Getting older doesn’t have to mean moving less. The key to longstanding fitness, experts say, is envisioning the kind of athlete you want to be 20, 30, even 40 years from now, and training smartly in the present for that future.
“If you’re dreaming of retiring and hiking the mountains of Hawaii, make sure you can do that now, first and foremost,” said Kate Baird, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
Starting in your 30s, you lose between about 3 and 8 percent of your muscle mass per decade, and more after turning 60. Bone mineral density also starts to decline in midlife, which puts you at risk for fractures and osteoporosis. Your VO2 max, or the heart and lungs’ ability to take in oxygen and convert it into energy, decreases as well.
Making a few changes to your habits early can slow these declines and prepare you for decades of physical activity, Dr. Baird said, from the functional (like chasing after grandchildren and lifting luggage) to the fun (like playing tennis and running half-marathons).
Here’s how to get started, according to exercise scientists and trainers.
Test your fitness to learn your strengths and weaknesses.
The best way to be proactive about your future is to assess your fitness today, said Grayson Wickham, a physical therapist in New York City, and the creator of Movement Vault, a stretching and mobility app.
The four key areas to check are your body’s strength, stability, mobility and cardiorespiratory fitness, he said, which all typically decline with age. “The human body is extremely resilient,” Dr. Wickham said. “But the double-edged sword there is that it’s so resilient that we can get away with a lot — until we can’t.”
For a professional fitness evaluation, make an appointment with an exercise physiologist, physical therapist or certified personal trainer, all of whom can then work with you to create a personalized training program. Or test your fitness at home using online resources.
Testing one’s fitness can shine a light on potential weaknesses or areas in need of boosting, Dr. Wickham said, helping to prevent injury before it happens.
For example, if your stability is shaky, start doing balance-boosting exercises like single-leg stands and weight shifts, or workouts like tai chi and Pilates. Or if you’re less flexible than you desire, take up yoga or devote more time to dynamic stretches.
The best way to measure cardiorespiratory fitness is to test your VO2 max with a doctor or an exercise physiologist, Ms. Baird said. Many wearable fitness trackers, including some Apple Watches and Fitbits, offer estimated VO2 max readings as well.
“VO2 max is sort of the overall functional capacity of your body to do hard work,” she said, and regular aerobic exercise and HIIT workouts can help you boost it.
Mix up your workout often.
As you get older, you should, above all, strive to exercise 150 minutes per week with moderate-to-vigorous intensity aerobic workouts and two sessions of strength training (15-20 minutes per session), which together can boost both longevity and quality of life.
But how you spend that time should look different from day to day or week to week, said Sarah Witkowski, an exercise physiologist and associate professor at Smith College.
“The body is great at adaptation,” she said, but to maximize benefits, you want to “keep your body guessing.” Variety also is good for heart health, including blood pressure.
Even small changes can be beneficial, she added. If you typically do lunges, try lunging in different directions some days or combining them with overhead dumbbell presses. If you like to walk, once or twice a week choose a hillier route or walk to as fast as you can.
Think beyond toned biceps and six-pack abs.
Strength training can be a veritable fountain of youth if you approach it strategically. When we’re younger, our motivations are often aesthetic, said Amanda Thebe, a personal trainer based in Canada who specializes in working with people over 40. But focusing only on isolated muscle groups, such as abs or biceps, often neglects muscles we can’t see that contribute to health and strength.
“There’s nothing wrong with doing your bicep curls and your deltoid raises if you want to be pumped for summer,” Ms. Thebe said. But balance these exercises with compound movements — exercises that work several joints and muscles at once.
“Things like a deadlift and a squat,” she said. “Things that move us up and down, and side to side.” Prioritizing core muscles beyond the visible abdominals will also contribute to overall strength as we age. Planks are a great option, and pelvic floor exercises help, too.
Finally, to maximize benefits, you need a plan that’s progressive, said Lauren Lynass, a physical therapist with the fitness platform [P]rehab. Continually increase the amount of weight you lift, or the number of reps.
“We don’t get better by doing things that are easy,” Dr. Lynass said. The more we intentionally challenge our body as we age, she said, the better equipped we’ll be for whatever physical feats our future self wants to take on.