The Best Exercises for Women Over 50
One day you're graduating college and starting your first real job, and the next day (or so it seems), you're waking up and realizing 1990 was more than 30 years ago. Now your kids are entering the same phase of young adulthood that still seems like a recent memory to you.
Although you may still feel like you're in your 20s or 30s, your birth certificate tells a different story. Well, it's time to face facts: You're in your 50s, and so much about life—including your health and fitness—has changed.
If you feel you've suddenly lost a step or you're not quite as stable as you once were when standing up from the couch, it's likely not your imagination. Midlife, and especially the hormonal changes that take place with menopause, can significantly affect muscle mass, balance, body composition and sex drive.
With the right exercise program, you can stave off some of the downsides of aging and maintain the energy you need to truly enjoy the years to come.
You're a woman over 50: Here's what to expect
Those "overnight changes" that seemed to pop up as soon as you blew out 50 candles aren't just in your head.
"Women over the age of 50 are commonly affected by physical changes due to the changes in hormones around menopause, as well as the normal aging process," explained Amy Hoover, D.P.T., chief physical therapist and advisor for P.volve, a fitness company based in New York City. "The most common issues that may arise are bone density loss, loss of muscle mass and related issues, including tendinitis, joint issues and balance issues, pelvic floor changes that affect the bladder and sexual functions, and changes in mood and body composition."
That "body composition" change may be your impetus to reassess your workout plan.
"Women in peri- and postmenopause may experience more abdominal weight gain, even if they don't change anything about what they eat or how they move," Hoover noted. "This can be frustrating and discouraging. The good news is that by doing the right kind and combination of exercise, it can mitigate these changes."
How exercise needs to change in your 50s
While you may connect hormone changes to mood swings and hot flashes, you should be aware that they can affect your bones, muscles and joints, too. These effects on your body can change the focus of your workout. If you've always considered yourself a "cardio queen," or you've assumed your daily walking program is all you need, it's time to reprioritize the exercises you choose to tackle.
"Resistance training, balance work and interval training are essential for women in this age group," Hoover said. "These types of exercises help to maintain heart health, lean muscle mass, improve balance and improve bone density.
"The pelvic floor also needs to be addressed in their fitness routine. Women need to understand and connect with their pelvic floor to be able to engage and relax these muscles properly. This may help with bladder and sexual function during this time of their lives," she said.
If it's been a while since you've exercised regularly, it's a good idea to get clearance from your doctor to ensure there's nothing special you should address or steer clear of as you start a new routine.
Secondly, you may want to enlist the help of a personal trainer to ensure you're performing exercises properly. Even if you were a gym buff in your younger years, changes in muscle mass, joint health and balance can affect your form, so having a professional provide some guidance as you get going can help you meet your goals and prevent injuries.
"These types of workouts not only improve muscle mass, bone density, etcetera, but also help to balance the hormone levels in your body to improve symptoms of menopause that are influenced by hormone fluctuations," Hoover explained.
Once you're ready to get started, consider adding the following types of exercise to your routine:
Heavy, total-body resistance training
As great as cardio is, once you hit your 50s, resistance training is just as important. Rather than picking up those pink dumbbells and doing a few biceps curls, you really need to be targeting major muscle groups with heavier weights or doing enough reps to fatigue your muscles sufficiently.
"I focus on the fundamentals of strength training to regain muscle mass and endurance, like squats and lunges, and exercises for the glutes, abs and back," said Laura Flynn Endres, C.P.T,, the owner of This is Fit Workouts in Los Angeles. Endres specializes in training men and women in their 50s and beyond. "The goal is an overall increase in strength, which brings a new sense of well-being within weeks."
While you may need to make exercise substitutions based on your own fitness level, range of motion and past injuries or pain, you want to make sure you're hitting all the major muscle groups at least two to three times per week. Get started with:
- Glute bridges
- Dead lifts
- Calf raises
- Planks/side planks
- Assisted pull-ups or lat pull-downs
- Dumbbell rows
- Reverse flys
- Overhead shoulder press
- Triceps dips
- Biceps curls
Choose between eight and 10 exercises for each workout and perform two to three sets of each exercise. The key is to use enough weight with each set that by the last two to three repetitions, it's difficult (but not impossible) to maintain perfect form.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
Now that you're in your 50s, it's a good idea to switch out long, slow cardio for interval training.
"Research has shown that long, slow endurance exercise may affect hormones in a negative way, so keeping to interval training and strength training are more effective ways to exercise if you're over 50," Hoover explained. "This is not to say you cannot do this type of workout, but [you may] choose to do these workouts more occasionally rather than frequently."
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is not as complicated as it may seem. You simply alternate between set periods of more intense exercise and less intense exercise. You can even do HIIT with a walking routine.
For instance, if you're walking for 30 minutes, spend the first five minutes slowly increasing your pace, then for the next 20 minutes, walk as fast as you can for 30 to 60 seconds followed by a more leisurely stroll for 30 to 60 seconds. Finally, spend the last five minutes gradually cooling down with a slow, casual walk.
Of course, you can perform HIIT in different ways, by incorporating jogging, running, jumping rope, swimming or even strength-based exercises such as burpees or mountain climbers. Regardless, the point is to get your heart rate up and your muscles active as you push your intensity level higher.
In addition to strength training, it's important to engage in balance training to help guard against falls. These exercises can easily be incorporated into your strength training routine. Any full-body, unilateral movement (even walking lunges or single-leg dead lifts) will do the trick.
"I like to emphasize what I call accessory exercises," Hoover said. "These are the seemingly small movements that focus on balance, such as being able to stand on one leg while you also do something with your arms, like biceps curl performed on one leg."
Pelvic floor muscle training
In addition to cardio and strength training, there's one area you need to focus on that may not always be at the front of your mind: pelvic floor training.
"One of the main influences of sex drive around menopause is hormonal changes," Hoover said. "This can not only affect desire, but also the physical ability to enjoy sex.
"Our pelvic floor is a muscle group in the bottom of the pelvis which supports bowel, bladder and sexual function," she continued. "Hormones influence the elasticity and lubrication of connective tissues, including muscles and the vaginal wall. During and after menopause, this may cause the pelvic floor muscles to tighten or weaken, or both, which may lead to bladder changes but also pain or discomfort during or after intercourse or sexual activity.
"Keeping the pelvic floor at optimum function may help improve comfort during sex and also improve the ability to orgasm," Hoover added.
Kegels are one key exercise that can help improve pelvic floor muscle function, but you can work with a physical therapist who specializes in women's health to learn how to engage the pelvic floor muscles during other exercises.
In addition to the types of training you focus on as you enter your 50s, it's important to remember to treat your body kindly and approach fitness from a "whole health" standpoint. This means prioritizing nutrition, mindfulness and sleep as well.
"Gone are the days when we could do whatever we want and still feel fine and function well," Endres said. "To improve and maintain health, we have to maintain a regular exercise routine, eat healthy foods and stay away from overeating unhealthy foods. Also, practice other health-supporting habits like drinking plenty of water, getting quality sleep, stretching and getting time away from stress and work."