You need exercise to be healthy. Regardless of your goals, had your body come with a user’s manual it would have included exercise. Exercise for women over 50 is not the same as for men or for younger women. You have unique hormones, metabolism, and body composition and your exercise should reflect that.
You need to know that only 39% of all exercise research features women. Women go through potentially seven unique phases of hormone changes that each benefit from specific modifications in exercise. So a small fraction of research actually focuses on you. If you blindly follow an exercise program that isn’t for your phase of life you may end up feeling worse, not better.
This post will serve as a guide to your definitive guide to exercise for women over 50 that includes (but is not limited to):
- hormone changes that occur during menopause
- joint issues or mobility changes that have occurred from injury, activity, or age
- body composition changes that occur with aging unless specific strategies are taken.
Pillars of Fitness
Cardiovascular fitness is traditionally defined as the efficiency of the heart, lungs and vascular system to deliver oxygen to working muscles. It’s tied inversely to fatigue and to heart disease. Heart disease is the number 1 cause of death among women.
Exercise for women over 50 should include several types of cardiovascular exercises that aren’t necessarily recognized by governmental guidelines. The U.S. surgeon general suggests that you can choose to be active at a lower level longer (150 minutes) or at a higher level for less time (75 minutes) per week. The simple guidelines negate recent studies on women in perimenopause and beyond. For example:
- High-intensity interval training is most effective for losing heart-risky visceral belly fat that often increases post menopause
- Quick movements that stimulate fast-twitch muscle fibers help you maintain (or regain) reaction and agility otherwise lost that increase fall risk
- Slow and low impact movement, that you may not even acknowledge as exercise, known as N.E.A.T. – non-exercise activity time – is more closely associated with a lower risk of obesity than is formal exercise.
Optimal cardiovascular fitness and reduction of stubborn and risky visceral fat deposits depend on a shift away from “moderate exercise” intensity to a moderate amount of high intensity and increased amounts of lower intensity movement.
Surprise! Exercise for Women Over 50 that Sabotages
Endurance exercise lasting more than an hour can have a negative effect on cortisol levels. More optimal are frequent short duration cardiovascular exercise (of all levels). This lesson can be the hardest adaptation for aerobic queens of the 80s and 90s. Those hour or more long marathons of cardio are not a girl’s best friend.
Choose weight-bearing cardiovascular options frequently if you’re able. For example, if running, jumping, and or walking are appropriate these will have a bone-density loss reducing effect. If you’re unable to do weight-bearing exercise because of orthopedic conditions prioritize weight lifting (see Muscular Strength).
Weight-Bearing Cardio Activities:
- Running, Walking
- Jump rope
Non-Weight Bearing Cardio Activities:
- Elliptical trainer*
*For bone benefit, you need ground forces that include a heel-strike. With elliptical trainer or other minimum impact cardio equipment, the lack of heel strike deems this a “non-weight bearing” activity where bone density is the focus.
- 1-3 times a week perform high-intensity interval training (not exceeding 45 minutes total per week interval time – when injury rates rise)
- Frequent fast-twitch reaction drills of a few minutes at a time. (tennis, racquetball, or pickleball count)
- Regular participation in low to moderate level activities including walking, gardening, golfing, hiking, biking
- If appropriate, choose weight-bearing exercise over non-weight bearing exercise the majority of the time, though a variety of activities is best to avoid overuse.
2. Muscular Strength
“Muscle is the organ of longevity
,” according to Dr. Gabrielle Lyons, an expert in muscle-centric medicine. It’s a wonderfully succinct quote hinting at what you might regret when you’re 90 if you aren’t lifting weights now.
Traditionally, muscular endurance rounded out the 5 components of fitness. I’ve not included it since most of us do not lose the ability to do a task repeatedly the same way we deteriorate in maximum strength.
I’m not talking about strength for strength’s sake. I’m talking about the ability to pull a door closed against a stiff wind, to pick up a 40-pound bag of dog food, or enjoy a 3-year-old jumping into your arms. A woman who enjoys those things will struggle less to get herself out of a chair, do her own laundry or bath herself decades later.
Signs Your Body is Crying for Proper Weight Lifting
The first signs of muscle loss occur when you’re doing the same exercise you’ve always done and you start getting fewer and fewer results. You have less muscle tone even when you’re consistent. You’ll try different exercise and/or wonder if it’s worth it at all.
Estrogen drops following menopause affecting your ability to reap rewards from your exercise. Strategic changes in exercise will positively affect your muscle. It’s counter-intuitive for many women that you need to both exercise less and exercise with adequate intensity.
To overcome muscle loss that occurs starting at about age 30 otherwise, strength training exercise for women over 50 is a must. Just any strength training won’t do. You, girlfriend, need volume. You need to balance it with a need for more recovery.
