Fitness Makeover: Maintaining fitness into middle age

Februarys Fitness Makeover will focus on Sallie Scovill, a 40-year old woman who has been active with various training routines for the last 15 years of her life.

She was selected this month because several of the letters that came in were from readers who were in the same boat. Fit, healthy, but beginning to feel the inevitable effects of encroaching middle age, these readers are looking to stay in shape without succumbing to injury or discouragement.

Sallie herself has been subject to multiple injuries, including constant back pain. With three years of continuous "rebuilding" programs interspersed with steroids, layoffs, and physical therapy, Sallie currently finds herself 20 pounds heavier than before and not as fit as she used to be.

"At times this gets discouraging," she writes, "especially since I am in the health field and have taught aerobics for 13 years!"

Sally, there are certain things you can control and others that you cant. Our bodies naturally change as we get older, and the workouts we once did are simply not the workouts we are capable of doing 10 or 15 years later.

In addition, certain physiological factors take hold, our metabolism slows down, and it becomes a lot harder to maintain that flawlessly lean physique we may have once had in our prime.

While this may not be exactly what readers may want to hear, it is a reality that is best dealt with understanding and an open-minded approach to future goals.

While there is some truth to the adage that endurance athletes only get better with age, it is important to keep your capabilities in perspective and not lose sight of what should be your most important goal: to continue a training program and maintain a level of fitness without injury.

Sallies weekly workout routine consists of teaching spin class twice a week, cardio machines or walking twice a week, a step class on Fridays and an aqua aerobics class on Saturdays. Admittedly her program is cardio-specific with minimal attention to weights.

While the chronic back pain may prevent her from incorporating a weight program into her schedule, she should consult a physical therapist for additional strength-training ideas (light freeweights, Pilates, bands).

As we get older, our bodies lose strength and muscle mass (especially if all our training time is spent on endurance and cardio). Unless a strength-maintenance program is established, the resulting muscle atrophy can result in decreased overall performance levels not to mention injury.

A weight program consisting of 45 minutes to an hour, three times a week is what I would recommend for Sallie and anyone else looking to establish and maintain their strength.

The workout need not be intense, but should be created under the guidance of a physical therapist or trainer who is aware of your limitations and points of weakness.

After a few sessions where you are taught the proper weight-lifting techniques and usage of machines, you can continue on your own and modify the sets according to your interests. Make sure to alternate a day on/day off from your weight training to allow your muscles to recover and to avoid overuse injuries.

Sallie also yearns to compete in an adventure race this year, two sprint triathlons, and either an off-road triathlon or bike race for charity. This is where her cardio-intensive training regimen will come in handy, but there are still ways she can improve it.

All of her training is done indoors, on machines, except for the half-mile she swims at the end of her aqua aerobics class.

To be better equipped for any athletic event adventure or triathlon I advise Sallie to get outside when she can (she lives in Nashville so it should get warmer soon) and train in the disciplines she plans to compete in.

Biking, hiking, fast walking and even kayaking/rowing are all adventurous sports that are great sources of overall conditioning. Climbing is actually a terrific way to build strength and as we discussed previously Sallie could focus on ways to increase hers.

With an active and supportive husband, Sallie should be able to identify some creative and fun ways to stay in shape without the constraints and controlled nature of gym machines.

Also, it is important to note that habitual machine-users can sometimes develop injuries as well. Athletes that run on treadmills or use stationary bikes run the risk of Achilles flare-ups and iliotibial-band (tendon on outside of the knee) pains.

Treadmills can be less forgiving than a soft dirt path for runners joints, and cycling machines may not be readily adjustable for every body type, affecting (proper) body position.

Sallie has expressed concern about her weight, admitting that she has gained 20 pounds since having to modify her training regimen to avoid further injuries. Given that her daily cardio workout is no more than 45 minutes, I am going to suggest that she increase the intensity in these sessions if she chooses to continue them.

If she follows my advice and mixes up her routine with new outdoor activities, the challenges may spur her body to increased metabolism and subsequent weight loss. On the days that she remains in the gym, she can try upping the ante on her spinning classes and cardio machines.

Often, we fall into a comfortable zone of using our favorite machines on the same level, or the same calibrated "program," day in and day out. The danger in this is that while initially you may see results when you first start the program, several months into it your body adapts (or "gets in shape").

So now, the workout you did when you first began is a lot less challenging (but you keep doing it out of habit anyway). As a result, you stop losing the weight or developing better cardiovascular capabilities.

Depending on what machines Sallie is using, she should consider either increasing the resistance (if its spinning) while maintaining the same cadence, or increasing her cadence while maintaining the same resistance. Either way, she will break out of her training rut and spur her body to burn more calories and with consistency she ought to see weight loss results in several weeks.

Ideally, Sallie should consult a nutritionist for advice on this weight loss goal. She may learn that while she can afford to lose 10 to 15 pounds, losing the entire 20 may not be right for her at this stage of her life.

Also, a nutritionist could analyze her current eating habits and pinpoint an area where she could improve, by either eliminating a certain food or advising her on when to eat certain things throughout the day for maximum metabolic effect. Either way, the end result of weight loss would be more likely a reality.

As I have said in columns before, the most important part to an active lifestyle is the ability to develop a routine that is FUN. A well-rounded sampling of cross-training activities will not only keep you motivated and your body toned in different ways, but it will help you avoid injury by giving your body different things to do on different days of the week (allowing specific muscles plenty of recovery time).

Sallie has her program mapped out, and her goals in place. She is wise to show interest in adventurous activities, so now it's time to prepare for those challenges with an interesting workout schedule.

By venturing into the outdoors and developing skills necessary for triathlon, off-roading, and adventure racing, Sallie will find herself ready to compete, injury-free and quite possibly as lean as she wants to be.

If you are interested in being the subject of a Fitness Makeover, please e-mail your questions to Alex, and include a phone number where you can be reached upon your selection.

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