Beyond helping you maintain or lose weight, physical activity boosts your energy, increases your focus, helps you sleep, improves your body composition and metabolism, and can help prevent heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and cancer. If you could get all of that in a pill, it would be a wonder drug!

While there’s no magic capsule to offer those benefits, planning to incorporate physical activity into your daily routine throughout your life can go a long way toward offering a powerful dose of wellbeing and longevity. Intentional steps toward maintaining physical activity will help you move and thrive no matter your age or stage in life.

Whether you’re engaged in regular movement now or you’re just now ready to commit to a plan that will keep you engaged for the long-term, understanding age-specific benefits and existing general guidelines around physical activity for your current stage of life will help you seize the opportunity to move today and keep a consistent routine for the future.

Exercise, Physical Activity, or Fitness? Consistent Movement is the Key

If the goal is to keep moving throughout life to benefit overall health and wellbeing, you might wonder if you are looking to “exercise,” maintain “physical activity,” or achieve “fitness”?

Each of the three terms has a slightly different definition. Physical activity is “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure,” encompassing everything from sports conditioning to household chores; exercise is a “subset of physical activity that is planned, structured, and repetitive and has as a final or an intermediate objective the improvement or maintenance of physical fitness;” and, physical fitness is “a set of attributes that are either health- or skill-related,” but “can be measured with specific tests.”1

Kerri Dorn, a Certified Personal Trainer, Pilates instructor, and coach since 2010, teaches and supports clients’ wellbeing at Studio4 Pilates in Half Moon Bay, California. Kerri says that she uses all three terms in her work with clients, depending on goals and training scenarios, but in her view encouraging “physical activity” is the key for long-term habits.

“I find people are more consistent if they focus on getting physical activity in their daily lives, which can include stretching, mobility training, walking, fitness, exercise classes, athletic endeavors, and more.” The broad tent of physical activity helps orient us toward integrating movement rather than focusing on a rigid prescription. She notes, “I want people be successful and improve their overall quality of life, so general terms like ‘movement’ or ‘physical activity’ are helpful in changing mindset and working toward progress.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines call for consistent physical activity for adults, with a specific recommendation of at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity activity, such as brisk walking, and at least two days a week of activities that strengthen muscles.2 For adults 65 and older, the recommendation includes the addition of balance exercise.

While this baseline can provide a good foundation, understanding specific considerations related to how the body ages and the benefits of different types of movement throughout life can help you expand your view and inspire motivation to keep moving and keep thriving. Here, Kerri offers tips and guidelines to consider as you age to help establish a pattern and plan for lifelong physical activity.

Twenties

If you’ve entered into your twenties with an established pattern of physical activity, you’re ahead of the game. If not, now is the time to explore different types of movement and exercise options and integrate physical activity into your life. Kerri notes that “staying active and establishing healthy habits now will provide the foundation for lifelong movement.”

One route to developing a routine around physical activity, Kerri says, is to “seek out hobbies that can help you stay active and connect with others.” Consider joining a recreational soccer league or a hiking group, getting out on the water in a kayak, canoe, or SUP, or checking out your local climbing gym. The options are endless, and the opportunity to build fitness and friendships makes this a great time to open your mind to new options for physical activity.

Another key reason to make movement a habit? The mental health benefits. Exercise can help boost your mood and combat depression and anxiety, making this healthy habit one to hone early in life and maintain for the long-term.

Thirties

The pace of life—and aging—can ramp up in this decade of life. Time spent exploring hobbies and forming habits around physical activity in your twenties will serve you well in your thirties. And, if you’re still looking to create healthy patterns, this is the time to kick that plan into gear to maintain strength, mobility, and cardiovascular health.

“We lose muscle as we age, so starting a regular strength training routine is key at this age if you haven’t yet committed,” Kerri says. “Strong bones and strong muscles should be one of the main goals at this stage and beyond.” If you’re new to strength training, she adds, “be sure learn form and technique with someone qualified to help you.”

If you already have a weight training routine established—or if you’re starting with scratch when it comes to strength—consider the benefits of integrating functional training at this stage. “Functional movement or functional strength training can be a very effective way of training, as the focus is strength and movement to support you in your everyday life or athletic endeavors,” Kerri says.

Learning how your muscles and skeleton function to support you in your daily life can also help motivate you to keep building strength. “It is less intimidating to lift weights and move when you can understand the functional value of the exercise you’re engaged in—how it might improve your ability to push, pull, bend, reach, squat, lunge, or hinge, for example,” she adds.

