Pound the Pavement or Pump Iron? How to Prioritize Workouts As You Age

May 20, 2024

women in an exercise class

Physical fitness is essential for good health. But to get the most from exercise, it’s important to know how your workouts should change throughout your lifetime. Shifting your fitness priorities to suit your age and body can help you stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

Your physical health and fitness exist on a spectrum, explains Jacob Linn, director of The Human Performance Program at MU Health Care. This spectrum, which he calls the Health-Performance Spectrum, is about balancing health and performance. “Doing only one type of exercise or focusing your training on a specific purpose may improve your performance,” Linn says. “But it may not be the best approach for overall health.”

Throughout your life, your physical activity should include a variety of workout types, including:

  • Conditioning (cardiovascular exercise): Physical activity, such as cycling or jogging, that raises your heart rate
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT): Alternating short periods of working out as hard as you can with brief periods of recovery
  • Low-intensity exercises: Working out at a comfortable pace doing activities, such as swimming, walking or bicycling, that do not stress your joints
  • Strength training: Using weights, exercise bands or your bodyweight to tone or build muscle
  • Stretching for flexibility and mobility: Lengthening muscles and improving your range of motion through focused, slow movements

Understanding the purpose of each exercise type and when it’s most beneficial can guide your physical fitness and keep you safe while you work out. “When it comes to exercise, it’s about knowing what to do and when,” Linn says. “You can achieve balance by paying attention to your body’s signals and measuring progress towards your goals.”

Linn shares tips for every age and stage of life to help you and your family focus your exercise for optimal health.

Childhood — Lay the Foundation for Physical Fitness

In childhood, one purpose of sports and exercise is to create positive associations with physical fitness. As a bonus, physically active children tend to have a positive body image and higher self-esteem.

How to Focus Your Fitness in Childhood

Sports are an important physical fitness resource for young boys and girls. Whenever you support their interest in sports or any type of exercise, you help create a positive association with fitness.

“We want them to establish a strong, safe connection to physical activity moving forward in life,” Linn says. “Communicate to your children that they are safe and loved, whatever the outcome of their sporting event.”

Keep in mind some exercise concerns during childhood, such as:

  • Impact injuries: Consider the physical impact of the sports your child is playing. Concussions and fractures, especially near growth plates, are especially concerning.
  • Overuse injuries: Children’s bodies are growing and maturing, so they need exposure to all types of movement. Specializing in one sport or activity this young can lead to overuse injuries.
  • Thermal regulation: Smaller bodies can’t handle heat well. Be vigilant when your child is competing indoors or in hot weather, and make sure they are hydrating well.

Adolescence — Focus on Strength and Coordination

Puberty affects teenagers’ physical fitness (honestly, what doesn’t puberty affect?). Teens need to understand how their bodies are changing and how those changes may impact their coordination and fitness levels.

“In general, teens get gangly, and they may lose the coordination they had previously. Female teens also have higher rates of joint injury because estrogen affects their collagen formation and connective tissues,” Linn says. “We need to prevent those injuries, so they don’t become afraid of physical activity.”

How to Focus Your Fitness in Adolescence

Empower your teen to focus on building strength. Encourage them to learn about proper joint alignment so they don’t put their joint health at risk.

If your teen isn’t interested in group sports, introduce fitness activities that can be done individually or with a friend, such as:

  • Bicycling
  • Dancing
  • Hiking, climbing or skiing
  • Running or walking
  • Swimming
  • Weightlifting
  • Yoga or Pilates

“This is the time, before they have a family and professional life, to sample a broad spectrum of fitness activities,” Linn says. “The goal is to discover new ways to stay fit and find something they enjoy.”

Your 20s — Push Yourself

Your 20s are the ideal time to establish healthy habits and exercise routines. Building those habits and understanding the benefits of physical fitness now can impact your health throughout your lifespan.

How to Focus Your Fitness in Your 20s

Linn recommends building muscle mass and bone density through strength training and pushing yourself physically during this time. HIIT workouts offer a time-efficient way to reach your maximum effort level and stretch your limits.

“The goal is to reach your peak during your 20s,” Linn says. “As your body naturally changes with age later in life, that decline will be much less than that of someone who has never challenged their body.”

Your 30s — Focus on Hormone Health and Heart Health

In your 30s, differences in biology and hormones come into play. Women often add the physical stresses of pregnancy and new motherhood into the mix of an already demanding work-life balance. And although men also have a balancing act to tend to, their bodies — and the lack of physical and hormonal changes — typically still allow for a higher workout intensity. 

“At this stage, women have a more finite pool to draw from when taking on life stress and exercise stress,” Linn says. “If you go too far in one direction, you can impact your ability to recover from exercise, your hormonal health and possibly even your ability to have children.” Overdoing it can also increase your risk of injury.

How to Focus Your Fitness in Your 30s

For women, finding a balance between nutrition and exercise is critical — hormones are easily disrupted by overtraining or poor nutrition. Maintain a workout routine, but don’t be afraid to incorporate more low-impact exercises and pay attention to the feedback you get from your body.

Men, who are more predisposed to heart disease than women, should add more conditioning and cardiovascular exercise to their workouts in their 30s.

Working Out After Having a Baby

After giving birth, your fitness priority should be regaining pelvic and abdominal strength and control. But instead of jumping back into crunches and planks, consider pelvic floor therapy, which gently targets the muscles pregnancy weakens.

When you resume exercise after having a baby, Linn says to listen to your body. Hormone fluctuations, like those experienced after childbirth, can affect joint health and range of motion.

“Low-impact exercises like yoga, Pilates and cardio machines are great postpartum,” Linn says. “Once you’ve regained your strength, you can move on to plyometrics and higher impact exercise. There’s no rush.”

Your 40s and 50s — Protect Bone Strength and Muscle Mass

Men and women both experience increased fat mass and a loss of muscle mass during their 40s and 50s. Women may notice drastic changes in their body composition as their estrogen and testosterone levels drop during perimenopause — the stage leading up to menopause.

How to Focus Your Fitness in Your 40s and 50s

Linn recommends incorporating strength training into your fitness routine to combat and delay body changes. He suggests HIIT for the best results. Aim to strength train at least once weekly to maintain your muscle mass and two days to gain strength.

“Pay attention to how your body is changing and then deliberately try to correct the issues that arise — whether you are losing some mobility, experiencing joint pain or losing strength,” Linn says. “You may be able to delay that decline over time.”

Just know that recovering from exercise — especially high-intensity exercise — at this age may take longer for women than men. The reasoning has to do with female versus male hormones. For a quicker recovery, tailor your workouts for endurance (longer time periods) rather than intensity (pushing yourself to your limit).

Flexibility and Mobility for Older Adults 55+

Strength training remains essential, especially after menopause. But vary your workouts to add flexibility, mobility and balance.

How to Focus on Fitness After Age 55

Consider rounding out your fitness by mixing up your weekly routine to include:

  • Brisk walking for low-impact exercise
  • Cardiovascular activity that increases your heart rate
  • Strength training using weights, resistance bands or body weight
  • Yoga and stretching

“It’s also a good idea later in life to see a sports medicine doctor to get a health or movement screening done,” Linn says. “It will determine what activity you can do right now without risking injury. An experienced professional, such as a physical therapist, certified personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach, can help establish your current fitness level and make a progressive exercise plan to get you where you want to go.”

Next Steps and Useful Resources



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