The big 5-0 rolls around and you start grappling with your own mortality. You wonder about your place in the world and how long you have left. Sure, 50 is just another number, but it’s a number that society has placed a large bolus of meaning. For better or worse, whether it’s real or not, turning 50 makes you re-evaluate everything. Especially your health.
One of the most important ways to preserve and enrich your health is physical training, fitness, and movement—and it only becomes more important the older you get. It also gets more important to do it right. If you’re 50 or older and just getting started in fitness, doing it wrong might make your health worse. You might get injured, and injuries incurred as we age become more catastrophic. You probably won’t bounce back from injuries like you did when you were 20 years old; you might never make it back.
So how should you get into fitness at age 50 and beyond? What should you avoid? What should you do?
Let’s dig right in.
Have a compelling reason to get moving
Let’s face facts: It’s been this long and you haven’t done anything. You can’t just “decide” to start training and have it work out, or else you would have done it years before. No, you need a compelling reason to get moving. You need a reason that you can’t say no to, that you can’t rationalize your way out from under. A reason that sticks in your gut and won’t let go.
Cardiovascular fitness protects you not just against losing steam on an uphill run. It protects you against any and all insults to your heart. The more stamina you have, the longer and better you’ll live.1
Physical fitness translates to sexual fitness. Everything works better the more fit you are—for both men and women.
If you aren’t fit—and I don’t mean “ripped” or “can lift 300 pounds” or “has a six pack”—you’ll miss out on the rest of your life. You’ll never reach the heights your genes want you to reach. You’ll never be able to appreciate the simple moments, like playing with a grandkid or hiking in the mountains or taking care of your own affairs in the later years.
Develop a vision.
A reason isn’t enough, usually. It’s a good start, but you need to bring that reason to life with a powerful, visually stimulating vision of what your new self will look like. What will you be doing? How will you look in the mirror? What will people say and think when they see you?
Maybe you’re training under the midday sun in a pair of shorts, doing sets of pullups, kettlebell swings, and dips. Your sweat is glistening. Someone your age is going by in a wheelchair or walker, and here you are, glowing and resplendent.
Maybe you’re sprinting after the mail carrier to flag him down after dropping off the wrong package. You dodge a dawdling neighbor, leap over a wiener dog, vault over a fence and sprint down the road to catch up to the mail truck.
Get as specific as you can. Truly make it real in your mind. And then use that vision as fuel to do the work that makes the vision reality.
Get help from a professional.
It gets easier and easier to mess up and get injured the longer you wait to start fitness. It’s like being on extended bed rest: you don’t just pick up where you left off. You have to ease into it. This is where a professional can really help.
Dive right in but then go slow.
You need to start today. Right away. Get moving. Start working out. Get a plan together.
But you don’t need to kill yourself or break something. Don’t throw yourself into heavy weight lifting if you’ve never done it before. Don’t start training by running a marathon. Be consistent, don’t let up, but be smart about it.
Download Primal Blueprint Fitness.
This is a great starter ebook to get going with a basic workout plan. It doesn’t require any weights (but can be easily modified or graduated into weights). It’s all bodyweight. It is scaled for all levels of fitness. You don’t even have to be able to do a single full push-up to get started with it. And ultimately it is good enough for the average 50+ year old to use for perpetuity.
Play as much as possible.
I’ve said many times before that I train so I can play. Well, these days much of my actual training looks an awful lot like play. For instance, at least twice a week I do a long standup paddle board session. It’s where I decompress and destress. It’s where I get my sun exposure. It’s where I see dolphins and other interesting marine life up close and personal. It’s where I have fun. And yes, it’s where I work my abdominals, my posterior chain, my lats and posterior delts.
Once a week I play Ultimate Frisbee for a few hours. I’m sprinting, jumping, jostling for position, throwing, catching, and doing tons of walking/slow jogging. By the end, I’m dog tired but throughout the games I don’t notice all the work I’m putting in. Why? Because I’m playing.
