Short Workouts for Women Over 50 | What Works?

Short workouts for women over 50 sound like a dream? Let’s talk time.

Warning: This may trigger you. It may trigger comments from trainers who disagree or have said short(er) programs.

I know you love short workouts. I’m frequently asked for 30-minute workouts.

Here’s the thing, it’s almost impossible.

EXCEPT, for those who aren’t doing anything. STARTING low to moderate frequency or duration exercise… has the more powerful influence on health (not fitness), than does moderate to vigorous. Even infrequent activity has an influence on your health. So, if you’re not moving, listen no further, and go for a walk!

Yes, you can go for a walk, you can do yoga, you can do interval training all start to end in 30 minutes and it is WORTH IT to do so.

Yet, when we look at research, and we look at the need for a warmup and cool down, even at minimum for each of those… we have used 10 minutes. Some of you skipping the warmup ignore the fact that a 5-10 minute warm up:

  • Increases comfort during exercise
  • Enhances oxygen delivery to working muscles which…
  • Increases energy expenditure during exercise
  • Lubricates joints before exercise
  • Reduces risk of injury
  • Improves the benefit of the exercise you’re about to do

Short Workouts for Women Over 50 Don’t Skip the Warmup!

And that a proper 5–10-minute cool down:

Makes your next workout better

Enhances flexibility

Prevents stiffness, soreness, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

At the very least that’s 10 minutes between the two. At most it’s 15-20 minutes. If you have arthritis or stiff joints, a longer and more gradual warm up is recommended. Similarly, for those of you with respiratory challenges like asthma, COPD, or even long-haul post virus issues.

Say you’re hoping for a 30-minute workout. Let’s look at how beneficial and realistic that is.

If you do a warmup and cool down, depending on the length, that leaves 10 to 20 minutes for the main set.

Now, if you’re doing strength training with the hope of boosting muscle mass for metabolism’s sake, you need multiple sets of exercise for major muscle groups. That is, 3 sets or 4 would be best. This is particularly true if you’re doing a short workout. Choose the biggest muscles you can and create your volume by doing at least 3 sets, and 4 if you can… to muscular fatigue.

Split vs Total Body

There’s one other caveat. Many women – and trainers – swear by split routines. Doing one body part a day does make it easier in theory to fit exercise in. However, there’s a loss of metabolism boost from exercise compared to total body.

Until they don’t is my experience. Prior to the point when estrogen drops noticeably and muscle breakdown occurs more easily than muscle protein synthesis, split routine may be something you can get away with. However, it doesn’t hold a candle to total body workout’s metabolism boosting influence. Total body creates 8x the metabolism-boost as split routine.

Imagine it like a threshold. If you don’t hit a certain level on a given day, it’s not the same – and definitely not better – to try a smaller boost in metabolism more days of the week. What interferes here is overall fatigue, and ability to fully recover. What’s more, with those split routines, if you miss a day, you’ve got less latitude for moving those workouts easily into another day. Your entire week can more easily be thrown.

Every study I’ve seen, shared, included in books, blogs, and podcasts since 2013 emphasizes volume AND intensity for women over 40.

WHAT IS VOLUME?

Volume should come from repeated quality of major muscle group exercises and not from a variety of exercises. Do a few things really well to boost metabolism most. Likewise with bone density. Volume comes from a combination of weight, repetitions, and sets. Though at first glance you may think that more repetitions is best, it’s not true. If you can go heavy x fewer reps x more sets your volume will benefit most.

Since 1995, I’ve been teaching workshops and conducting trainings for women, and the trainers who coach them, about what really matters and it is heavy, on specifically so the hip, spine, and wrist benefit.

I have shared often and everywhere one of my simple, go-to workouts when the time-crunch grabs me. I choose one each of compound push, a pull, and a lower body exercise.

Compound Exercises in Short Workouts For Women Over 50

Compound means it utilizes more than one joint, therefore incorporates more major muscles.

For instance, if you were at the gym doing a leg extension, you’re using the quadriceps muscle on the top of the thigh. It is a major muscle group. However, if you’re short on time (AND, I might add, are quad-dominant like so many of us are), a better way to spend your exercise time is doing a squat (or leg press) where you will use the quadriceps, but also glutes, and hamstrings.

If you only did these three exercises and moved efficiently between them, you could complete in about 10 minutes. That allows for one minute for each exercise set (a must if you’re going slowly enough to ensure you’re not using momentum). It doesn’t allow for a lot of transition time.

Exactly How This Works

As I write this, I’m traveling. I got up yesterday before the second leg of a road trip driving 6 more hours. I wanted to be on the road early, so did a short weight training workout of exactly this nature. Chest press, bent over row, and squats with as heavy weight as I could, knowing I was only doing 3 sets, so my volume would come from the weight vs the repetitions and sets.

There’s one more thing we have to consider when wishing, hoping for shorter workouts. Stick-to-itiveness of the exercise. Exercise obstacles and adherence have been science of this behavior change researcher for 38 years.

Adherence to exercise among older women

Twice weekly strength training for greater than 4 months resulted in 79% adherence. Adherence was positively associated with age, and with perceptions of overall good health.

Interestingly enough, adherence was also strongly associated with the exercise leader’s prior participation in sports and in prior experience leading programs. 

