Woman running up stairs for exercise

Exercises To Avoid In Middle Age (And What You Should Actually Focus On)

What exercises should you avoid? The Short Answer: None of them.

Ok, like everything in health care, that comes with caveats and exceptions that depend on your personal situation. But broadly speaking, exercise is GOOD for you – no matter your age!

Prompted by a facebook post I saw, I did a quick Google of “should exercise hurt after 40” (what the post itself specifically referred to). I was surprised and disappointed with the search results…

Squats – bad.

Running – bad. (Especially sprinting.)

Overhead shoulder pressing – bad.

Jumping, hopping, and plyometric exercise – bad.

Heavy weights – bad.

This list goes on and on. While there were a few exercises included that I do actually agree with (crunches and behind-the-neck lat pulldowns), that’s true for any age group, not just middle age or older.

In the sample of article I looked at, the rationale behind the exercises “to avoid” is that you might hurt yourself. This is a valid concern. However, these articles vastly over emphasize the risk of injury associated with the listed exercises. In fact, at times the suggestions are exactly the opposite of the recommendations made by numerous exercise science associations like the ACSM in the US, ESSA here in Australia, or BASES in the UK – just to name a few.

Some of the most common exercises recommended to avoid, once in middle age and beyond:

 

Man in blue shirt doing box jump in gym

Plyometrics

Rationale behind avoiding this: Plyometrics are power-based exercises based on jumping, hopping, or throwing, all of which involve explosive power, high force production, and have the potential to be very high impact. It’s suggested that high impact could be damaging to your joints, especially if you don’t have a lot of muscle or strength, or are otherwise not used to training. Muscle mass and strength act as the joints shock absorbers and help the body absorb force, spreading it through the limbs and not just pounding it into the joints.

What’s the actual risk? It depends on how high or far you’re jumping or hopping, or otherwise how much “oomph” you’re putting into the exercise. Higher, farther, or faster requires more force, which in turn can lead to higher impact. Remember that impact itself is not a bad thing – higher levels of impact are in part what helps maintain and prevent loss of bone density.

How to do this – safely! Even though plyometrics are high intensity and high impact, they can be done safely with the right prep:

Warm up well with some lower intensity movement (could be on a bike or treadmill, or some easy strength work like body weight squats) so the muscles are best prepared to produce and absorb force.

If you’re new to plyometrics, you’ll still be able to safely do small movements like hopping from one foot to the other, or jumping up onto a small/short box, or jumping over a line drawn on the ground (think of playing hopscotch). Smaller movements help the muscles get better at the quick contractions needed for force production, while conditioning the joints and bones to better withstand impact. As you get stronger and feel better, you can work on going higher or farther.

Lastly, work on controlling the moment of impact – when you land, you’ll want to squat slightly once you make contact with the ground. This “sinking in” is what helps the body absorb and spread force, and is really the key to injury prevention with plyometrics – for any age.

Why you should do this kind of exercise: Developing muscular power helps maintain muscle mass, which naturally decreases with age (starting around the age of 30!). More importantly, plyometric exercise helps the nervous system stay sharp, maintaining agility and keeping your reflexes and reaction times quick. This becomes increasingly important with advancing age – good agility and fast reflexes make it easier to catch yourself if you trip or fall, significantly decreasing your injury risk.

 

Man loading bumper plate weight onto barbell in gym

Heavy Weights

Rationale behind avoiding this: Lifting heavy weights can create muscle strain and joint stress – presumably, anyway. Some of the articles I reviewed don’t even discuss why lifting heavy weights might be bad for you.

What’s the actual risk? The risk of lifting heavy weight is the potential for “too much (stress on your muscles/joints), too soon”. Your muscles and joints can be conditioned for heavy weight, but picking up something really heavy without preparing your body for it does create higher injury risk.

How to do this – safely! Heavy is all relative. In strength training terms, “heavy” usually refers to a weight you can lift five or six times, but not more (and sometimes fewer). For each person, and for each exercise, that weight will be different. What’s “heavy” to you might not be heavy to the person next to you.

