Five questions people over 50 ask before they start a fitness program
People considering exercising over age 50 have many questions they want to ask. Sometimes it is hard to get a clear answer to these questions. Here are five things that I have found people over 50 really want to know but don’t know who to ask.
- What is the biggest difference between working out at 50+ and when you were younger?
When you begin an exercise program and you are over 50, you will perform most of the same movements and activities that someone much younger would do if they were just starting out. The main difference is that older trainees need to be more cautious as they go through a training program because they may have a variety of weaknesses that are the result of being sedentary for years.
It is possible to get in phenomenal condition after age 50, but it can’t be done as rapidly as a younger person. Even people who start working out when they are in very poor condition can become extraordinarily fit. The secret is to proceed carefully and be persistent.
Getting in good physical condition means that you must build both strength and endurance. You need to be strong enough to freely enjoy an active life, and have the endurance and resilience to recover quickly from all but the most extreme physical activities.
At age 50 only about 5-10% of the population can be considered to be “in good physical condition”. The main reason is that few people work out systematically or work out enough to be strong and healthy. Being sedentary leads to a decline in both strength and endurance for anyone. The erosion is even more pronounced for people over 50.
Another issue is that most people over 50 tend to have some significant imbalances in the strength of opposing muscle groups. Some muscle groups are weak while the opposing muscle groups are comparatively strong. These are a major source of chronic injuries and pain. A common imbalance in men is weak abdominal muscles coupled with strong and very tight hamstrings. This leads to chronic lower back pain.
The good news is that most of the time, these imbalances are correctable with proper training.
Another common issue is a significant decline in cardiovascular conditioning. Lung capacity has diminished and the heart has become accustomed to minimal work demands. With careful training most of the time the heart and lungs can be brought back to an amazing level of fitness.
Finally, at 50 many people are carrying a lot of extra body fat. Body fat is not only aesthetically unpleasing, it is a danger to the persons health in that it can lead to chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and just about any other chronic condition you want to avoid.
Now the good news! Most people over age 50 can build up their bodies to levels of fitness they never dreamed possible. The main ingredients for success are to: 1) work on the right things and 2) be persistent.
2. Is there a “best way” to get in shape?
There are two fundamental components of conditioning: strength and cardiovascular. Both components are important. Each needs to be part of a long term conditioning program. The amount of each will depend on how far the individual trainee wants to go in their overall fitness.
IMHO the optimal situation for a beginner is to start training both of these areas with resistance training and with aerobic training. As I said above, it is important to begin with relatively easy challenges and build up over time. This will lessen the prospect of injury and allow for steady progress.
If you are in very poor condition, begin cardiovascular conditioning with walking. It is not important to count the steps you take, but it is useful to count the miles you walk and the number of minutes you spend doing this. Gradually, build these numbers up over time and you will get to the point where you can do more aggressive cardio training.
It is not advisable for beginners to jump in and attempt to do intense cardio training. Most are not in good enough condition to benefit much from intense (HIIT) training. Until one has a good base of low intensity cardio training, the more intense versions are most likely to produce injuries while giving minimal conditioning benefit.
Similarly, the goal of beginning resistance training is to build up a balanced and relatively flexible muscle structure. The purpose should be to build basic strength and correct muscle imbalances. Weight training is generally best for building foundation strength although it can also be built with body weight exercises.
Bottom line: begin by not being sedentary. Get out and move more. Gradually build up so you can do more challenging workouts. You can become amazingly fit, but it takes time, perseverance and doing the right things.
3. How much is this going to cost me?
When starting a fitness program, deciding how to spend your hard earned money is a significant issue. Even if you have limitless income, it makes sense to spend your money on things that give you a good return on your investment.
Your approach should be that you are going to do a cost/benefit assessment that applies to you and your unique situation. There is no one rule that applies to everyone.
It is important to understand that the cost of a piece of equipment guarantees little or nothing about how useful it will be for you getting in shape. There are many inexpensive solutions that are far superior to high cost ones.
The good news is that you can achieve some phenomenal results with very little money spent. The bad news is that you can spend a lot of money for equipment that gives you minimal or no results. Let’s look at the main variables.
When thinking about what to buy, begin by thinking about what you want to do in your training. A solid fitness program should involve both resistance training (weight lifting or body-weight training) AND cardiovascular training. When you buy equipment, it should be something that you will use for years to come, not something you will quickly outgrow.
Your first consideration should be “will I actually use this” or will I become bored with it quickly or outgrow it in a few months.
You may find the advertising appealing. The people used as models in the adds all look great (because they were in great condition before they did the advertising photos). The hope is that you will assume that the models got this great look from using the equipment being sold. This is almost never the case.
To avoid an impulse purchase you will later regret, it is important that you take 24 hours to think about whether you will really use the equipment.
Your next consideration should be whether the equipment is single purpose or can be used for multiple training activities. In your specific situation is it worth it to you to spend your money for a single purpose machine or device?
An example of a single purpose machine is a treadmill. The only thing that can be done on it is run. Treadmills cost well over $1000. In most locations you can run in the great outdoors for free. However, if you live in New York City, a treadmill in your apartment might be a good investment.
An example of a multi-purpose device is a barbell. You can use it for dozens (if not hundreds) of exercises. You can also add capability by purchasing more weight plates.
Continuing with your personal cost/benefit assessment, you need to think about where you will use the equipment and where you will store it when not in use.
If you have an open area in your garage, you can set up your equipment there. If you live in a studio apartment in Chicago, you may need something that can be stowed in a closet or under a bed when not in use.
One of the most cost effective ways to do fitness training is to join a gym. Many have been shut down because of Covid-19 restrictions. However, some are open and can be used while observing safe practices.
