You might worry that you’re “over the hill” when you hit your 40s. Physical changes can become noticeable as your muscle mass declines, bones become less dense, your skin begins to sag, and your metabolism slows down. When you slack off with your exercise and eating habits, as you might have in your 20s and 30s, it may show up in your weight, stamina, and energy levels. It can also affect your overall health.
However, it’s never too late to slow down or even reverse these signs of aging. If you aren’t already active, by committing to regular exercise and the right fitness routine, you can get fit over 40 and maintain your mobility and flexibility for decades to come. You’ll also improve the odds of good physical, emotional, and cognitive health so that you live longer and better.
Your Body After 40
After the age of 40, our bodies naturally begin to age. Genetics and lifestyle factors contribute to how quickly you experience the following changes.
- Muscle mass and function decline: Beginning in your 30s, your muscle mass and function gradually decline, a condition known as sarcopenia. This can result in decreased muscle tone and overall physical strength. Your activity level, diet, and cigarette smoking affect this process, but early interventions can retard or even reverse sarcopenia.REF#2972
- Slowing metabolism: Metabolism tends to slow down with age, making it easier to gain weight and more challenging to maintain or lose weight. This shift in metabolism is often due to a decrease in muscle mass and the body's energy expenditure.
- Bone density loss: Bone density typically decreases after 40, leading to a higher risk of osteoporosis and fractures. A low body mass index (BMI) is a risk factor for low bone density and future fractures.REF#2972 Incorporating weight-bearing exercises and sufficient calcium and vitamin D into your fitness routine and diet can slow down this process.
- Joint health: Joint health can become a concern, with an increased risk of conditions like arthritis. This may result in stiffness, reduced flexibility, and joint pain, particularly in weight-bearing joints like the knees, hips, back, shoulders, hands, and fingers. Staying active can minimize your discomfort.
- Inflammaging: A relatively new term to describe the age-related progressive increase in the proinflammatory status, inflammaging can affect overall health and vitality. Maintaining a healthy inflammatory response becomes critical in your 40s.
- Cardiovascular changes: The risk of cardiovascular issues, such as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels, increases with age. Regular exercise and a heart-healthy diet can help you maintain your cardiovascular health.
- Hormonal changes: Hormonal shifts, such as menopause in women and andropause in men, can lead to changes in body composition, including increased fat storage in the abdominal area.
- Vision and hearing: Changes in vision and hearing loss are more common after 40 and may impact your ability to engage in certain physical activities, so it’s important not to ignore vision and audiology care.
- Flexibility and balance: Flexibility and balance may begin to decline, especially if you are inactive, increasing the risk of falls and injuries. Incorporating stretching and balance exercises into your fitness routine can help mitigate these issues.
- Skin changes: Skin may become less elastic, and wrinkles may become more noticeable due to decreased collagen production. Proper skincare and sun protection slow down these signs of aging.
- Recovery time: Recovery time after physical activity may increase, meaning it takes longer to bounce back from intense workouts or injuries. Adequate rest and recovery are crucial. Getting seven to nine hours of sleep is also important.
While you may not look forward to aging, you have more control over how you age than you think. Exercise is the one thing proven to make a difference. In one study of over 5,800 men and women with a median age of around 46, high levels of physical exercise reduced biological age by almost nine years.REF#2973
Now is the time to make a commitment to your future self. Adopt or continue a regular exercise routine, eat a balanced diet, and optimize your sleep hygiene to enjoy the benefits of healthy aging.
Assessing Your Fitness Level
It may be hard to imagine your retirement years. But if you start focusing on self-care now, there is a good chance you can be hiking, golfing, riding your bike, dancing, and enjoying an active lifestyle into your 90s.
If you want to be mobile and flexible in your later years, it’s important to periodically assess key fitness markers and track changes over time. That way, you can identify potential problem areas and modify your lifestyle to address them.
If you’re in your 40s, it’s not too early to get a professional fitness assessment from a physical therapist, physiologist, or certified personal trainer who can assess any of the following markers:
- Muscular strength: Grip strength, lower body strength, and endurance can be tested using devices like hand dynamometers or by performing movements like squats, leg presses, or timed sit-to-stands from a chair.
- Flexibility: Range of motion movements can be assessed to measure the flexibility of your major joints and muscles. Your therapist or trainer can use basic tools, such as a goniometer, to measure the flexibility of shoulders, hips, trunk, and hamstrings.
- Balance: Maintaining good balance as you age is not only critical for walking, hiking, and biking but also for minimizing your risk of falling and breaking bones. Balance assessments test your ability to stand with the heel of one foot touching the other, the instep of one foot touching the big toe of the other, or on one foot.
- Cardiovascular health: Key markers like blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and body mass index should be checked regularly. A stress test, 6-minute walk test, or VO2 max test may be used to evaluate cardiovascular fitness.
- Body composition: Methods like skin fold thickness tests can be used to estimate the percentage of fat versus lean muscle mass in the body. You can also use a body fat scale, but the measurement may be a little less reliable. A DEXA scan is a quick way to assess bone density if you’re concerned about osteoporosis.
Your fitness assessment serves as both a benchmark to evaluate your current health and mobility and as a guide to determine the appropriate types and levels of exercise training you need to maintain or improve your fitness.
Starting or Adjusting Your Fitness Routine
When designing an exercise routine after 40, it's important to personalize it to match your current fitness level, health status, lifestyle, and goals. A routine tailored to your needs and abilities will be safer, more effective, and easier to sustain. Pick a time of day to work out when you have no excuses to cancel. For example, don’t plan to work out on your lunch hour if you frequently have to work through lunch to meet deadlines.
