En español | While some folks were able to get outside, the pandemic stopped most of us in our tracks. A study of global fitness apps found that step counts dropped by 27 percent the first month after lockdown. Now's the time to reboot. “The 50-something body can decline quickly without exercise,” says Robert Linkul, a trainer in Sacramento, California.
This is critical for older adults, too, especially those over 70. Once you hit your eighth decade, your body becomes more vulnerable to accelerated muscle (sarcopenia) and strength loss (dynapenia). That's the road to frailty and possible falls.
"We see 3 to 8 percent loss of muscle mass every decade starting at 30, but after your 60s it can go to 10 percent or more,” says Linkul. Research has shown people in their 70s having lost as much as half their skeletal muscle mass. Dynapenia is just as damaging — and common. One study of 534 people with an average age of 74 found significant grip strength loss in 71 percent of participants.
The Key Question
Can I walk as far, lift as much or move as loosely as I could a year ago?
If you spent the pandemic on your butt — or only, say, taking the occasional walk — Linkul suggests checking your physical function in two key spots: shoulders and hips. “Sedentary lifestyles raise your risk of developing frozen shoulder,” he says. “This will happen from simply not putting your arms over your head. And most lower-back pain and mobility issues can be traced to the hips."
Test Yourself: Shoulder and hip check
First, stand with feet shoulder-width apart and arms at your sides. Raise your arms slowly until they are straight up overhead as high as you can reach. Hold them up for three seconds, then bring them back down. Repeat this two more times.
What to look for:
"A spotter can help look at your posture and alignment, which should be straight up and down,” Linkul says. “If you come up 10 percent or more short of your arms being fully vertical, you've got shoulder mobility issues."
For hips, try a basic test for everyday tasks — the “proper pickup.” It is one of the most basic movements, but if you have hip and back issues, it reveals weaknesses. Stand straight with feet shoulder-width apart and an object like a towel or a pair of shoes on the floor in front of you. Keeping your back straight, squat and pick up the object and return to the starting position. This will also tax your knees.
"I look to see if someone can squat deep enough to pick up things off the floor without rounding their back, which is pretty uncommon as we age over 50,” he says. “The back rounding happens because the hips lack mobility.” If you are capable of getting pretty low and comfortable with good form, Linkul suggests doing the same test with weight, such as a bucket of water.
Test Yourself: Movement test
Those 60 and over may also want to test their movement. You'll need a 10-foot stretch of floor. Place a chair at one end and a cone or other marking device 10 feet away from it. Sit relaxed in the chair. Then, in a controlled manner, rise from the chair, walk briskly to the cone (no running), circle it clockwise, return to the chair, and sit back down. Without pausing, rise from the chair, walk to the cone, and circle it counterclockwise, then return to the chair and sit. “Twenty seconds or less to do this is ideal,” says Linkul.
Set goals for yourself
- Try to take 7,500 steps a day (about 3.75 miles).
- Resistance training twice a week. Here is a simple routine that will hit just about every muscle group. Perform three sets of five to 10 repetitions of each:
Stand with your hands at your sides, feet shoulder-width apart. Keeping your back and legs straight, bend at the waist until you feel a tug in your hamstrings. Return to start. The key is not to round your back. (Or try any exercise in which you bend at the hip.)
Hold a dumbbell in your right hand. Stand next to a bench and place your left knee and lower leg on the bench while bending at the waist and placing your left palm on the bench for support. Keeping your back straight while bent over, pull the weight up to chest level, hold for a moment and lower the weight. Focus on engaging your back and shoulder, not your arms. (Or try any exercise in which you pull weight toward you.)
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart while holding light dumbbells at shoulder level. Lift the weights over your head as high as you can. Hold for a moment and return to starting position. (Or try any exercise in which you press a weight upward.)
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Step forward and lower your body until your front and back knees are bent nearly 90 degrees — without your back knee touching the ground. Pause, then return to the starting position. Repeat but with a backward step. Do an equal number of lunges with each leg. (Or try any leg exercise in which you split your feet, with one forward and one back.)
Stand straight with a heavy weight in each hand (full buckets of water can sub in for dumbbells here). Keeping your arms and back straight, walk 20 paces, then return. Consider that one full set. (Or try any exercise in which you carry a heavy weight.)
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Your Fast Rebuilding Plan
It doesn't take much work to generate measurable health benefits early on. A recent small study had participants interrupt a normally sedentary eight-hour period with four-second bursts of high-intensity stationary cycling five times an hour over a workday (2 minutes 40 seconds of exercise total) and found that fat oxidation benefits lasted into the following day. This example is extreme, but other research has shown that as little as 10 minutes a day of exercise has benefits.
Always value perfect form over the number of repetitions
"Technique becomes more vital the older we get, because if we get out of alignment, it can quickly cause major damage,” Linkul says. A fitness pro who specializes in training an older clientele can help not just with great form but also with understanding how much to expect from your body at your current fitness level — even if you do only a few sessions to learn the basics or to relearn them if you've been away from the gym for a year.