How To Exercise as You Celebrate Birthdays in Your Second 50


The candles on the cake aren’t a big deal. The fact I need glasses to drive at night weren’t a big deal. I’ll admit having to wear them to see the movie across my living room is a tad bit irritating.

The fact that carrying the dog food up the stairs makes one knee feel vulnerable some days, or that I have to sleep just right so my shoulder doesn’t cry? Those things are a bigger deal. Even a personal trainer and fitness junkie of 32 years can’t entirely escape the signs that decades have accumulated.

As I celebrate 52 it’s apparent that there are a few changes. Beyond the laugh lines around the eyes, which unfortunately I can see just fine, even I wonder for a minute if they’re right. They, being all those people who’ve whispered over the last three decades of my professional fitness life, it’s different when you’re older. The, “Well, I’m ______”, filled in with her age suggesting some glass ceiling she so obviously felt. They who think they must do this, can’t do that, because I’m this old, like wearing white after Labor Day. (I broke that rule too.)

It’s about now where we notice it most. Especially women. Major life changes from being in the peak of our career, sandwiched between children still dependent on our credit cards and aging parents, with hormones we hadn’t invited to the party, place us teetering between the top of a mountain and trying desperately not to fall off it.

Like an overnight success that took twenty years, physical changes started long ago. Declines with age begin for women in our twenties and thirties as if a mean girl trick by Mother Nature since women live longer. We may do it without as much muscle and bone. That is, of course, only if we ignore the science of how to plan for health both now and later. Declines with age implies they’re eminent. That is true only if you just go for the ride and ignore GPS.

Age-related declines are greater in women. It’s easy to understand why if you look at what’s still true today when you walk into a gym. Women tend to do cardio more. When they lift they lift light weight. Heavy weight has significantly more positive effect on lean muscle and bone mineral density (BMD) both. Fear of not fitting into the skinny jeans keep young women away from lifting. Plus, most weight rooms are not designed for a woman’s comfort. Unless you’ve lived your life as an athlete, most weight room environments are intimidating places filled with mirrors a woman who needs to lift most doesn’t want to see.

A woman’s decline prevention starts with youth. It spans decades.

When you’re young:

  • You have a window of opportunity to deposit bone mineral density (BMD) in the bank until the age of 25 or 30.
  • Participation in gymnastics improves bone mineral density (BMD) more than swimming and bike riding
  • Focus on how activity makes you feel rather than how it makes you look.

In your 20’s:

  • Stay focused on BMD deposits that will soon be withdrawn annually at a rate of 1-3% a year for the rest of your life, except for menopause when losses increase to 3-5% and in the 7th and 8th decades when it again accelerates
  • Try a variety of exercises you can do for life. Muscle memory makes it easier for you to take up at 60 what you tried in your twenties, even if you haven’t done it for decades.

In your 30’s:

  • Busy behind a desk, the wheel, and at home, Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenisis (NEAT), is a 30-something’s best friend. It is going to make or break your health now and later.
  • Get up and move for five minutes every hour or 10 minutes every 90 minutes. It matters more than an hour at the gym followed by 11 hours of sitting.
  • When you do find 20 minutes, spend it in the weight room twice a week
  • Eat like an athlete and sleep like an athlete and fewer visits to the gym will matter less.

In your 40’s:

  • Balance time spent in cardio, weights, and mobility.
  • Prevent range of motion losses later by paying attention now with yoga or Pilates.
  • Heavy weight and fewer reps get better results and take less time.
  • Avoid the most common mistake women make with exercise: not eating enough of the right food at the right time to optimize it. Optimal protein intake insures sparing muscle loss, repair of muscle, and fights off fat.


In your 50’s:

  • Honor your hormones; don’t hate them. More rest, short intervals, a few long walks, and heavy weights put the cortisol diva and her dozen other hormone friends in their place.
  • Do not accept that fatologue of belly fat, bat wings, and kankles as normal.
  • Rest as hard as you work. More rest days mean more effective exercise days.

In your 60’s:

  • You don’t need to slow down. Speed up. Focus on agility and reaction skills during your exercise. Your fast twitch muscle fibers are saying adios twice as fast as your slow twitch.
  • Keep lifting and do it with a little power.
  • Retired? Get back to some of those leisure activities you did when you were younger. Muscle memory works after decades even if you can’t remember where you put the keys.

In your 70’s, 80’s and beyond:

  • Surround yourself with active people doing what you do or what you wish you were doing.
  • Play cognitive games while you’re exercising like reciting the alphabet, backwards. Take ballroom dance classes that make new neural connections as you learn new patterns.
  • Pop a few fish oil tablets to boost your muscle-sparing and joint protection. Keep the protein coming.
  • If you start a sport after 50, think of yourself as a 20 or 30 year old. You have a lot of good years left. Runners who didn’t begin until their late 40s and golfers who began in their 50s have enjoyed activity for decades.
  • Yes, you do uniquely matter in your 70s and 80s but there are fewer changes except that after 80 muscle losses and bone losses accelerate if you don’t have your foot on the gas pedal that is strength training and adequate protein. If you’re 70 and feeling good? Don’t take it for granted. March your feel good right into the weight room.

In your 90’s:

  • You can still gain strength.
  • Enjoy the activity, the company, or the music and you’re likely to want to do it more. Protein needs increase since you don’t synthesize it as well with age.
  • You can change the way you age if you start now. As long as you’ve got a heartbeat it’s not over. We’re not slowing down because we age; we age because we slow down and accept it as normal.

I concede they were right. It is different North of 50. It’s better.


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