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Don’t Workout Like You’re in Your 20s — ‘Cause You’re Not

Everything you learned about fitness has been wrong, our body expert says

strong female swimmer

Swimming builds strength and muscle — at any age. — Getty Images

“I’m a radical, honey.”

That’s what Yamuna Zake tells me within just a few minutes of meeting her. It’s definitely hard to argue with her. The longtime teacher of “body sustainability” might very well be the most radical health icon in the country today.

At 60-plus, she looks as fit as someone half her age . Did it involve thousands of crunches endured over several decades? Zake laughs when I suggest this. “Crunches are the most illogical exercise ever,” she says. “It’s just about shortening the space between your rib cage and hips. You’re basically suffocating your vital organs.” So how’d she pull it off? By doing everything the rest of us have been dismissing as unimportant for most of our lives.

We sat down with Zake to ask her questions and talk about health-related mistakes we’ve been making — not just in our 50s and 60s, but also in our 30s and 40s, when most of us feel invincible.

Think Longevity — and Straighten Up!

How do we live longer — and better?
It’s about how those two things work together: longer and better. Why live longer if you’re walking around with hip and knee replacements? That’s no quality of life. Everybody’s worrying about their diets, and they’re not worrying about their structures.

What do you mean by structure?
Posture! If you’ve had poor posture and poor alignment, you’re not going to age well, because you’re not going to be able to move.

So how do we get better structure? Is it just about exercising more?
Just the opposite. You don’t have to push your body. That’s the great American lie. Do you want to be a type A personality pushing themselves to be super fit, have an amazing career and make a gazillion dollars? That’ll work for a while. But you’ll burn out eventually.


The feet — the foundation to your health (and longevity). — Istock

The 30s and 40s — Look at Your Feet!

I’m between 30 and 40 and want to look and feel better. What should I be doing?
You should be focusing on your feet.

Feet? That’s it?

The No. 1 repetitive stress problem in the body is the feet. That’s where all your weight bears down on. Seventy-five percent of the population in the Western Hemisphere will have foot problems at some point in their life.

If you don’t have a clue how to have healthier feet, where do you start?
It’s about waking up the muscles and bones in the feet and distributing the weight equally. Most of us stand with all of our weight on the outside of the foot. Practice placing your weight on different parts of the foot, slowly shifting from the outside edge to the base of the toes to the heel and ball. It’s like giving your foot a deep-tissue massage.

A hard sell for people in their 30s, especially if they don’t have any foot pain yet.
Yet! At 30, if you actually take the time to train your feet, you won’t have any problems when you get to 50, 60, 70. What were all the boomers doing 30 years ago? They were jogging and hiking, and so many are struggling with their knees today. They’ve had hip replacements and surgeries that were just unnecessary — because they didn’t watch their feet.

50s, 60s and Beyond — Breathe, Baby!

What about when we get to 50, 60 and beyond. What should they be doing?
As I got into my 60s, I asked myself, “What is the most important thing for longevity at 60?” It’s not running marathons. It’s not racewalking to break a sweat. I started a very rigorous breathing program. I breathe for an hour every morning.

Um, don’t we all do that? I’m pretty sure I am breathing right now.
Please — you know how people talk about breathing abdominally? Inhale, your belly goes out, exhale and it goes in. But where are your lungs? Your lungs aren’t down there. The majority of people never use their lungs when they breathe.

Think about the 60-something man with the chest dropped and the belly out so he looks eight months pregnant. He can’t breathe because his whole rib cage is crushing down. The lungs aren’t functioning, because at this point the rib cage is calcified. If you expand the lungs, you expand the rib cage. There’s no more pressure on the digestive tract, so it starts to function again. And then the swelling in the belly can go down.

Then how should we be breathing?
When you take a breath, it should expand your entire torso, not just your belly. Concentrate on feeling your breath from your tailbone to the top of your head. You have to think of breathing as a whole body activity, not just something that happens in one specific area.

And that counts as exercise?
It’s better for your longevity than running in a marathon.

This goes against conventional wisdom. People still think they’re not doing anything worthwhile unless they’re breaking a sweat.
It’s not that simple. It’s not about pushing yourself farther and farther. Pay attention to your feet when you’re in your 30s. Pay attention to your breathing when you’re in your 50s. And pay attention to your alignment — always. When people stop exercising the way they’ve always been told they’re supposed to exercise, they realize, “Hey, I’m standing better, I’m walking better, my digestion is better. I think I’ll keep doing this.”

Eric Spitznagel is a writer for magazines and is the author of seven books, including his latest, 'Old Records Never Die.'