Age and Exercise

Exercise is one of the most powerful weapons that can be used against ageing. It maximizes aerobic capacity; it keeps muscles strong, bones dense and ligaments tight; it maintains suppleness and stamina; it controls weight and lowers cholesterol; it even improves the body’s immune function and enhances mood. Exercise increases our ability to control blood glucose levels, so fit adults are less likely to develop adult-onset diabetes. People who exercise are also likely to maintain a better physical appearance – with correct posture, a trim figure, good muscle tone and a healthy complexion – than people who do not.

All of these factors interact to keep fit people mobile and independent into old age, and several surveys show that fit people live longer. In later life, they are less prone to injuries from falls, less likely to have a heart attack and have a much lower risk of developing cancer.

Different types of exercise offer different benefits. Aerobic exercise protects against heart disease and can take at least ten years off the ageing of the heart and lungs. Weight-bearing exercise – any exercise that you do on your feet with your bones supporting your weight – helps to build strong bones and slows down bone loss in later life. Strength training effectively counteracts muscle loss, raises the body’s metabolic rate and builds stamina. In strengthening the muscles, it also causes the bones to become stronger, thus helping to prevent osteoporosis. Stretching helps to maintain flexibility and suppleness throughout life.

Exercise also has a positive effect on the functioning of the brain and nervous system. Aerobic work maintains the speed of physical and mental reaction times and improves the flow of freshly oxygenated blood to the brain, both of which help to preserve brain cells. Studies have shown that fit older people have faster reactions and may be better at problem-solving than their inactive counterparts. Sports involving skill, balance, visual alertness and tactical thinking (such as tennis, football, competitive cycling and karate) may be particularly helpful in maintaining a young mind. In addition, people who are fit often feel better in general, experiencing less depression and having more energy and vitality.


Many people in their 20s take little or no exercise, although they should be at the peak of their physical fitness. This is usually because they lost the habit in their teens, possibly as a result of peer-group pressure in favour of less healthy pursuits. In addition, young people are not yet conscious of age-related physical changes such as weight gain, which provide the motivation for many older people to start exercising. It is, however, far better to establish a healthy pattern of regular exercise at this stage than to wait until the 30s or 40s.

It is easiest to lose weight in the 20s – in fact, puppy fat gained in the teenage years may disappear without any effort at all. This is also the best time to build bone through weight-bearing exercise, while the body’s powers of regeneration can still outstrip the rate of bone loss. Although young people may not consider flexibility a concern, it is important and should not be overlooked.

Designing an age and exercise programme for the 20s

People in their 20s are rarely concerned enough about their health to follow a structured exercise programme. They may be more interested in making friends, relationships, studying or starting a career. For this reason, sociable or adventurous sports such as squash, badminton or table tennis, horse-riding, water-skiing or windsurfing may be good choices. Since many people of this age are free from family responsibilities, they are likely to be able to take advantage of activity or adventure holidays at home or abroad.

It is during the 20s that the heart is capable of its hardest work. Maximum heart rate is 220 beats per minute minus age, a figure that obviously declines with age. Depending on fitness levels, people in their 20s can train in an aerobic session at anything up to 90 per cent of maximum heart rate. As heart and lung function start to decline, the intensity of training will have to fall. So it is worth doing regular high-intensity aerobic exercise now to keep the capacity for hard work as high as possible for as long as possible. A fitness programme should ideally include high-intensity aerobic work for at least 20 minutes three to five times a week, plus one or two weight sessions a week; all sessions should include stretching to avoid injury.

The simplest method of weight control is regular aerobic exercise; any kind of aerobic activity, such as running, swimming or cycling, will be effective.

The best way to build bone is through weight-bearing aerobic activity. This should not be confused with weight training; it means activities in which the skeleton bears the weight of the body. Thus walking is a weight-bearing exercise, whereas swimming is not. Considering your age and exercise at the same time is extremely important. For example, women in their 20s should make sure that their aerobic workouts are mostly weight-bearing. Exercise involving repeated impact, such as walking, jogging, skipping and step aerobics, is ideal.

People in their 20s tend to be reasonably supple (joint stiffness becomes more common in later life), and they may under-estimate the importance of flexibility exercises. Stretching routinely before and after exercise will help to prevent injuries such as ligament damage that could cause recurrent problems later in life, and to maintain suppleness and flexibility throughout life.


The 30s can be a busy time, with many people trying to balance careers with family or social responsibilities, so it can be difficult to maintain a fitness programme. The motivation to do so may be greater, however, as the ageing process starts to reveal itself in the form of weight gain and reduced flexibility.