Ideally, you’ll want a fitness program that helps you increase your activity level as you strengthen your muscles and build greater stamina.
According to Staci Fiori, a personal trainer for older adults with Fiori Fitness in New Hampshire, “If you are just starting a fitness routine, start basic! Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Start with ‘baseline’ goals and work your way up from there. For example, start by working out for 30 minutes, three days a week. Eat protein with every meal, and take a 15-minute walk three days a week.”
“For those who have been extremely active all their lives and want to remain active, but need to slow it down a bit,” she says, “Try new activities such as kayaking, paddle boarding, hiking, and biking. But don’t put down the weights! Active older adults, especially those who have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, should include weight-bearing activities, balance exercise, and strengthening exercises in their workout routines.”
You should include three primary forms of exercise in your weekly workout routine for maximum benefit:
1. Aerobic Exercise
Aerobic exercise elevates your heart rate, provides cardiovascular benefits, and helps you maintain your mobility — all things that contribute to good lifelong health. Options like walking, swimming, running, cycling, and low-impact aerobics classes can improve endurance. If you’re just starting out, start slow so you don’t burn out. You might only be able to go for 15 minutes at a time. But set your eventual goal for 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week.
2. Strength/Resistance Training
Research shows that muscle strength peaks between 30 and 35, and your power and performance gradually decline over time.REF#2974 You can slow down this process by doing strength training for 45 minutes two to three times per week and maintain muscle mass as you age. Movements that use bodyweight (i.e. pushups, pullups, situps, squats, and tricep dips), resistance bands, free weights, or weight machines can all be effective. Focus on major muscle groups like legs, back, chest, shoulders, arms, lower abdominals, and core.
Recognize that you are in your 40s, and don’t compare yourself to someone in their 20s or 30s. Set realistic goals for yourself and create resistance training routines that are safe and sustainable. Ideally, work with a trainer who can teach you how to appropriately use your body, weights, machines, or bands and ensure you have proper form. When using free weights, start with light weights (two to three pounds) and work gradually up to heavier weights to avoid injury.
3. Flexibility Exercises
Stretching, yoga, and Pilates help improve your flexibility and range of motion. Dedicate time daily to gently stretch tight muscles and joints, especially after aerobic exercise and strength training.
Activities like Tai Chi and standing on balance balls improve balance, which is critical for mobility and will reduce your risk of falling and fracturing or spraining bones, ligaments, or muscles. You can even practice standing on one foot while you’re doing the dishes or talking on the phone.
Before beginning any new exercise program, consult your doctor to determine your limitations if you have any medical conditions.
Nutrition and Herbs for Fitness
In addition to staying active, proper nutrition is critical for maintaining muscle mass, bone density, and overall physical strength as you age. Be mindful of getting adequate nutrition through whole foods. A diet rich in protein, through foods like dairy, eggs, lean meat, beans, and soy, provides the amino acids needed to preserve muscle.
Getting enough vitamin D and calcium supports bone health. Foods such as fatty fish, berries, leafy greens, and nuts help maintain a healthy inflammatory response and keep joints healthy. Staying hydrated is also key.
If you aren’t getting all the nutrients you need from food, consider supplementing with herbs that support performance and recovery. Fueling your body properly will allow you to continue reaping the most rewards from your fitness routine.
Alternative Practitioners as Partners in Your Aging Journey
Discomfort from injury or overuse can keep you from exercising, which affects the mobility and flexibility you’ve worked so hard to gain. So, in addition to traditional exercise, working with alternative health practitioners can provide benefits for maintaining a strong, flexible body as you age.
Seeing a chiropractor for periodic spinal adjustments can help improve overall mobility, posture, and balance. Chiropractic care may relieve back and neck pain caused by tightened muscles or joint restrictions. Gentle spinal adjustments can allow for a greater range of motion.
Many chiropractors also offer other modalities, such as Active Release Therapy (ART), a non-invasive soft tissue and nerve care practice that treats soft-tissue injuries, or electromagnetic therapy, which improves circulation so that nutrients and oxygen can be delivered to the affected tissue.
Acupuncture is another option for keeping your body in good shape that involves placing thin needles along specific points of the body to relieve pain and improve well-being. Sessions with an acupuncturist may help with muscle tension and circulation. This can improve mobility and flexibility.
Energy healers use techniques like Reiki and touch therapy to promote relaxation, reduce stress, and activate the body’s natural healing abilities. Sessions may help ease joint muscle tension and stiffness by calming the nervous system.
Having an alternative health practitioner on your care team can complement an exercise routine and help keep your muscles and joints relaxed, flexible, and properly aligned to support mobility as you age.
While you can adopt an exercise routine at any age, it is much easier to do when you’re younger, mobile, and flexible. Commit to lifelong exercise now, and you can build on the strength you already have.
Be patient and compassionate with yourself through the natural changes that occur. Listen to what your body needs. Stay curious about new ways to nourish it. Keep moving. Not only will you maintain your physical abilities, but you’ll also feel more joyful, resilient, and empowered to age with grace and vitality. Your future self will thank you.
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- 2. , "Physical activity and telomere length in U.S. men and women: An NHANES investigation", Preventive Medicine . 2 2. , "Physical activity and telomere length in U.S. men and women: An NHANES investigation", Preventive Medicine .
- 3. , "How can strength training build healthier bodies as we age?", Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging. 3 3. , "How can strength training build healthier bodies as we age?", Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging.