Health & Fitness

Fitness after 40: How women can build muscle, stay toned

Miami banker Tanya Masi, 50, right, works out at Red Zone Fitness in Coral Gables with an “over 40” group of women.
Miami banker Tanya Masi, 50, right, works out at Red Zone Fitness in Coral Gables with an “over 40” group of women.

For women, once we turn 40, our metabolic rate in which we burn calories drops. We lose muscle tone and bone density. We become prone to stress-driven eating. And, we suffer from hormone fluctuations and middle-age spread. We also may find that fitness and nutrition routines that previously worked for weight loss and muscle gain, often stop working.

While all those changes sound scary, they also signal an opportunity for us to be in the best shape of our lives. We just need to approach fitness a little differently.

As we age, strength or resistance training becomes key to adding new muscle mass and maintaining good overall health and bone density, not to mention toned upper arms. Building muscle increases our ability to burn calories, perform activities of daily living and change the way our clothes fit.

To build muscle, we don’t have to hit the gym and lift 100 pound barbells or hire a pricy personal trainer.

“You don’t need to go to the extreme levels,” said Rob Herzog, Memorial Healthcare System Director of Fitness and Sports Medicine. “You can do strength training at home using your own body weight.”

Emily Breeze Ross Watson, a CrossFit trainer, boot-camp instructor and competitor, is 40 weeks pregnant and continues her workout.

Herzog said strength training to build strong quads, arms, legs and hips is important for mobility and balance and flexibility as women age. He recommends a minimum of two times a week for a minimum of 20 minutes. Try adding whole-body strength training to your routine with exercises such as pushups or wall presses. “There is a lot of inexpensive equipment such as bands or tubes that loop around anything and allow you to do multiple resistance exercises right in your home.”

After 40, our muscles and joints become more susceptible to injury, which means initially taking strength training slow and easy. Start with low-impact exercises or low weights and be sure to include lots of stretches before, during and after our workouts, Herzog said. Preventing injury becomes extra important after 40 because the recovery can be more difficult. “If it doesn’t feel right or it causes pain, you shouldn’t do that exercise.”

For women over 40, cardio is important, too. Many women begin training for their first half-marathon in their 40s, thinking it will be the answer to their midlife weight gain. What they don’t realize is long, slow distance cardio can be stressful on the body.

Instead, two types of cardio have been shown to have beneficial effects: short bouts of high intensity effort and longer, lower intensity, leisurely walks. Fitness experts recommend women undertake one of these types of cardio activity three times a week for 30 minutes.

Of course, many women don’t have a block of time every morning or evening to fit in a cardio workout, but engaging in exercise throughout the day can be as beneficial, the experts say. It can be as simple as a brisk walk outside or on a treadmill, cycling or swimming to begin becoming active.

“Once that’s accomplished, focus on increasing the duration of your workout and intensity,” said Tony Musto, director of fitness programs at the UHealth Wellness Center. For example, walk faster, do intervals in which you walk two minutes and jog 30 seconds, for about 30 to 35 minutes. “You will need to eventually increase intensity to see decreases in body fat,” he said.

At any age, it isn’t possible to ‘spot reduce’ or lose fat from specific target areas, but we can do exercises that will help tighten our trouble spots. We can also do fat-burning exercises such as the squat jump, jumping jack or stationary sprint. Keep in mind by doing cardio and resistance training, we burn more fat than by doing cardio alone.

Musto said women often jump too fast into intense cardio routines. “It’s a mistake to try to do too much too soon, make small changes that become habitual.”

Tanya Masi, 50, said she maintains a consistent fitness regimen to build muscle mass and stay fit. “I’m an older mother and I want to be there for my kids as long as I can. I need to be healthy.” Three days a week, Masi meets other women her age at a nearby gym for a morning exercise class. Recently, the group began a 100-day burpee challenge, doing an increasing number of burpee exercises each day before class. “It’s not about losing weight. It’s about improving our health and challenging ourselves to be stronger at any age,” Masi said.

Masi has found that turning fitness into a habit has required that she schedule exercise for early mornings, and vary her routine. “I get bored so one day I will cycle and spin and another I will run. When I go to the gym, it’s for a fitness class or weight training. A lot of women are like me, we need to mix it up.”

Sleep and diet also factor into fitness after 40. Much of the muscle rebuilding and recovery takes place during sleep. Studies have shown that people who are consistently sleep-deprived (fewer than six hours of sleep per night) have more difficulty losing weight and maintaining weight loss than those who get a good night’s sleep.

And, regardless of how hard we exercise, if our diet is poor, we will never actually see muscles, or improve our trouble spots unless we make sound nutritional choices. Herzog recommends eating protein at every meal, reducing processed foods and artificial sweeteners and cutting back on coffee near bedtime.

Chira Cassel, co-founder and director of The Sacred Space Miami, a new wellness center in Wynwood, said a mental fitness routine such as meditation, mindfulness or spending time in a quiet place can be important, too, as we age.

“There is so much stimuli in our lives that we need to have some quiet time.” By adopting a mental and physical fitness route, women over 40 have the power to extend their longevity, she said. “It helps you feel better, deal with stress better, have more energy and have a better outlook on life.”