Once again, considering your age and exercise hand in hand is of the utmost importance – in their 30s, many people start to gain weight – and find it more difficult to lose it – because muscle starts to be lost, causing the metabolic rate to slow down.

The 30s are the best time for women to concentrate on building bone density. Bone is built during the 20s and bone density reaches its highest – known as peak bone mass or density – during the 30s. The higher the peak bone mass, the less problematic will be the loss of bone density around the menopause and afterwards.

Designing an age and exercise programme for the 30s

Many people in their 30s find it difficult to fit regular exercise sessions into an already busy routine. If this is the case, brief bursts of activity, such as jogging or skipping and some press-ups, sit-ups and stretching, can be just as good. These should be done as often as possible – ideally, every day.

In the 30s, the maximum heart rate decreases by ten beats from 200 to 190. This means that intensity of exercise needs to fall slightly, so the aim is to try to increase the time spent doing exercise. Aim to do three to five 30-minute aerobic sessions of moderate intensity plus two to three weights sessions each week.

Aerobic exercise remains the best method of weight control. As an individual gets older, it will be necessary to increase the length of aerobic sessions slightly in order to keep burning fat effectively. Building muscular fitness through strength training will also help control weight by keeping the metabolic rate high.

Most people first begin to notice increasing stiffness of the muscles and joints in their 30s, so stretching becomes an important part of an exercise programme. Stretching exercises can be done at home and require no specialist equipment. Classes in the Eastern exercise disciplines, such as Yoga, Qigong and Tai Chi provide a more formal opportunity to improve flexibility.

Weight-bearing aerobic exercise is very important in the 30s to build bone. At this age, however, the joints should be protected by reducing the amount of high-impact activity.

The loss of muscle that starts in the 30s can be combated through strength training. Women who work with weights should not fear that their muscles will bulk out like those of male bodybuilders, because this kind of muscle growth requires large amounts of the male hormone testosterone. Women secrete only tiny amounts of testosterone, and these secretions reduce with age. Anyone with a very sedentary lifestyle should make an effort to work on weak spots, such as the abdominal and back muscles, to maintain good posture and avoid back pain. Weight training will also help both to combat weight gain and, by putting stresses on the bones, to reduce the risk of osteoporosis in later life.


For some people, the 40s and 50s are a more settled time – they may be more established in their careers, and their children may be older and may even have left home. This can mean more time for personal interests and, for people who have lost the habit of physical exercise, an opportunity to make a fresh start. However, as many people now leave starting a family until their 30s and 40s, some individuals in this age group may still need to plan exercise sessions around their parental responsibilities.

Many people develop what is known as ‘middle-age spread’ in the 40s. Men deposit fat around and above the waist; it has been established that fat stored here is a risk factor for heart disease. Until now, women will have deposited fat on their hips and thighs, but as levels of female hormones start to decline, fat will be stored on and above the waist in the male pattern.

People of middle age and older are at a greater risk of stroke than young adults, and exercise can help to reduce this risk by slowing the narrowing and hardening of the arteries that occurs with age and can increase the likelihood of stroke.

Women reach peak bone density during their 30s, but this does not mean that nothing can be done to prevent osteoporosis. Exercise can still boost bone regeneration, slowing the rate at which bone is lost.

Although muscle loss has been taking place since the 30s, many people first notice the loss of strength only in their 40s, and this may provide a motivation to increase muscular fitness through strength training. Both men and women should aim to maintain an active exercise routine during middle age to protect themselves against heart disease and stroke and to prevent the loss of bone density, particularly in women after the menopause.

Designing an age and exercise programme for the 40s and 50s

Many middle-aged people may already have a well-developed interest, and perhaps ability, in a particular sport. However, it may be worth considering new activities, such as Yoga or one of the Eastern exercise disciplines, for agility and coordination. In addition to the physical benefits, these activities also promote relaxation.

Because the fat pattern of middle age is dangerous to health, weight control becomes increasingly important, and aerobic exercise is vital to burn off this dangerous fat. The intensity at which people can do aerobic work continues to fall, however, with the decline in maximum heart rate and lung function. More time must therefore be spent in lower-intensity activities, such as slow jogging, for up to 40 minutes three to five times a week. If time does not permit long sessions, aim for short frequent bursts of activity. This approach is not advisable for people with cardiovascular problems; anyone in this situation should seek advice from a doctor.

Strength training should be increased to reverse the loss of muscle and boost the body’s metabolic rate. It is important to include ten minutes of stretching each day to maintain flexibility.

For information on exercise over 60