How to Add Volume
- Instead of 1 set, do 3 or 4
- Instead of 1 exercise for each muscle group do 3 to 5 exercises for the same muscle group
- Instead of 2 days of strength training, do 3 (this strategy is best for beginners who would start with one set of each exercise. Once you progress to multiple sets and multiple exercises reduce to two times a week or allow 72 hours between strength sessions for optimal recovery).
Strength training must be done to fatigue to provide enough stimulus to the muscle to change it. You may reach fatigue with fewer repetitions and more weight (best for bone density) or more repetitions and lighter weight. Safe higher repetition ranges generally include 25-28 reps, moderate 15 +/- 3 repetitions, and lower repetition ranges is <10 repetitions. Where weight becomes a limiting factor, tempo changes can also provide additional impetus to reach fatigue with lighter weight.
Implement Tempo Changes:
- Instead of lifting in 1-2 seconds and lowering in 4-6 seconds (most recommended) lift in 4 seconds, hold 2 seconds, lower in 4 seconds, hold for 2 seconds
- Instead of lifting 1-2 seconds and lowering 4-6 seconds, lift as quickly as possible and lower in 4-6 seconds.
- 2-3 times a week strengthening major muscle groups to muscular fatigue.
- Beginners start with 1 set 3 times a week
- Progress to two, then three sets over a period of weeks then reduce the frequency to twice weekly (or 72 hours between sessions) to allow recovery
- Increase to 4 or 5 sets if time permits and it’s appropriate for you.
Moving freely through a full range of motion as you age reduces your risk of injury. It does more than that, however. Pain-free movement encourages greater enjoyment in all activity.
Stretching, yoga and/or Pilates are all mobility-enhancing and excellent exercise for women over 50. Water exercise including stretching can also enhance mobility. As a rule, include stretching time after every exercise session and sports activity you do. As you age, you may also find regular yoga or Pilates sessions are helpful for maintaining –or getting back- mobility that you’ve lost.
You can let go of putting your nose on your knee or doing the splits. In fact, that level of hypermobility if you do still have it, suggests yoga is not the best way for you to spend exercise time. You need equal amounts of strength and flexibility for what is the gold standard of an active ager: stability.
- Flexibility-enhancing exercises on most days of the week
- Stretch after every exercise or sporting activity
- Frequently assess to balance your flexibility with your strength.
4. Body Composition
Body composition can be defined as your ratio of fat to non-fat mass. Of greatest interest to me – both as a 56-year-old and as a women’s hormone balancing fitness expert is the amount of lean muscle tissue compared to the amount of adipose, or fat tissue.
Each of the aforementioned components of fitness is directly related to activity. If you need more strength, you strength train. If you need to boost your cardiovascular fitness you do cardio. Body composition is achieved through a combination of activity, nutrition, and lifestyle factors together. Those components of exercise for women over 50 are collectively a part of achieving optimal body composition. Body composition change occurs when you change your amount of fat, your amount of lean, or both.
Notice Anything Missing?
There’s no mention of weight. How ironic that a large percent of self-respecting women over 50 will gauge their fitness success on their weight. Sadly, it is a poor report card. If you lose weight without knowing body composition data, you could be losing muscle that will sooner or later result in a slowing of your metabolism. Hello, weight regain, and her friend, and-then-some.
You can increase your lean muscle tissue best with proper strength training. Many women over 50 need to in order to overcome muscle losses that have occurred in the past 2-3 decades if they’ve not been consistently lifting weights.
You can decrease your body fat best, particularly visceral belly fat, with interval training.
Don’t discount those lower-level exercises that bring you joy. You enhance your body’s ability to burn rather than store fat by optimizing cortisol and oxytocin through exercise. It’s happening when you choose an activity you love.
- Follow the above guidelines for cardio and for strength
- Include a variety of activities you love to do
- Determine your optimal personal nutrition plan avoiding foods that increase your inflammation and strict diets that slow your metabolism.
The definitive guide to exercise for women over 50 would be remiss without addressing your potential individual need for modification. Of course, you’ve been active, or sedentary, or had injuries, needed medication during your time on the planet! Your current status may deem one or more of the recommendations above inappropriate. There may be activities you can’t do. Any of the following will be reasons to customize your unique exercise routine.
Potential Exercise Modifiers
- Joints issues: ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, wrist, elbow, neck, lower back
- Energy & fatigue balance: adrenal fatigue or sleep deprivation
- Bones: osteoporosis or osteopenia diagnosis or prevention
- Balance: changes in hearing, vision, or temporary vestibular changes
- Conditions: cancer treatment, medications
For every activity you can’t do, there are probably 3 that you can. Don’t let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can.