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Exercising in your 50s and beyond: Tips from a doctor and fitness pros

It's never too late to start working out, say doctors and fitness pros.

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Starting an exercise routine for the first time as an adult can feel intimidating or even worthless -- but the pros say it's not too late to improve your fitness.

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In 2019, Nicholas Rizzo, a personal trainer, biologist and fitness research director at RunRepeat, accomplished what he never thought possible: He helped his father -- who had just entered his 60s -- lose 25 pounds, adopt an exercise habit and kick pre-diabetes. 

Beginning an exercise routine in your 50s or later can feel scary and intimidating, whether you are starting for the first time or rekindling an old habit. You may feel like it's too late or you aren't in good enough shape to get started, but Rizzo asserts that the smallest changes produce drastic results. 

With his dad, it started simply: Rizzo encouraged his dad to add basic exercises -- including push-ups, sit-ups, shoulder presses and lunges -- into his morning routine. He then invested in a stationary bike and a standing desk to add in even more daily movement. These small changes, combined with healthy diet tweaks, allowed Rizzo's dad to get in the best shape of his life. 

Rizzo's example is just one of many: Studies show that regular exercise can help older adults combat age-related muscle loss, improve bone and joint health, lower cardiometabolic risk factors, fight chronic diseases and improve mental health and cognitive functioning. Perhaps most importantly, exercising as you get older can help you maintain functional independence and improve your quality of life

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In this guide to exercising in your 50s and beyond, three experts -- Rizzo, along with TRX's head of human performance, Chris Frankel, and Elizabeth Gardner, MD, a Yale Medicine orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine -- explain exactly how to get started and reap the benefits of a workout routine.

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How to start exercising at age 50 or older

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"Fitness" isn't synonymous with "gym." A sustainable fitness routine includes something you love, be it biking, hiking, dancing or something else.

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First things first: See your doctor, Dr. Gardner says. 

"When anyone first starts exercising, it is important to first assess your physical fitness," Dr. Gardner tells CNET. "While there is almost no absolute contraindication to exercise, certain medical or physical conditions may require certain adjustments to an exercise routine."

Your physician may want to make certain adjustments to your exercise routine. Dr. Gardner offers some examples: 

  • For patients with osteoporosis, impact exercise (with caution) and weight training are important, because these types of exercise can help to build bone mass and slow degeneration.  
  • For patients with arthritis, impact exercise can be bothersome to the joints, so physicians will typically recommend low impact cardiovascular exercise, such as swimming or biking.
  • Patients with uncontrolled high blood pressure (higher than 180/110 mmHg) should avoid heavy weightlifting until they've received clearance from their doctor.

After getting the OK from your doctor, Dr. Gardner says it's time to have some fun: "It's important to start with activities that are familiar and enjoyable, such as taking a walk or a bicycle ride," she says, adding that it's also smart to start slowly. 

"The goal is to build a habit and be able to gradually increase your activity over time," Dr. Gardner says. "If lifting weights, start with weights that you can perform 10-12 repetitions of at first. You don't want to be so sore after the first outing that you can't move for a week."

Don't forget about fitness recovery

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Make sure to take care of your body before and after exercise with a good warm-up and recovery techniques like foam rolling.

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The actual act of exercising is only part of the battle -- Dr. Gardner says that it's critical to take care of your body before and after exercise. "That includes being hydrated and fueling your body with nutritious food," she explains. "It also includes stretching both before and after your workout to help keep your muscles happy and prevent injury.

Fitness recovery doesn't have to be complicated: Find a modality that works for you and use it often, whether you prefer foam rolling, massage, compression or heat or cold therapy. These should all be complements to mobility work, good nutrition and hydration

Don't forget to warm up, either, because jumping into your workout without preparing your muscles and joints can lead to injury.

What kind of exercise should you do after age 50? 

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Start with something simple, such as walking, and work your way up to more intense exercise.

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If you have never had a consistent exercise routine, start off with a combination of aerobic exercise and light weight training, Dr. Gardner says. This gives your body a chance to get familiar with the different types of physical stress induced by exercise. 

During the beginning stages, experiment with different types of aerobic exercise, such as walking, hiking, biking, dancing and swimming, to find what you enjoy the most, Dr. Gardner says. 

"It is also important to include balance exercises, which can help to prevent falls in the future," Dr. Gardner stresses. "When getting started, it is important to use a chair for support, but with time it may be possible to do [balance] exercises without a chair." 

Many great balance exercises can be performed at home, including: 

  • Marching in place
  • Standing on one foot 
  • Shifting your weight from one leg to another

Yoga, Pilates and tai chi are also excellent for building strength and developing balance to prevent falls. As you get started with exercise, make sure to also include stretching and mobility exercises to improve flexibility and joint range of motion.

After building up a solid fitness base with aerobic cardio, stretching and balance exercises, you can start to introduce resistance training to your workout plan, Rizzo says. Start with light weights and higher reps, taking as much time as you need to rest in between sets. Hold off on intense anaerobic interval-style workouts until you've developed a good base level of fitness and feel comfortable moving quickly while maintaining food form. 