“Despite compelling scientific research and widespread public health recommendations, among women 45–64 years and 65–74 years old, only 18% and 11%, respectively, perform physical activities that enhance and maintain muscle strength and endurance two or more times per week.”

What helps?

Get a Community

Although personal involvement and commitment to any exercise program are essential, studies indicate that initiating individual behavior change is more likely with social or environmental change and support. 

A large number of women who drop out report time, and preference of exercising at home (in part due to time savings of at-home exercise) as obstacles to exercise.

As age increased, participants were more likely to adhere to strength training. We clearly gain a sense of urgency. For example, for every added decade of life, participants were approximately 10 times as likely to adhere to strength training.

1, 2, or 3 sessions per week?

One small study in 2013 found no difference. Researchers divided women over 60 into those that did 1 aerobic and 1 resistance exercise session a week 2 each aerobic and resistance, and 3 each aerobic and resistance.

Muscle strength, cardiovascular fitness, and function were all assessed after with no significant difference among the groups.

The 3 mph walk test the women did from pre and post evaluations showed an average of 112 heart rate pre to an average of 92 after.

There was visible increase in strength of lower body comparing twice weekly to one time weekly. And a very slight increase of cardiovascular fitness 3x per week group compared to 2x per week group. (and one time)

For Energy Expenditure and Weight Control

There WAS a difference. Only the two-time a week group in a similar study of women 60-74 increased in Total Energy Expenditure (TEE) and Activity-related Energy Expenditure.

How could that be? When 3 times weekly compared to 2 times weekly exercise was performed, the effort level and caloric burn was less than the activity performed during two-time weekly workouts.

WHY?

Exercising fresh and recovered results in expending more energy  (without feeling as if it is more effort). So much that increasing exercise sessions by 33% still did not equate to more activity-related energy expenditure.

Often, in order to perform 3 sessions within 7 days, these sessions are performed before full recovery is achieved. Entering a workout sore, tired, or with muscle still in need of repair, will be ineffective for advancing fitness.

As for TEE, we know that the “couch compensation” effect occurs with those who are overzealous in exercise sessions resulting in more sedentary hours the remainder of the day.

TEE for individuals in jobs like mail delivery (on foot) or UPS or Amazon delivery drivers in and out of their vehicles regularly through the day has been notoriously higher than jobs requiring desk work for the same time span.

When women gain enough strength and cardiorespiratory benefit to boost energy, but not so much it drains them or creates “couch compensation” effect, it also boosts activity outside of their sessions.

It’s similar to the thermogenic effect of eating certain foods.

Thermogenesis

What we’re after is a thermogenic effect, both from food and exercise if we desire to boost metabolism or maintain it as we age. We’ll stay focused on exercise here, except to say, regularly consuming high protein meals evenly distributed throughout the day does -and supports the muscle protein synthesis a woman over 50 needs.

If you compare thermogenic effects of cleaning house, going up and downstairs, to sitting and resting, which wins?

Comparing thermogenic effect of walking a dog 1-2 miles vs around the block, which wins?

Compare playing 18 holes of golf or spending the day gardening to reading a book.

Sweet Spot

You get the idea. When you exercise in the sweet spot – which appears to be twice weekly strength training, and twice weekly cardiovascular exercise you will make gains in bone density, lean muscle mass, and cardiovascular fitness. You’ll do so while maintaining, or gaining, the desire and motivation to be active throughout the rest of your day.

Short workouts for women over 50 or short life? Maybe that’s dramatic and maybe not. Still, a comprehensive, yet hormone-honoring workout week is 90 minutes split in two sessions of strength training and 2 sessions of 30 minutes of cardiovascular training (HIIT or HIRT).

The rest of the week then leaves plenty of time and energy for walking daily, golfing, yoga, pilates, and generally loving life.

Want a DFY program that provides this combination of enough but not too much? STRONGER: Tone & Define is open a few times a year. Learn more here and hear from students.

Resources:

Seguin RA, Economos CD, Palombo R, Hyatt R, Kuder J, Nelson ME. Strength training and older women: a cross-sectional study examining factors related to exercise adherence. J Aging Phys Act. 2010 Apr;18(2):201-18. doi: 10.1123/japa.18.2.201. PMID: 20440031; PMCID: PMC4308058.

Lippke S, Ratz T, Keller FM, Juljugin D, Peters M, Pischke C, Voelcker-Rehage C. Mitigating Feelings of Loneliness and Depression by Means of Web-Based or Print-Based Physical Activity Interventions: Pooled Analysis of 2 Community-Based Intervention Trials. JMIR Aging. 2022 Aug 9;5(3):e36515. doi: 10.2196/36515. PMID: 35943790; PMCID: PMC9399846.

Fisher G, McCarthy JP, Zuckerman PA, Bryan DR, Bickel CS, Hunter GR. Frequency of combined resistance and aerobic training in older women. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jul;27(7):1868-76. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31827367e0. PMID: 22996024; PMCID: PMC4066209.

Hunter GR, Bickel CS, Fisher G, Neumeier WH, McCarthy JP. Combined aerobic and strength training and energy expenditure in older women. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013 Jul;45(7):1386-93. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182860099. PMID: 23774582; PMCID: PMC3713080.

 

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