Living life to the fullest means knowing how to take care of your mind, body, and spirit. And, as so many people can tell you, one of the central ways to care for all three at once is to exercise.
Physical activity is a key part of life, at every stage of the journey. But how do you know what your body needs? What’s the best way to make the most of your movements and maximize your health and fitness?
As we age, our physical needs change along with our bodies and our lifestyles. From early childhood to mature adulthood, here are some critical exercises that can leave you looking, feeling, and being your very best self.
Kids 10 and Under: Focus on Fun
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education puts it well:
“Childhood is the time to begin ensuring an active, healthy lifestyle, and parents and caregivers must teach and model the development of skills, knowledge and attitudes leading to an active, healthy lifestyle. Placing children on the road to a lifetime of movement should begin early to ensure that they learn — and adopt — healthful practices and behaviors.”
For young kids, most experts agree that the best way to stay healthy is to encourage frequent physical activity.
Guidelines for school-age kids suggests that they should get one hour or more of moderate or vigorous physical activity, basically every day. One way to do this is to have kids participate in several bouts of physical activity of 15 minutes or more each day, and to avoid staying sedentary for more than an hour or two at a time.
How can kids hit these marks? Here are a few ideas:
- Free play. With unstructured time, kids may play tag, scramble on a jungle gym, build a snowman . . . Little activities can help foster a lot of movement.
- Organized sports and games. Whether playing in a league or with equipment you keep on hand, sports are a great way to promote movement. From soccer to tennis, volleyball to karate, there are options for kids who like to play team sports or stay solo.
- Family fun time. Scheduling time for family walks, bike rides, or chores can help promote healthy behaviors in children. The more you model good physical behavior, the more your young ones will take notice.
- Make a day of it. Instead of a trip to the movies, focus your family outing on being active by going rock climbing, hiking, or ice skating. Let different family members choose the activity for the day.
- Stretching and yoga. Flexibility is crucial to movement, and there are yoga poses that will accommodate people of all ages. This can also be a calming, centering activity for adults and kids alike.
Teenagers: Staying Active and Building Healthy Habits
During your teen years, your body goes through all sorts of changes. At the same time, these are the years when many people face some of the toughest school years of their academic careers, all while also establishing behaviors, healthy or not, that could last well into adulthood.
With all of this mind, the health benefits of exercise for teens can be enormous:
- Reduce stress and improve mood
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Strengthen bones and muscles
- Help improve skin complexion
Rachel Straub, a certified personal trainer, tells WebMD Fit that teenagers should get at least an hour of daily exercise every day, five days a week, focusing on “a mix of cardio and strength training.” Yet, she says, fewer than 10 percent actually meet that goal. What are some ways for teens to exercise and get in some much needed movement?
Health and fitness experts recommend:
- Start with the strength training basics. When it comes to strength training, Straub recommends keeping it simple, focusing on fundamental exercises like squats, wall sits, and push-ups. You can always get started learning proper techniques at home, before moving onto more advanced equipment in a gym setting. If you do pursue weight lifting, be sure to consult or work with a qualified coach or trainer to understand proper safety.
- High-intensity cardio. There are plenty of ways for teenagers to elevate their heart rate and get much needed aerobic exercise. Walking, running, cycling, and swimming can all work as cardio workouts, as can high-energy team sports like soccer, volleyball, dance, or tennis.
- Focus on the everyday. You don’t have to do all of your activity in one grueling burst. Experts recommend focusing on making little changes that allow you to be more active every day: Take a walk before school, break up reading assignments with stretches or short walks, toss a ball with your dog, rake leaves or mow the lawn. Whatever it takes to get off the couch more often.
One important thing to keep in mind? This is a time when your body is still growing and developing, and it’s important not to push it too hard. Overtraining can lead to lasting injuries, and it’s important to not expect unrealistic results overnight.
20s: Trying New Things
For many people, life as a twentysomething means adopting the philosophy: “work hard, play hard.” This is a time in life when many people want to hustle at work to advance make sure to enjoy plenty of time out living life to the fullest with friends and family.
Health-wise, most experts tend to believe that your 20s are a time when your body is able to operate close to peak performance, making it “the perfect age to power through all types of activities, because your body is highly resilient,” as author and trainer Kathy Kaehler told Fitness Magazine.
Health and fitness experts tend to agree that fitness in your 20s should be split between cardio and strength training, with an emphasis on flexibility and mobility, as well.
An important thing is to mix it up! As trainer Vanessa Carver put it, when you switch up between cardio and strength training, “you’re really pushing the body” in a positive way. Strength training with weights helps build muscle definition and bone density, which are both crucial in promoting long-term health and greater later in life.
FItness also suggests that your 20s are “also a good time to train for a sprint triathlon, 10K race, or a half marathon.” Research actually also indicates that focusing on endurance training in your 20s can help improve your immune system and total fitness level as you get older, making this a great decade to get into cycling, swimming, or hiking.