For functional strength, a “heavy weights” workout means choosing a weight that you can lift 4-6 times in a set, and still feel like you could have done one or two reps more. As you get stronger, you’ll be able to increase that weight for the same number of reps. If you’re a strength-training beginner, you may want to take a few weeks or even a couple of months doing higher rep sets (i.e. 8-10 reps per set) to help condition your muscles and joints to handle the load.

Also important when lifting heavy weights: Warming up, in this case with trigger pointing or foam rolling, dynamic stretching (stretching with movement), and light weight sets of your chosen exercise(s). This helps prepare your muscles and joints for the heavier sets to come.

Why you should do this kind of exercise: Loss of strength is one of the major factors that limits quality of life and your ability to keep up with it. Heavier weight lifting helps you maintain strength as well as muscle mass. If you lift weights without challenging yourself, you miss out on the opportunity to keep yourself strong and capable.

 

Group of people getting ready to race on an outdoor track

Sprinting and High Intensity Cardio

Rationale behind avoiding this: Naysayers will tell you that sprinting, jumping jacks, and other high intensity and high impact cardio can cause joint damage and put your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and other soft tissues at risk for injury. As with heavy weights, this is said to be due to the powerful muscle contractions that create high intensity movement, as well as higher impact loads on the joints.

What’s the actual risk? Way lower than you think. Consider this: A study of 3000 masters athletes with an average age of 53 years, encompassing a wide range of track and field events, found that less than 2.5% of people presented with injuries related to high intensity efforts. That doesn’t automatically mean that you are free and clear to go as hard as you like. After all, this group was studied during competition, meaning that they had been in training for these types of efforts. But it also shows that you can safely train and compete with high effort.

How to do this – safely! Again, as with heavy weights, effort and intensity is all relative. One of the best ways to track your workout intensity is a 0-10 scale of effort (in exercise science, we talk about this as a Rating of Perceived Exertion, or RPE). If you aren’t used to high intensity exercise, ease into this sort of training with just a few short efforts (periods of time, i.e. 10 seconds). You might try include 10-20 seconds of faster walking, running, cycling, or whatever cardio you are doing, at a faster speed or higher intensity, so that you are feeling like it’s a 6 or 7 out of 10 effort. Make sure that you are well warmed up with the right sort of stretches and DIY massage for the muscles you’ll be using. Bonus: If you are planning on getting into high intensity exercise, treat yourself to a remedial or deep tissue massage to get your body better prepared.

Why you should do this kind of exercise: High intensity exercises are great bang for your buck.

You can burn the same amount of calories as a low intensity working in a much shorter time frame, which is great when you have a lot of other things in life going on and struggle to fit workouts in.

High intensity means higher heart rates during the workout as well. In turn, this leads to a phenomenon called Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption, or EPOC. Basically, when your body is working super hard, it’s using up a lot of stored fuel in the form of glycogen (what carbohydrates are broken down into) and fat molecules. After a workout, your body will still be working hard – to replenish those fuel sources, so you’ll still be burning calories after your workout. The harder the work, the more you’ll burn afterwards.

You’ll do your bones a favor: High intensity exercise (either moderate to heavy weights, or higher impact exercises like sprinting, jumping, or plyometrics) will stimulate your bone to grow stronger, or at the very least limit bone loss. This is especially important if your calcium or vitamin D levels are low (both of these are necessary for good bone density), or if you have or are at risk of osteopenia or osteoporosis.

 

The Bottom Line

Any exercise can be bad for you, or have high risk of injury, depending on your personal circumstances. However, most exercises can also be safe for you, provided you use some common sense with your approach. Your rules of thumb:

  • Keep it pain free
  • Good joint alignment makes for good exercise technique
  • “Challenging” doesn’t mean “On the verge of passing out” – For weights, this means getting to the end of a set and thinking you could have done just one or two more with good technique.
  • Pay attention to your body – Difference between hard work and injury
  • Don’t slam yourself around – Whether you’re doing jumping, hopping, or other plyometric exercises, climbing up the stairs, or using a weight machine, control is the name of the game. If you can hear a thud when you make contact, try to slow down the movement slightly.

Use common sense and listen to your body, and you can have a lifetime of good workout and good health ahead of you, no matter what age you start.

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Photo credits: Flickr and USAF