One reason a gym membership can be cost effective is that most places will have a big variety of equipment for you to use. This allows you to check out different pieces of gear before you ever consider purchasing one for yourself.
Another potential advantage of a gym is that often they will have free classes that you can use to learn how to use different pieces of equipment.
There are some downsides to gym membership. Among them, requiring a year membership contract that you pay for whether you use the facility or not. High “initiation” fees are another potential issue. Each gym is a little different.
In 99% of the cases, an expensive gym has the same basic equipment as an inexpensive gym. There are no “miracle machines” only available to those paying big bucks. Free weights deliver the best conditioning for the work you do. The only difference will be in unimportant features such as fancy looking handles.
The monthly cost will mainly be driven by the cost of real estate where you live. Gym fees in New York City will be far higher than gym fees in Omaha, or another location where real estate costs are lower.
Some other things to consider.
Each gym has a collection of “personal trainers” who will gladly help you….starting at $50 per hour or more. As a beginner you can get the same value (perhaps better) from a one time purchase of a book (such as mine) that tells you what exercises to do, and how to do them.
Please forgive the pitch here, but one reason I wrote Getting Back Into Shape After 50 was to give anyone the chance to start getting back into good shape and not pay a huge amount of money to get basic conditioning.
Finally, a quick comment about devices that you can wear or carry that are designed to help you become fit. Most of them are quite expensive for the amount of useful information they provide. These gadgets give precise measurements of activities where a rough approximation is all you really need. Knowing how many steps you take in a day is far less important than knowing how many miles you walked. Precise measurement adds little if any value.
The same is true of devices that allege to tell you how many calories you burned doing a given exercise. These devices provide the “illusion of measurement”. Every persons caloric burn is different and as you get in better condition your caloric burn on any given activity will change. What is really important is that you did the exercise and stuck to your diet.
Your bottom line should be that you carefully consider your options for training and equipment purchases before making any decision about what will work best for you. Don’t fall for the advertising hype. Your grand strategy should be learning about how to get the most effective conditioning given your unique situation.
4. Will working out help me lose weight?
The general answer is “yes” unless you are underweight. This is an almost non-existent condition these days.
Your main objective is to lose fat. This happens only when you take in fewer calories eating each day than your body burns through normal metabolic processes (eg. staying alive) and the additional energy expended through exercise.
When you first start exercising the good news is that your body will be shocked by the sudden increase in physical activity and you may drop a bit of weight quickly. However, and loss beyond a few pounds will require that you maintain your calorie restriction for an extended period.
Body fat contains roughly 3000 calories per pound. That means for to lose a pound of fat it will be necessary to run a calorie deficit of 3000 calories. This is why most people will try to lose roughly 2 pounds per week.
The additional energy expended by working out is far less than most people think. This is particularly true when you first begin. People just starting a conditioning routine will not be in good enough condition to burn a huge number of calories.
Here is an example. Bike racers in elite events will often burn 7000-8000 calories per day during a competition such as the Tour de France. They have to eat huge amounts to keep from starving. The normal sedentary office worker will burn 2000-2500 calories per day including their workouts.
Bottom line is that dropping fat will take discipline and a good eating program when getting back into shape.
5. What supplements are best when getting back into shape?
The supplement industry is built almost exclusively on advertising and hype. Many (if not most) supplements are of little or no value at any point when a person over 50 is getting back into shape.
The reason for this is that under federal law, there is no requirement to show that a given supplement actually works. The only requirement is to show that they are not dangerous to health.
In my 65 years of training and competing I have found that there are two supplements that actually do provide some benefit. These are protein supplements and creatine.
For someone just beginning a fitness program, it helps to calculate your individual need for protein based on your size and activity level. As an easy to remember rule I recommend taking 1 gram of protein supplement for every two pounds of your ideal body weight.
Protein supports muscle development which is one of the goals of getting fit. Many people have diets deficient in protein because they don’t eat enough protein in their regular meals. You can buy protein supplements in powder form at most large grocery stores.
I would recommend avoiding products that appear to promise miracle muscle growth. They are often contaminated with other compounds that are not illegal to sell, but they are banned substances for athletic competition. This distinction between “banned” and “illegal” is confusing to the general public. From the standpoint of a person just getting back into shape, the main point to understand is that you want to be 100% certain about what you are eating and drinking. What you don’t know could cause you a lot of problems at some point.
Creatine is a compound that facilitates muscle regeneration following workouts. It is an inexpensive powder that is available in most large grocery stores (health food section). It also has several properties that promote brain health and enhanced mental functioning.
Bottom line: focus on eating properly and don’t waste money on supplements.
At age 50 you are entering the prime of your life. You can only really enjoy it to the fullest if you are fit and healthy. The most important thing you can do to insure that you can enjoy your life for many decades to come is get in good physical condition. If you are sick and hurting it is hard to have a full life.
One of the best investments you can make is in your own education about what you can do to build and maintain your own fitness. The more you know about how to care for yourself the more likely you are to succeed in building a fit lifestyle and the less likely you are to try dead end strategies, “miracle” cures, or some other fitness “con”.
IMHO one of the most cost effective investments you can make is in the book Getting Back in Shape After 50. I wrote this to provide a basic blueprint for anyone over age 50 who wants to rebuild their body to get the most out of their life.
The advice is based on my 65+ years of being fit and active. As I write this I’m 80 years old and have the body of a fit man at least 20 years younger….maybe more. I feel great all the time, and take zero prescription medications. I enjoy running (outside) and have no physical limitations on what I can do.
In short, being fit is a benefit that I get to enjoy 24/7/365. May you be blessed with feeling this way as well.