Michael Matthews, certified personal trainer based in Ocala, Florida, and author of Muscle for Life: Get Lean, Strong, and Healthy at Any Age! He is host of the podcast Muscle for Life with Mike Matthews.
“I’m too old to get back in shape” is a common excuse for expanding waistlines and withering muscles—but the evidence for this alibi is surprisingly thin.
Perhaps you’ve heard that the typical person steadily loses muscle mass after age 30, with losses accelerating after 50—but that’s because these people aren’t training their muscles. A study by University of Maryland researchers found that women ages 65 to 73 who followed a strength-training program added just as much muscle in nine weeks as women ages 23 to 28. A study at University of Oklahoma found similar results for middle-aged men.
Or you’ve heard that metabolism slows as we age, making it harder to burn calories—but it turns out this decline is modest at best. Researchers at Germany’s Justus-Liebig-University determined that 60-to-90-year-old men burn just eight fewer calories per day for each year they age due to slowing metabolism…women, just four calories fewer.
The real reason people find it so hard to lose weight and build muscle as they age is that they slip into a downward spiral. They become slightly less fit and active as the years go by, so they lose a little muscle mass…they need fewer calories, but most people continue eating as much as ever…the unneeded calories cause weight gain, which makes them more sedentary and leads to additional muscle loss. On it goes until they’re old and out of shape.
Good news: That spiral can be reversed by devoting just a few hours a week to exercise. And you don’t need to join a gym or buy expensive exercise equipment, though a few small pieces of workout gear will be helpful. You’ll notice a positive difference in your body within just a few weeks.
Start with simple, low-impact exercises, but steadily increase their difficulty. Each session should be challenging but not grueling—it’s good to feel sore the following morning…bad to feel hobbled.
On the next page are three sets of exercises for people age 60 and up who are heading down the path to fitness. Start with the first exercise on any of these lists, and do sets of 15 to 20 reps, taking two- to four-minute rests between sets. Goal: Complete nine to 15 sets of 20 reps apiece of an exercise during a 45- to 60-minute workout. It’s fine if you can’t do that much at first. But when you can achieve this without the last few reps of each set feeling like a physical challenge, move on to the next exercise on that list and do that exercise instead.
Complete three of these exercise sessions per week. One option: Have one session per week with an exercise from each of the three lists, but it’s also fine to emphasize one list over the others.
On days when you don’t do these exercises, do a light cardio workout. The easiest way to do that is to take a walk. If you want to increase the cardiovascular benefits, increase your walking speed and/or wear ankle and wrist weights or a weighted backpack. Caution: Do not wear a weighted backpack if you have back problems. Ten thousand steps on each of these cardio days is a good goal—that’s around five miles of walking.
Squat. Stand straight with your feet about shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing to 10:00 and 2:00. Take a deep breath, brace your abs, then bend your knees and push your hips back to assume a sitting position, only without the chair. Extend your arms forward as needed to maintain your balance. Keep your spine straight, core tight and chest up throughout—imagine you’re lowering your torso toward a spot directly between your heels. Stop when your thighs are parallel to the floor, then slowly return to the standing position.
Lunge. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, then take a big step forward with your right foot. Slowly kneel until your left knee touches the floor, then slowly return to standing without lifting or shifting either foot. After your knees are straight, step back with your right foot to resume the initial starting position. Do sets with the left foot stepping forward, too.
Bulgarian split squat. Stand about two feet in front of a chair or bench, facing away from it. Reach your left foot back, and rest it on the seat—the toe and ball of the foot can be on the seat or the top of the ankle with the toe pointing back, whichever you find more comfortable. While still facing away from the seat and without lifting or shifting either foot, lower your left knee until your right thigh is roughly parallel to the ground, then slowly return to the starting position, left foot still on the seat. Extend your arms as needed to keep your balance throughout. Do sets with the right foot on the seat as well. Helpful: You’ll have an easier time balancing if your back foot is offset from the front foot, not directly behind it. If you have significant balance problems, consider skipping this exercise. Caution: Do not do this exercise until you can do at least three sets of 20 reps of the lunges.
Dumbbell goblet squat. Do the first squat exercise described, but hold a dumbbell in front of your chest. Orient the dumbbell vertically—as if it were a goblet—roughly in front of your sternum with each hand gripping one side of its top end. Start with a lightweight dumbbell, and increase the weight as needed to keep the exercise challenging. Caution: Do not do this exercise until you can do at least three sets of 20 reps of the squats.
Next: Dumbbells of increasing weight can be added to lunges and dumbbell squats.
Knee push-up. You probably know how to do a classic push-up—if not, see below. In this easier variation, your weight is on your knees and hands rather than on your toes and hands.
Classic push-up. Support yourself on your toes and hands, with your hands below your shoulders, arms extended, and back and legs straight. Lower your chest to the floor by bending at the elbows—keep your back and legs straight throughout—then extend your arms to return to the starting position.
Feet-elevated push-up. In this more challenging variation, the feet are on a raised surface instead of the floor. This surface should be approximately knee height when you’re standing—a chair or bench is a good choice.
Band-restricted elevated push-up. Grip the ends of a resistance exercise band in both hands, and loop it across your back at shoulder height, then complete the feet-elevated push-ups described above. When this becomes easy, switch to a band that provides greater resistance.
Inverted body-weight row. Lie under a sturdy table or desk, and reach up to grip its edge—this table or desk should be high enough that your shoulders don’t touch the floor when you hang with your arms fully extended…and stable and strong enough that it doesn’t feel unsteady when you do this. Straighten your back and legs, and keep your butt high, so that only the backs of your heels are in contact with the floor as you hang. Pull your chest upward until your nose touches or nearly touches the bottom of the table or desk, then lower yourself back to your starting position, keeping your body straight throughout.
Negative chin-up. These are the down part of the chin-up. You can do these using a chin-up machine, or position a doorway pull-up bar, then place a chair or step stool under it. Stand on the chair or stool with your chin over the bar and your hands gripping the bar slightly more than shoulder-width apart. Lift your legs off the chair or stool, and slowly lower yourself down until your arms are fully extended. Then put your feet back on the chair or stool so that you can return to the starting chin-over-bar position without using your upper-body muscles alone to lift you.
Chin-up. Hang from a bar, such as a doorway pull-up bar with hands slightly more than shoulder-width apart…lift your chin above the bar, then slowly lower yourself back down. Some people aren’t clear about the difference between a chin-up and a pull-up—with chin-ups, your hands grip the bar with palms facing toward you.
Pull-up. These are like chin-ups, except for the grip—here the palms face away from the body. That seemingly subtle difference means these exercises work different muscles.