Another good one to consider is dancing. Dancing isn’t just fun. It can be a potent training tool, too. And everything seems to work. Whether it’s Turkish folk, traditional Thai dance, or Scottish country dance, dancing can really increase functional capacity and even strength in older adults.234
If you haven’t been able to muster the will to train already, figuring out an active way to play could be your way around the block.
Find your game. Find your way to play. Play keeps your mind and body young.
In “The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania,” Frank Marlowe, who spent four years with the tribes, writes that foraging Hadza women walked an average of 5.5 km a day at 3.5 km/hour and foraging men walked an average of 8.3 km each day at 3.6 km/hour. Able-bodied adults foraged on a daily basis, so that’s a lot of walking. As those are just averages (means), some forays were longer and some were shorter. The women Marlowe observed walked anywhere from a quarter kilometer to thirteen, while the men walked as little as 1.57 km and as many as 27.2. It changed, day to day, and that’s the whole point. It was never the same. It was always something new. Physical activity came in peaks and valleys, because that’s what the situation demanded.
So don’t think you have to walk a set number of miles each day. Just walk, walk, and walk some more whenever you get the chance. If you did nothing else but walk for miles each day, you’d be pretty darn healthy. Throw in a couple days of strength training and you’re better than 95% of your age group.
The beauty of walking doesn’t only lie in its direct physical effect on your fitness. It also helps pump the lymphatic system, improves your cognitive function, and keeps your tissues “lubed up” and ready for more intense activity.
Try Myo Rep/rest pause training.
As I wrote back in April, myo reps are the best “bang for your buck” way to strength train I’ve come across, and they’re safe. Here’s how you do it:
Choose a moderate-light weight.
Do 10-20 reps, stopping at failure or 1-2 reps short of failure.
Rest for 5-7 breaths.
Do 3-5 reps.
Rest for 5-7 breaths.
Do the same number of reps you just did in the previous mini-set.
Complete three more “mini-sets” with the same number of reps and rest periods if you can.
That’s it. You’re done with that exercise.
Myo reps don’t require that you use heavy weights you might not feel comfortable handling this early in your training career. You can pick heavy, moderate, or light weights and still get a great workout in a fraction of the time it would take on a normal training plan.
Another benefit of Myo Rep training is that it’s the quickest, most efficient way to activate the “feel good” endorphin release that makes you want to keep working out and come back for more later. It’s a great way to positively condition yourself—to train yourself to want to train.
Take or eat extra collagen and protein.
The older you are, the worse you are at utilizing the protein you eat. You need more of it in your diet to do the same job it did when you were 15 years younger. In studies where they compare resistance training seniors who eat extra protein with resistance training seniors who don’t, only the seniors eating extra protein gain muscle mass.5
You also need more collagen. Well, we all do, but especially older folks. Taking 20 grams of collagen with 100 mg of vitamin C 30 minutes before a workout can improve the health of your connective tissue, actually making it stronger and more resistant to injury.6
Aim for a 2 grams of protein per kilogram of weight and about 20 grams of collagen each day.
Control your ego.
I won’t say “leave your ego at the door,” because a little ego can be a healthy, helpful companion. You want enough ego to spur you on to make yourself better, healthier, fitter, and faster. You don’t want so much ego that you try doing something in the gym you aren’t prepared for. You don’t want to kill yourself trying to get bigger, stronger, and faster.
This is life, isn’t it? Life is all about balancing the ego. A good heuristic for making sure you’re on the right path is to try to beat your own performance but not the other guy’s or gal’s. Don’t worry about what someone else is doing or accomplishing. Worry about whether you’re getting better.
That’s about it, folks. Now I’d like to hear from you guys.
If this is you, let’s hear it: what’s your reason to train? What’s your vision?
If it’s not, if it was you and you’re an over-50 person who successfully got into training, how did you make it happen? What worked, what didn’t?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.