Exercise is an important foundational pillar to your overall health and wellness. You enjoy numerous positive effects when you integrate an exercise program into your daily routine. Multiple studies demonstrate benefits, including improved sleep, weight management and immune function.
An exercise program may also reduce your risk for heart disease and diabetes, and may improve your cognitive function, especially as you age. Starting a program may sometimes be challenging, especially if you haven’t included exercise in your health regimen before.
I used to be a former sub three-hour marathon runner. Back then, I, along with many others, believed that completing a marathon is the epitome of health. What I didn’t know is that I was committing a major exercise mistake — one that could severely damage my health. Excessive cardio training may actually increase your cardiac risk, as your heart muscle is not designed for hours of stress. While long-distance running may damage your heart, 30 minutes several times a week may be a desired addition to your routine.
If you’re over 40 and thinking about adding running to your exercise program there are several considerations and unique challenges to address as you begin this journey.
Pros and Cons to Running
People of all ages may take up running as it’s a relatively easy to learn, takes minimal equipment and may be done both indoors and outdoors. Running is an intense form of exercise that may produce endorphins, often described as a runner’s high or “energy-buzz.”
When started slowly and carefully, running can provide you with another cardiovascular exercise to add to your weekly routine in order to reduce boredom practicing one sport and add variety to your muscle development. As it is an individual sport you may set your own goals and challenges to meet.
Running also boosts your intrinsic motivation to continue exercise as you may feel more energized and in a good mood for several hours after your run. However, while there are many pros to adding a few runs to your weekly routine, consider the challenges and make plans to adjust accordingly.
It’s important to listen to your body during and after your runs. The adage “no pain, no gain” does not mean you should feel pain in specific joints or muscles. If you experience pain, it’s important you stop running and address the issue before it becomes a serious injury.
Running is prone to becoming addictive as the stressful nature of the sport increases your endorphin production.5 Guard against running becoming a compulsive part of your exercise routine, as this behavior may cause you to overlook a burgeoning injury until it sidelines you for months.
It is important to purchase a good pair of running shoes that provide you with support. Even though they may look relatively unused, most running shoes don’t last longer than six months before the internal support breaks down. It’s important to replace them or you increase your risk of injury.
Should You Walk or Run?
If you’ve never run before or haven’t exercised in years, you’ll want to start your running journey by walking briskly. Once you’ve started a routine of walking at a moderate intensity daily, you may find it meets your needs. You may also enjoy a few significant benefits. Recent research from the British Journal of Sports Medicine once again demonstrates the benefits of a moderate intensity walking program, finding it may reduce symptoms of cognitive impairment related to poor blood vessel health in the brain.
The team of researchers evaluated cognitive functioning of people with vascular dementia who were asked to walk three hours a week for six months. They found the participants had improved reaction times and other signs of improved cognitive functioning after the intervention.
Emerging evidence suggests that a combination of inactivity during the day with a burst of exercise for 30 minutes to an hour may be as detrimental to your health as being inactive all day. You can’t offset 10 hours of inactivity with one hour of exercise as your body was built for near-continuous movement.
Starting Over 40 May Present Unique Challenges
There are inescapable changes that happen to your body as you age, but these shouldn’t stop you from taking up a new sport. Dr. Jeffrey Zilberfarb, orthopedic surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and New England Baptist Hospital, said:
“We never lose the ability to train and to get stronger. Anyone can get into shape, assuming your heart and your lungs are good. You can always do something.”
At some time near your 30th birthday your body begins to lose 1 percent of muscle mass each year. While exercise may help slow the process of muscle loss, it can’t completely stem the slide. However, it may make the difference between still jogging in your 70s or not being able to get out of a chair.
With age also comes a loss of collagen in your joints, tendons and ligaments that may make them less flexible and more prone to a tear. Your spinal discs get just a bit more brittle, your metabolism slows and your bones are more prone to breaking. In other words, your body has aged.
You might expect that getting into shape with these challenges means you’ll experience greater discomfort; however, using the strategies outlined below should help. If the process is worse than expected, you may have started or advanced your program too quickly. Gordon Bakoulis, certified running trainer and qualifying Olympic marathoner, says this about feeling like the program is worse than you expected — one of the signs of starting too quickly when you’re over 40:
“That’s a sign you may be trying to ramp up too quickly. It’s always better to start more conservatively. You don’t want to dread running or have it feel onerous.”