It’s also key to include weight-bearing activities, in which you stand upright and work against gravity, into your routine in this decade to combat bone loss that occurs as we age. Options for weight-bearing activities run broad and deep and include everything from brisk walking to tennis to yoga to hiking, dancing, or golf. Whether you prefer high-impact, low-impact, an inside class or an outdoor trek, there are plenty of choices for weight-bearing exercise.

For many women, this decade can be defined by childbearing and raising young children, which can challenge the routines and habits formed in our twenties—or that we’re trying to start. Kerri recommends fitting in movement when and where you can to accommodate a busy or erratic schedule. Remember that even short periods of movement are effective, and you don’t need a gym to workout. “Find ways to exercise at home or during your kids’ activities,” she says, “try body-weight exercises during nap time, play on the playground, jog or walk while kids ride their bikes, or find other ways to move throughout your day.”

If time at the gym isn’t a reality, consider investing in simple fitness equipment to have at home. Basic items like a stability ball, a mat, hand weights, and resistance bands, can help add variety to at-home workouts, Kerris says. The key: “keep in your living room or in an area where you spend a lot of time—and use them!”

Forties

In this decade, strength training and weight bearing activities remain essential, as muscle mass and bone mass decline. Weight gain can creep in this decade, as metabolism slows and hormone levels drop, so regular activity is increasingly important.

If you’re already engaged in cardio and strength activities, keep those routines steady, and be sure to add stretching and balance training to your regular plan. “Stretching and mobility training is key for preventing injuries and getting more out of your movements at this stage,” Kerri says.

“If you can move through full ranges of motion, you can train harder and more efficiently,” she adds. Yoga and Pilates can enhance flexibility and strength, and both can also help improve balance, key to avoiding falls as we age.

It’s common to begin to experience some joint paint in our forties, but don’t let that keep you from routine movement. Low-impact aerobic activities like swimming and biking can be great options—and offer opportunity for high-intensity and more moderate exercise—and if you integrate yoga or other low-impact weight-bearing exercise into your plan, you’ll be checking all the right boxes.

A focus on pelvic floor strength can also benefit women in this decade. Pelvic floor muscles support the rectum, vagina, and urethra in the pelvis, and strengthening these muscles through Kegel and core exercises can help combat common issues like bladder leakage and hemorrhoids. “Training the intrinsic core muscles can help with pelvic floor issues and is important as we age,” Kerri notes, “and exercises that help strengthen pelvic floor will also aid in injury prevention.”

Fifties

This decade can offer a welcome opportunity to reboot your fitness routine and focus on the long game of strength, mobility, and cardio health. “Your fifties are a great time to pick up a new hobby that includes physical activity,” Kerri says. “Seek out opportunities to connect with others to stay consistent and continue to challenge yourself.”

Whether you’re moving outside or at the gym, Kerri recommends continuing to strength train two-to-three times a week. If you haven’t been strength training to this point, she says, it’s never too late to start. “Strength training is vital to counter the bone loss that occurs in this decade, and maintaining strong muscles improves your metabolism, so it should be a priority every week.”

Strength training also plays a key role in maintaining balance. “If you don't have strong muscles in your lower leg complex, it is hard to walk with proper gait. When this happens, you can begin to shuffle, which increases the risk of a fall.”

Whether related to strength, balance, or mobility, it can be helpful to set goals to keep you moving forward at this point. “A goal can give you something to work toward, look forward to, and see progress, which is always exciting,” Kerri says.

Sixties and Beyond

“Mobility training and strength training should be the focus in this stage,” Kerri says. Activities that incorporate both, like yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi, can offer the physical benefit and the added bonus of stress reduction, she adds.

As you hone balance, Kerri recommends incorporating weight shifts from one foot to another (Tai Chi can be good for this) and practicing standing on one leg. All this work toward balance will continue to play a central role in “longevity, injury prevention, and confidence in your day-to-day life,” Kerri says.

Injury prevention is a key goal at this stage and in the decades ahead to maintain quality of life and independence. Mobility is central to avoiding injury, Kerri notes, and a focus on ankles, hips, and shoulders, as well as the spine, is key.

Stick with routines you’ve established that include weight-bearing activities as well, like hiking, walking, racquet sports, or dancing. And keep in mind the importance of integrating recovery time after more extensive or intensive activities. “Recovery, including hydration, healthy meals, and good sleep, is necessary to help with fitness goals,” Kerri says. “Taking days off to recover will allow you to get more out of your next activity and daily life.”

