According to scientists who study the effect of physical exertion on longevity, you can expect to receive two hours of life extension from every hour spent exercising. If exercise were a medication, experts believe that it would be the most heavily prescribed in the history of medicine. But doesn't exercise cause long-term joint damage?
Not according to the research. In researching my book RUNNING UNTIL YOU'RE 100 I discovered that runners have healthier joints, after 2-4 decades of running, than non-runners. Our joints are designed to adapt, at any age, when we gradually add a little stress followed by sufficient rest. But balancing the two is very important—especially after a certain age.
Walking and running, the most common modes of exercise, require movements for which all humans are designed. Our ancient ancestors had to run-walk for thousands of miles a year to survive. By following a conservative training plan, most of us can cover several miles a day without hurting—and feel so much better afterward.
Avoid continuous use of muscles, tendons, joints
After the age of 40, it takes longer for the legs to feel fresh and bouncy after a strenuous workout. Runners can reduce aches and pains significantly by inserting more days of rest between running days—and inserting more walk breaks into their runs. I've worked with many over 50 runners who have improved their times by running fewer days per week.
Recommended number of strenuous exercise days per week by age
(To avoid aches and pains)
35 and under: no more than 5 days a week
36-45: no more than 4 exercise days a week
46-59: exercise every other day
60+: 3 days a week
70+: 2 strenuous short days and 1 easy but longer workout day
80+: One longer workout, one shorter one, and one gentle and non-pounding exercise
* Note that more running days are OK if there are no aches, pains and injuries from doing so.
Break up your workouts in segments to reduce aches and pains
Many runners find that they can do more on their training day by having a morning and an evening workout. Whatever your form of exercise, you'll tend to feel better and reduce discomfort, and wear, by doing the workout in segments. Instead of running for 30 minutes (even with walk breaks), do three 10 minute runs, with a 5 minute easy walk between segments. It is important to do the long run during the same time period, however.
Runners: use walk breaks
Most runners, at any age, can feel better during and after the run by inserting a one minute walk break from the beginning of each run, after 1-5 minutes of running. This erases fatigue and allows the muscles to recharge. Here is my recommended frequency, based upon pace per mile:
9 min/mi pace—run 4 minutes/walk 1 minute (4-1)
10 min/mi pace—3-1
11 min/mi pace—2:30-1
12 min/mi pace—2-1
13 min/mi pace—1-1
14 min/mi pace—30 seconds-30 seconds
15 min/mi pace—run 30 seconds-walk 45 seconds
Note: Many runners above the age of 40 find that they recover faster when they insert the walk breaks even more frequently than noted above. For example, I run marathons between 11:00 and 11:30 per mile and use a 1-1 because I recover so fast that I can run the next day. I'm 63 and do 6-7 marathons a year.
A longer warmup
As we get older, it takes longer for the muscles to "gear up" to the level of exertion needed for the workout. Be patient and ease into the workout with a gentle warmup. Walk gently for 3 minutes. Then gradually introduce the body to the running motion: If you plan to run for 3 minutes and walk for 1 minute, during the first 10 minutes use a 1-1.
Avoid all-out exertion
The closer you are to to your maximum, the closer you are to injury. Hard workouts require longer periods of time for recovery with each decade of longevity. Since the benefits come from the calories burned per week, take it easier, exercise a little longer and you'll feel better and recover faster.
Fast running, for example, takes a lot more out the legs at age 48 than it did at age 28. Runners in their 40s and 50s can sometimes do the same workouts they ran in their 20s and 30s—but they will pay dearly for this. Running at your limits, after a certain age, can produce lingering fatigue and permanent aches, pains, and damage.
Controlling injuries and fatigue by taking action immediately
Staying injury-free is the primary reason exercisers, especially mature ones, improve. It is also important to avoid a continuous buildup of fatigue. By balancing stress with rest, you can control the gradual increases—and prevent injury. It is crucial to be conservative. By making adjustments at the first signs of possible injury, you'll avoid a much greater period of downtime, later. At the first sign of a possible injury, take at least 3 days off and treat the injured area. If you're experiencing more fatigue, increase the rest breaks, decrease the duration of workouts and don't work out more often than every other day.
I believe that a great deal of the satisfaction we receive is directly tied to our weekly activities. I've seen many people improve their outlook on life itself when they use a proven plan to improve their exercise. A growing number of folks in their 40s 50s and 60s are using my run-walk-run method to finish 5Ks, 10Ks, half and full marathons. Finding that you "have it" by finishing a challenging goal is almost always a life-changing experience, for the better.