30s–40s: Adapting to Your Changing Body
After your 20s, your lean muscle starts to naturally decrease and your body fat begins to naturally increase. All this as your metabolism slows down 1–2 percent per decade, making it harder to maintain a healthy weight without taking significant steps.
For men and women alike, this is also a time when other health conditions may begin to creep in. For instance, many people begin to suffer from consistent aches and pains, or conditions like carpal tunnel, after more than a decade spent sitting in an office chair or hunching over screens. For others, these are the years when symptoms relating to heart disease or osteoporosis (for women) may begin to take a toll.
To help counteract the effects of aging, fitness experts recommend adopting a strategy that focuses on:
- Cardio. Experts recommend performing moderately paced aerobic exercise for at least an hour a day, three to five days per week. Take care of your body, and don’t be afraid to switch to lower-impact workouts.
- Resistance and Strength Training. Strengthening your muscles and bones is vital in your 30s and 40s, in order to help preserve your mobility for the future. Experts recommend weight training for at least one hour per day, three days per week. Focus on the body parts that need attention — squats with weights may help tone the butt and legs, while push-ups can help train the back and upper arms, for example.
- Flexibility. Focus on movement is a great way to hone your muscles, strengthen your body, and help improve bone density. Stretching is a key part of any strength training regimen, and you can get started with yoga, active stretching, pilates, or other methods for staying limber while building strength. Pilates can also be an effective way to help strengthen and tone your midsection.
50s–60s: Building Strength and Maintaining Flexibility
As fitness expert Kathy Smith recently explained, “At this point [in your 50s and 60s], loss of muscle mass and tone really shows . . . It can actually start to change your posture.”
So, what should people in their 50s and 60s do to stay fit and mobile? Experts recommend tackling 3–5 cardio sessions per week, plus weight training three times a week, focusing on stretching and making time for plenty of rest and recovery. Here are a few ideas to add additional movement and activity:
- Pick Up Weight Training. Strength training and resistance training can do wonders for protecting your muscles and bones, and it’s a “must” for people in their 50s and 60s, according to Smith. Be sure to consult with an expert to get a handle on proper safety techniques, and the methods that will work best for you. For instance, working with resistance bands can sometimes be easier for people with joint problems than heavy weights.
- Emphasize Warm-Ups and Cool Downs. No matter their age, everyone should warm up and cool down before and after strenuous physical activity. But for people in their 50s and 60s, properly getting your body ready to work out is more important than ever. Walking, light yoga, stretches, and the like can help get your body ready to move, and they can also help cut down on your recovery time after a particularly grueling exercise session.
- Consider Your Balance. One aspect of daily life that we tend to take for granted is balance. And it becomes more and more important the older we get, when a small slip can have a big impact. Yoga, tai chi, and dance are examples of practices that can help you move with more confidence and stability.
- Find Aerobic Exercise That Is More Gentle. As we age, our joints and bones become more sensitive, and it’s important to find aerobic exercises that can be performed comfortably. For instance, long runs can put a major strain on the knees, ankles, and hips; it may be of benefit to switch over to a workout that is easier on the body, such as light jogging, swimming, or cycling.
70s–90s: Structure Workouts Around Your Lifestyle
Recently, tests conducted in Spain found that people in their 80s and 90s who did vigorous fitness work routinely had improved their strength and balance as compared to those who didn’t. According to the study, exercising even only twice per week for several months could lead to a significant improvement in fitness and movement.
So, what are some ways to increase your movement and maintain your exercise routine well into your 80s and 90s?
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) encourages older adults to focus on four exercise areas in order to improve their overall health:
- Endurance. Endurance exercises focus on cardio and aerobic activities, and might include such activities as walking, swimming laps, or playing a sport such as tennis.
- Strength. Strength exercises involve developing muscle and bone strength through resistance training, which might include resistance bands, or using your own body weight. It’s important to practice safety with strength exercises, and not overestimate how much you can handle. Exercises might include squats, bicep curls, or wall push-ups.
- Balance. Improving your balance can help make everyday tasks easier, from going up and down stairs to taking care of things around the house. Balance exercises might involve focusing on your leg and core strength, with exercises such as calf raises, side or front leg raises, or basic yoga poses.
- Flexibility. Stretching is a great way to improve your flexibility, which can in turn maximize your movement in everyday life. Simple yoga, tai chi, or chi gong can make a huge difference for your range of motion, as can simple stretches like toe touches, arm rotations, side stretches, and more.
One important thing to keep in mind? Age is truly nothing but a number. Today, more older adults than ever have adopted healthy lifestyles full of physical activity. In fact, did you know that every year, dozens of people over the age of 80 run in major marathons around the world?
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