As you look ahead to years of moving and thriving, keep in mind that continuing to integrate regular physical activity not only benefits your physical and cognitive health but provides opportunity to connect with others. Don’t miss the opportunity to build bonds with friends who will keep you motivated to get out and enjoy the movement you’ve been working hard to maintain.

Make a Realistic Plan and Stick with It

No matter your age or stage in life, it can be helpful to set a plan in motion or aim for specific goals to maintain motivation for regular physical activity. If you find yourself intimidated by guidelines that seem out of reach, take a step back and think outside the box. If the discomfort of making a change is too great, you won’t make the effort. Instead, create realistic goals for yourself—goals that you will be sure to meet and that you may even be tempted to exceed.

Rethink Your Goals and Create a Personalized Plan

To get started with your own customized plan, ask yourself this question: What is the least amount of exercise I could do most days joyfully and consistently? Yes, you read that right: do the least amount of exercise—so long as you do so joyfully and consistently. In fact, I recommend lowering the bar so low that the temptation to step right over it is irresistible.

The key to finding physical activity that you’ll do joyfully and consistently is to evaluate your fitness level and your time constraints within the context of your lifestyle. To get a good picture of a plan that will take each of these factors into account, try using what is known as the FITT (frequency, intensity, time, and type) formula:

Frequency. Exercise recommendations vary depending on the source, the purpose, and the type of exercise. Personally, I prefer “most days of the week.” That may be four, five, six, or even seven days, depending on the week. If three days have gone by without any exercise, I know I need to fit it in every day for the rest of that week. When my schedule is less busy and more flexible, I enjoy hiking or yoga every day of the week.

Intensity. Your intensity will be determined by your current activity and fitness level. Keep in mind that you are setting small, irresistible goals. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Walk for five minutes on your breaks at work.
  • Take a flight or two of stairs (even if you need to take the elevator up the rest of the way).
  • March in place during the commercials of one 30-minute television show.
  • Walk around the soccer field during your child’s practice.
  • Increase the incline on your treadmill by three percent.
  • Add weight training to your cardio workout twice a week.
  • Dance in your living room nightly.

Now look over your FITT prescription. How does it make you feel? Optimistic and excited? If not, revisit the questions above and think about what will truly bring joy and consistency to your exercise plan.

Type. Another important way to overcome the discomfort of change is to discover which activities you find pleasurable. This is where the “joyful” part comes in. If you’ve struggled with exercising consistently in the past, you may have been trying to do things that just didn’t fit your personality, preferences, or values. Here are some questions to guide a brainstorming session to decide which types of activities you are likely to enjoy:

  • Are you most comfortable outside, in a gym environment, or at home exercising to videos?
  • Do you like to take classes with other people, participate in team sports, or walk by yourself?
  • Are you competitive? Creative? Outdoorsy?
  • Do you like gadgets, numbers, music, or other distractions?
  • How much accountability do you need, and would you get that from walking with a friend, working out with a personal trainer, or committing to a 5K fundraising event?
  • What are your values? If you want to spend more time with your partner, how could you plan time to exercise together? If you want to teach your children to make healthy choices, what activities could you do as a family?
  • Do you value the spiritual connection that you might find through activities like yoga, hiking, or meditative walking?
  • What activities did you enjoy doing in the past—bicycling, swimming, racquetball?
  • What have you always wanted to learn—tennis, ballroom dancing, tai chi? What else appeals to you?

Time. When is your energy at its peak? When do you have the most control over your schedule? Could you add a few minutes to what you are already doing? Would you be better off breaking your exercise into multiple short bouts due to your schedule or fitness level? How much flexibility do you need to have to fit physical activity into your family obligations, work, and travel schedule? Again, set the bar low and raise it gradually as your body and schedule adjust.

Small, Manageable Changes

Remember, fitness is not a one-size-fits-all prescription; for many women the best exercise plan is the one that you create yourself to fit your lifestyle. If you’re still concerned that you’re not doing enough, keep in mind that the important thing is to set accessible goals and, when possible, step beyond them. By setting a small, specific, manageable goal, you’ll take the next step toward becoming the active, energetic person you want to be.

References

1. Caspersen CJ, Powell KE, Christenson GM. Physical activity, exercise, and physical fitness: definitions and distinctions for health-related research. Public Health Rep. 1985;100(2):126-131.

2. Physical Activity Recommendations for Different Age Groups. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/age-chart.html. Accessed May 28, 2021.