A big percentage of my clientele consists of women at midlife who are looking for a fitness program that will help them age gracefully, vibrantly and independently. Often they've been burned by the one-size-fits-all approach at their local fitness center. I think it's vitally important to design a fitness program that fits your unique needs, goals and limitations, but there are a few key factors that are common for almost everyone.
Fitness for women at midlife and beyond requires attention to six key areas:
1. Commit for a lifetime. During our younger years it was all too common to go on a diet or a fitness plan for 6 or 8 weeks with the single goal of losing X number of pounds by a certain date.
When you hit midlife it's time to recognize that aging well requires a daily dose of movement. That may seem daunting at first, but it's really not. Knowing that you need to keep moving until you draw your last breath means you don't have to fit all your effort into 8 weeks.
Find a pace that feels good today and that you think you can sustain for a lifetime.
2. Make weight your last concern. Don't even get me started about the effect of media images and our cultural expectations in general on women's body image. Let's just agree right here and now that if you're designing a fitness plan for a lifetime, the number on the scale is the least important number in your health record.
Focus instead on your blood pressure, your blood glucose levels, your waist to hip ratio or your LDL cholesterol levels. Each of those numbers matters far more than your weight or your BMI (body mass index).
Better yet, focus first on all the feel-good benefits of exercise: the clear head, the restful sleep, the bright mood, the confident posture. All of those benefits will keep you coming back for a lifetime, while the number on the scale is just a drain on your self-esteem.
3. Cultivate a Healthy Heart and a Sound Mind. Moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise is the magic pill for a healthy heart and a sound mind. Aerobic exercise develops the heart muscle, improves blood flow throughout the brain and body, and balances our stess hormones to protect our mood, memory and mental function.
If you're not already an avid exerciser, moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise can be yours for a brisk walk in the park or a spin on the dance floor. Any activity that gets your heart rate elevated and gets you breathing deeply--but NOT out of breath--will do the trick.
4. Build Strong Muscles and Bones. Every woman at midlife and beyond needs strength training as part of her workout program. Let me repeat that: EVERY woman must lift weights.
As we age, unless we're actively building muscle, we can expect to lose about a half pound of lean muscle tissue per year. If our organs live long enough, we could end up in the unfortunate position of not having enough muscle tissue to carry around our skeletons. That frailty you see so often among elderly women is not a disease state; it is simply a lack of muscle.
For women at midlife and beyond, muscle = mobility and independence.
Weight-bearing and resistance exercises are also essential to maintain good bone density as we age. Once we've lost the protective effects of estrogen, our bone density begins to drop. Continuing to stress the bones with exercise prompts your skeleton to produce more bone tissue in response.
5. Support Supple Joints. A healthy heart and strong muscles can quickly deteriorate when your joints aren't functioning properly. Inflammation, arthritis, cartilage loss, bursitis, scar tissue and joint impingements can all make joints disfunctional and painful.
Joint problems are often difficult and sometimes impossible to reverse, so prevention is key. Use proper form and the right amount of weight in every exercise to prevent injury. Also know that strong, flexible, supple muscles support and stabilize your joints so they move properly throughout the range of motion.
6. Regain a Sense of Balance. As we age, our ability to maintain our balance is often diminished, bringing a sense of fear and even more loss of movement. Sometimes medications or inner ear problems can affect our balance, but often the loss of balance stems from a combination of loss of muscle control and loss of proprioception, or the sense of your body in space.
Balance involves a complex mix of strength, stability and coordination of neural signals between the brain and all the muscles involved in balance. Luckily, much of that can be retrained so you can regain your confidence.
This sounds like a lot of work to cram into a fitness program, but fitness for women at midlife and beyond doesn't have to be a full-time job. Strength, balance and flexibility can all be part of your resistance workouts, two or three times a week. Your aerobic workout for heart and mind should happen daily or almost daily, but 20-30 minutes will generally suffice unless you're also trying to lose weight.
Remember that if you're just starting out, anything you do is better than nothing. Give your body time to adjust and adapt to the new demands you're placing on it. As you get stronger, though, begin to work in all the aspects of a healthy fitness program so your body stays healthy and functional as long as possible.
(Image credit: stylephotographs)