyone should be doing it, no matter what their age” says Jonathan Bean, M.D., director of geriatric physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School.
So, you have to always keep exercising. The trick is to learn how to adapt your workout routine as you get older.
Recognizing Your Limits
Your muscles naturally atrophy with age, meaning that you have to work harder than you once did to get in shape. Bones gradually get weaker with time, which increases the risk of a break.
Middle-aged and older men are just more likely to have accumulated more injuries along the way, especially in the knees, back and ankles. “You’ve got a lot of sins to atone for when you hit middle age,” says James Garrick, M.D., director of the Center for Sports Medicine in San Francisco. A lot of those prior injuries are likely to never have been properly rehabilitated. So you’ve got the combined risk of developing a new injury and re-injuring an old one.
As a result, middle-aged and older men need to take it a little easier on their bodies than they did in high school. But that’s not what always happens. “The biggest problem for older guys who exercise is that they don’t realize that their bodies have changed,” Garrick says. The upshot: You can’t take up a new sport as abruptly as you did when you were younger.
Your body can’t adapt as well to a sudden increase in exercise and doesn’t bounce back as easily afterwards. “If you’re planning on starting a new activity, gradually increase your exercise a month beforehand,” says Kenneth Brummel-Smith, M.D., president of the American Geriatric Society.
“Men’s competitive natures can get them into trouble,” Garrick says. “A lot of middle-aged men want to compete with the guy next to them on a fitness machine at the gym, or to engage in contests to see who can lift the most. But pushing yourself too hard, for no good reason, is silly and dangerous.”
No Pain, No Gain?
Paying attention to pain should be the cardinal rule of exercising. “The whole notion of no pain, no gain has to be thrown out,” Brummel-Smith says. “Pain, especially in older men, is an important sign that something is wrong.”
No person of any age should ignore pain during exercising, especially if it is sharp and acute. But older bodies are much more at risk than younger ones, since they are not quite so resilient.
There’s a psychological component to the way some men ignore an injury. “A lot of guys don’t want to acknowledge that they’ve been hurt to their buddies,” Garrick says. “There’s a lot of emphasis on ‘playing through’ pain. But that just isn’t a good idea, because you run the risk of developing a chronic injury.”
With a few exceptions, you can still do anything you want. But the exercise you choose, and how much you do of it, depends on your current physical condition. If you’re already exercising four or five times a week now, your body will be better prepared for shifting into something new. But if you’re someone who is getting into exercise after a long break or perhaps for the first time in your life, all three experts insist that you have to take it slow.
No matter the age, Bean says all men should strive for:
• Aerobic exercise 20 to 40 minutes, two or three times a week
• Strength training two or three times a week, alternating days with aerobic exercise
What about contact sports? They’re okay as well, up to a point. “Anyone playing a contact sport, including basketball, has to remember that he’s putting himself at an increased risk of injury,” Bean says, “because you can’t control what other people are doing; you can’t prevent the risk of getting elbowed or knocked over.”
There are a few cautions. If you have a medical condition, such as heart disease or diabetes, check with your doctor before beginning to exercise. Arthritis can be helped tremendously by exercise, but you should consult with an expert to see what exercises you should do and which ones you shouldn’t. Also, keep in mind that certain medications, such as beta-blockers, can artificially control your heart rate, meaning that you can’t use beats per minute as a gauge of your exercise.
If you’re not sure if you need to see your doctor, see your doctor. “Frankly, I think that everyone, no matter what the age, should talk to their doctors before beginning a new exercise program,” Bean says.
Most important, make sure that you’ve found an exercise that you really enjoy doing. If you don’t like it, you’re pretty likely to stop.
At any age, overuse injuries are the most common, including injuries of the ankle and knee and chronic tendonitis. “The good thing about overuse injuries is that we can really treat them effectively,” Garrick says. “We can make sure that old injuries are properly rehabilitated, teach someone how to gradually work back into a sport and cross-train, and work on his muscle strength and flexibility.”
Another common overuse injury can stem from your body’s slight irregularities or structural imperfections. For example, runners may begin to experience knee problems as a result of one leg being ever-so-slightly shorter than the other. It’s a problem that can often be cured by a specially designed insert in your shoe, but it is also one that is often hard to pinpoint without the help of a specialist.
Acute injuries are a lot harder to prevent. After all, no stretching exercise can prevent you from being hit in the nose by a racquetball. However, some severe acute injuries like Achilles ruptures — which can take six months out of your life — can be prevented if you treat the Achilles tendonitis that sometimes comes before it, Garrick says.
How Old Is Too Old?
Always remember: You’re never too old for exercise. “In fact, the basic recommendations concerning exercise are no different for older adults than they are for younger adults,” Bean says.
Experts have come to recognize the tremendous benefits of exercise in older people, especially strength and power training.
“A lot of the weakness that most people attribute to ‘old age’ is actually from disuse,” Brummel-Smith says.
Fitness can actually prevent common accidents in the elderly such as falls and the resulting hip breaks, since exercise increases muscle strength and balance. “Strength in the elderly is tremendously important,” says Bean, “It can mean the difference between being bedridden and being able to move around freely.”
In one study, physically fit men in their 50s were compared to inactive men in their 20s. The physically fit older men had significantly lower resting heart rates — 64 beats per minute versus 85 beats per minute — than the younger men, they took in oxygen more efficiently, and they weighed less.
If you’re an older person and the notion of getting fit doesn’t appeal to you, try to think of physical activities that you used to do and get back into them. Just getting moving will help. “Start gardening or bowling again,” Brummel-Smith says. “Rake leaves or go dancing. Don’t let age prevent you from doing the normal activities you used to do.”
Bean sums up the benefits of exercise for all ages: “Exercise is medicine. It’s the best medicine we have for reducing the risk of serious medical conditions, for prolonging our lives, and for making them better. There’s just no pill that compares with it.”