Challenges Women Over 40 Face Starting a New Exercise Program
Women face additional challenges as they reach and surpass age 40. Many women have regular periods until their mid-40s, when menopause begins to change the hormonal balance, muscle development and mood. Lower motivational levels, sadness, depression and anxiety may all reduce your desire to be consistent in a program, and impede your progress. However, exercise may have a profound effect on these menopausal symptoms, and is often recommended to help you through this time.
You may experience general aches and pains that may exacerbate repetitive stress disorders, such as plantar fasciitis, lower back pain and tennis elbow.
Midlife may also be a stressful time in life as questions about past choices rise and options for future choices may shrink. Juggling the responsibilities of aging parents, growing children and careers may lead to poor nutritional choices that eventually impact any exercise program you choose.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Sticking to a reasonable running routine may help you reduce these effects of aging when you approach the process gradually and cautiously. This means you don’t jump right in. If you aren’t sure if you’re going too fast, or doing too much too soon, use the “talk test” to gauge your effort.
To do the “talk test” you should be able to talk comfortably without gasping for breath while you’re exercising. If you can only get out one or two words at a time, then you’re moving too quickly. It’s time to turn down the speed until you are moving comfortably. As you continue to walk and run, your ability to talk while going faster will improve. This is a test you may use while you are walking briskly, jogging or running. Unless you’re racing and in an all-out sprint, the “talk test” will help you assess your effort.
Remember your goal is to improve your exercise efforts, so slow and steady will win this race. Your aim is to add a moderate amount of stress on your joints, heart and lungs to help them improve, not to add enough stress to trigger an injury.
Age also reduces leg strength, aerobic capacity and stride length. Starting slowly and staying persistent will help you overcome these challenges, and help your body accommodate and improve over time. Multiple studies have demonstrated that running doesn’t cause osteoarthritis. However, if you are using poor biomechanics or if you have already developed some degenerative cartilage disease, it may be wise to continue to walk briskly and give up running.
Rules of the Road
If this is your first foray into jogging and running, there are a few simple strategies that may help reduce your risk of injury and enjoy the sport even more.
• Warm up and stretch
Like with any other sport it’s important to warm up before you start, and incorporate post-workout recovery and stretching when you return. Flexible muscles help keep you running biomechanically correct and reduce your risk of injury.
• Watch your stride
You may think correctly walking and running would be natural. After all, you’ve been walking and running since you were 2 years old, or younger. But, over the years you’ve likely developed a few bad habits. The following video will help you correct mistakes and reduce your risk of repetitive injury.
• Don’t buy the bling
Although fancy fitness trackers are fun, if you can’t afford one, then you don’t need one. Prioritize where you spend your money. Instead of a high priced fitness watch, consider supportive running shoes, a supportive bra for women and a lower cost fitness tracker, or forgo the tracker altogether.
• Rules of the road
Be aware of traffic and vary your route. While it is important to stick to the left side of the road, this places your left leg lower than your right with each stride as the road is slanted for rain runoff, which increases your risk of injury. Instead, seek out low traffic neighborhoods so you can run in the center of the road, or along the sidewalk.
• Keep your eyes on the prize
Forget about comparing yourself to other runners. It’s not productive as there will always be people who are better than you. It’s natural for some of your excitement about a new sport to dim, so keep your eyes on why you are walking and running, as well as how you feel when you’re done with your workout — it’ll keep you motivated.
From Starting to Jogging For 30 Minutes in Just 8 Weeks
It’s often easier to follow a program to reach your goal. This is a simple and progressive program that starts with you walking and results in an easy 2-mile run in 30 minutes at the end of the program. It’s perfect for the first time runner over 40. Remember to check with your physician if you have any underlying medical condition, are unaccustomed to exercise or are more than 20 pounds overweight.
Schedule your workouts in the same way you would schedule a meeting, and then keep it. The first days will be the most difficult, getting easier as you move forward. Expect that you’ll have some bad days — everyone has them and the following workouts are often better than the rest.
The following is a sample schedule based on one published in Runner’s World that you may consider. It is fine to extend this schedule to help you reach your goal, but avoid the temptation to shorten the schedule. Remember to incorporate at least one day of rest each week and include some strength training on the light days.