How often should you exercise after age 50?

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When you're just starting out, don't do too much too soon. Just 10 to 15 minutes of exercise each day is a good start.

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The general recommendation is that all adults should strive for 150 to 300 minutes of exercise each week, Dr. Gardner says -- 150 minutes if the exercise is intense or vigorous, and 300 minutes if the exercise is moderate. 

"This time can be split up into sessions on different days," Dr. Gardner says, "[but] really the goal should be to move, even if just for 10 to 15 minutes every day."

Rizzo recommends starting with just five to 10 minutes of light exercise per day, gradually working your way up to 20 to 30 minutes, focusing on the basics: light cardio, bodyweight exercises and stretching. 

As for how many days you should complete full workouts, Rizzo says it's best to start with just one or two, in addition to focusing on small increases in your daily movement. When you're ready to add another full workout to your routine, only go at it with 50% of your usual intensity. Keep increasing the intensity until you can comfortably complete all of your weekly workouts at a 70 to 90% effort.

"This ensures your body has the time to adapt to the physical strain of just being active consistently," Rizzo says. "There is no point in rushing too fast into it and either injuring or exhausting yourself."

Should you hire a personal trainer?

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Hiring a personal or group trainer is a great way to learn proper form for different exercises and prevent injury.

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Hiring a personal trainer can certainly provide extra benefits when starting a workout regimen, Frankel says, as can attending group fitness classes. 

"The benefit of a qualified and experienced personal trainer or group instructor is having someone guide you through the proper biomechanics, exercise selection, sequence, intensity, and recovery to optimize your results," Frankel says. 

And if you add the community component that comes with group exercise, "get ready to not only feel better physically, but also mentally," he says, citing a 2017 study in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association that reported people working out in a group setting resulted in lowered stress levels and improved quality of life compared to those working out alone.

Hiring a personal trainer or attending group classes is also a good way to avoid the "no pain, no gain" mindset, which can lead to poor results, exercise burnout, injury or illness, Frankel adds. 

Should anyone age 50 or older avoid exercise?

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Your doctor may recommend a specific type of exercise based on your health -- such as water aerobics for arthritis.

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As Dr. Gardner mentioned previously, there are very few people who cannot exercise at all in some way or another. Rizzo concurs, explaining that "This has less to do with being 50 years old and more to do with any conditions, chronic illnesses, diseases, age-related or otherwise, or injuries you may have."

When it comes to exercise, the most important question you can ask your doctor is if it's safe for you to start an exercise regimen and what kind of exercise is safe for you, Rizzo says. Arrive prepared to your doctor's appointment with a clear explanation of what you intend to do, and walk through it with your doctor. 

Exercise is always a possibility, Rizzo says. You may just have to learn how to modify exercise to meet your specific needs.

A sample workout plan for exercisers in their 50s

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Having a weekly workout plan can help you stick to your goals.

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Based on the types of exercise recommended for people beginning an exercise routine in their 50s, Frankel offers a sample six-week workout plan divided into phases (every two weeks is one phase).

Phase 1 (weeks one and two): 

  • Mobility work every day
  • Aerobic cardio (low intensity, long duration) two to three times per week for 20 to 40 minutes
  • Low-to-moderate intensity resistance training one or two times per week for 20 to 30 minutes

Phase 2 (weeks three and four):

  • Mobility work every day
  • Aerobic cardio one to two times per week for 20 to 40 minutes
  • Anaerobic cardio (interval work) one time per week for 15 to 25 minutes 
  • Resistance training two times per week for 20 to 30 minutes 

Phase 3 (weeks five and six): 

  • Mobility work every day
  • Aerobic cardio one or two times per week for 30 to 45 minutes 
  • Cardio interval work one time per week for 20 to 35 minutes
  • Resistance training intervals (lower weights, high volume) one time per week for 25 to 40 minutes
  • Resistance training with heavier weights one time per week for 30 to 40 minutes.

Notice how the plan starts with two to three workouts and increases to four to five workouts by the time you reach week five. Repeat the phases over time, varying the exercises to continually give your body a challenge. Returning to phase 1 gives your body a chance to deload and recover from the higher intensity of phase 3.

Words of encouragement

To anyone who thinks that age 50 is too late to start exercising, Frankel would say to look at the big picture. "Currently, the US life expectancy is just shy of 79 years, so that means at 50, you are still looking at close to another 25 to 30 years," he says. "Regardless if you are in your 50s, 60s, or older, you should consider exercise, nutrition and sleep as the 'currency' of quality and quantity of life." 

Dr. Gardner adds that it's important to remember that not all exercise has to happen at the gym: Activities such as dancing or hiking can be an easy way to start building fitness and an exercise routine. 

And Rizzo circles back to the magic he used on his dad: "There really is no such thing as 'too late' when it comes to exercise," he says. "The research is clear -- whether you are turning 50 or 80, it isn't too late to start. Exercise will help you live longer, improve your quality of life, fight the aging process and so much more." 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.