Beyond the beltline: exercise and aging

Everyone is well aware of the vast benefits of exercise – not only do we look great, but we feel great, and our bodies function better.

But what about exercise and aging?

Research shows regular exercise decreases the likelihood of neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis and depression. It also reduces stress and expands working memory.

The big question is: if physical activity is so good for us, why do so few of us actually do it?

The most common reasons are lack of time or enjoyment. Luckily, you can overcome these issues with careful planning and smart strategies.

The time crunch

Long commutes, desk jobs, increased “screen time”, and reduced recreational activities have contributed to a sedentary modern society.

Currently, 75% of adults fail to undertake the recommended minimum amount of exercise each week. That is 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week – just 22 minutes a day.

If you are part of that 75%, take heed: Research published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found men who sat for more than six hours a day were 18% more likely to be overweight or obese and suffer from serious health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Sedentary women were a startling 40% more likely than their active peers to suffer from these conditions.

Little steps

If you struggle finding time to exercise, try getting up just 20 minutes earlier a few mornings a week, or set a goal to move more on the weekend.

Not only will you get it out of the way first thing, morning exercise is also empowering. By starting your day with a positive choice, you are more likely to make healthy choices throughout the day.

Getting up early can be a chore, but you can lessen the AM drag by getting adequate sleep and preparing your workout gear the night before.

Make your bedtime 10-20 minutes earlier each night for a week to ensure you’re adequately rested for your morning sweat session.

Other ways you can incorporate physical activity into your day include:

  • Taking the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Scheduling five minute “walk breaks” each hour
  • Selecting a parking spot that requires you to walk further to enter a store
  • Standing up and walking, or doing another form of physical activity, during TV commercials
  • Playing physical games or having “dance parties” with your children
  • Walking your dog, or offering to walk a friend or neighbor’s dog
  • Taking a nightly walk after dinner with a friend or family member

It’s never too late to exercise

Come middle age, many people fear it’s “too late” to begin an exercise regimen, or feel they have been inactive for too long to reap the benefits of one.

This isn’t the case. Even later in life, you can make positive behavioral changes that will promote weight loss, longevity and vitality.

A recent study published in the International Sports Medicine Journal shows sedentary, middle-aged women who engaged in a moderate exercise regimen for eight weeks experienced significant decreases in BMI (body mass index) and waist circumference when compared to a control group who participated in no physical activity.

Getting started

To ensure exercise and aging will be effective and manageable for your personal circumstances, the change must be physically and emotionally beneficial to you.

You must derive some enjoyment or reward from the undertaking. Change is difficult, but committing to a routine that you hate is nearly impossible.

Instead, begin gradually: consider your current level of physical activity, and be honest.

If the most active pursuit you’ve attempted in the last six months has been walking through the supermarket or mall, you’ll likely injure or overwhelm yourself by launching headfirst into a high-impact or vigorous exercise routine.

Allow your body to adapt to the rigors of exercise by adding short bouts of physical activity to your day, such as a 30 minute walk in the morning.

If you have been inactive (less than 150 minutes per week of exercise) for some time, begin with low impact activities that provide moderate challenge to your cardiovascular system.

Doing so will increase your heart rate above your resting expenditure, but not so much that you put yourself at increased risk of injury or motivation.

Brisk walking, low-impact cardio classes, bicycling, dance classes, and pool-based exercises are generally suitable for most beginners.

Determining exercise intensity

Heart rate monitors and the “talk test” help assess whether or not you are exercising effectively.

Although heart rate monitors can be an accurate gauge of workout intensity, they aren’t necessary for an exercise routine unless prescribed by a doctor.

Many people, however, enjoy having the feedback of a personalized device, as the heart rate monitors on cardiovascular machines (such as a treadmill or elliptical) are often inaccurate.

For moderate exercise expenditure, aim to exercise at 50-75% of your maximum heart rate (MHR). Beginners are often better off exercising at the lower end of this threshold.

To calculate your MHR, subtract your age from 220. A 50-year-old woman, for example, would have an MHR of 170 beats per minute. Therefore, an advisable heart rate during moderate exercise would fall somewhere from 85-128 beats per minute.

If you’re interested in learning more about what your heart rate should be, consult your doctor. This is especially important if you have any current or previous medical conditions.

Further, several wearable devices are available on the market that allow you to track your own heart rate, including by brands Samsung, AppleFitbit, Garmin, and many more.

Sans heart rate monitor, the “talk test” can provide a reliable indication of workout intensity. This test determines your workout intensity based on your ability – or inability – to speak and breathe simultaneously:

  • A “no intensity” activity is similar to sitting down and relaxing. Your heart rate is at its resting expenditure and your breathing and conversation are relaxed.
  • “Low intensity” exercises involve a slightly elevated heart rate, where you can engage in regular conversation, but breathlessness is increased.
  • “Moderate intensity” exercises are those that increase your heart rate significantly above its resting rate; your breathing is labored, and you can speak only in short sentences.
  • “High intensity” activities are those in which heart rate is nearing its peak and talking is difficult or impossible.

The next step

When you are used to moderate activity, aim to increase workout intensity by adding intervals, increasing exercise duration, or both. This will lead to greater fitness gains.

Interval training, commonly referred to as HIIT (high-intensity interval training), includes short bursts of high-intensity exercise (where speaking is difficult or impossible, or your heart rate is 80-85% of your maximum) lasting 20 seconds to 1 minute before switching to a recovery exercise or rest (20 seconds of sprinting on the spot alternated with 20 seconds of walking on the spot, for example).

This is repeated multiple times throughout your workout, which will usually last between 4-30 minutes.

Exercise, like many things in life, is an evolution: a gradual but persistent shift from Point A to Point B.

Be patient with yourself, and in time you will be healthier and happier, in part due to your perseverance.

But hey, fitting into those skinny jeans are a nice benefit, too.


  • “ACSM | Articles.” ACSM | Articles. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Jan. 2013.
  • Jakicic, J. “Effect of Exercise Duration and Intensity on Weight Loss in Overweight, Sedentary Women. a Randomized Trial.” ACC Current Journal Review 13.1 (2004): 21-22. Print.
  • Patel, A. V., L. Bernstein, A. Deka, H. S. Feigelson, P. T. Campbell, S. M. Gapstur, G. A. Colditz, and M. J. Thun. “Leisure Time Spent Sitting in Relation to Total Mortality in a Prospective Cohort of US Adults.” American Journal of Epidemiology 172.4 (2010): 419-29. Print.

Last Reviewed 29/Oct/2016


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Whilst wielding a couple of dumbbells in a gym class in 2003, Kate experienced an epiphany around the lack of accepted best practice guidelines when it came to staying well and avoiding disease. Kate realized that she had no chance of slowing her own aging process unless she became better educated about her options.

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