14 Exercises You Should Modify If You’re Over 50
There's no reason you can't get in the best shape of your life after the age of 50, but you should use some caution, especially if you haven't worked out consistently or have a few injuries behind you.
Age is just a number
Or at least to some extent: If you’ve been consistently active for decades and work with a personal trainer, you could be way past the half-century mark and more fit than someone half your age—like some of these senior athletes. And as a fit person, you can probably do even the most punishing workouts and still feel great. But that’s not most people.
Many people over the age of 50 are not in the best shape of their lives, and they may also need to manage issues like past injuries, joint pain, and chronic muscle aches. It’s also important to remember that the 50-plus set might need to spend some extra time staying limber and take more than a day between serious workouts to recover. You may even want to work with a stretching expert, as stretching becomes even more important as we age. We turned to experts to find out the dos and don’ts of working out for occasional exercisers—and those who’ve sustained injuries—after age 50. And check out this simple stretching guide.
Being able to get up and down stairs comfortably and easily is a key part of everyday life—but unless you’re in excellent shape, you may not want to run them. For exercise purposes, consider using a stair-climbing machine instead of running actual steps; for those who are unfit, the danger and consequences of falling increase with each passing year, warns spinal-care expert Bradley W. Bartel Jr., DC.
Bikram or hot yoga
According to Dr. Bartel, extreme heat can cause dizziness or fainting—at any age. This is especially true if you don’t drink enough water. Unless you’re a seasoned yogi, instead of vigorous yoga like Ashtanga, try a lower-impact form like hatha. And did you know that yoga can help with arthritis?
High-intensity interval training
High-intensity interval training—HIIT—is amazing for blasting away fat and calories, but for older people who are not super fit, it may overly stress the body. Dr. Bartel recommends swimming for a full-body, cardiovascular workout that’s perfect for any fitness level.
Fast-paced spin classes are built on the HIIT concept, and they can be too intense for older people who are not in optimal physical condition—especially if they have joint, heart, or lung conditions. “Spin classes can cause too much strain on the joints; a better option would be to spin on your own at your pace, or bike outdoors on a trail,” says Dr. Bartel.
The classic move may be a great way to build all-over strength, but it puts a lot of stress on your shoulders and upper back, which may be problematic for people with past neck and shoulder injuries. Dr. Bartel recommends doing wall push-ups instead. “Stand against a wall and angle your body toward the wall to do a push-up—this still works your muscles but takes the strain off.” Check out this at-home workout involving wall push-ups.
Squats with weights
Trainers love squats, but for older people who haven’t worked out consistently, they can put too much pressure on knees if done with weights. Instead, Dr. Bartel recommends focusing on squatting your body weight in the correct form. “You will still get a good workout of the same muscles, and it’s a very good exercise to preserve and improve bone health.” Check out this guide to doing squats properly.
“Bench pressing creates a lot of tension and stress on your neck and shoulders,” says Dr. Bartel, which can exacerbate prior neck, back and shoulder strains. “A rowing machine is a better idea to maintain muscle tone and avoid injuries.” Just be careful and look into how many popular gym machines come with hidden dangers.
The burpee is an amazing full-body move, but it can cause excessive strain if you’re not already in great shape. “Non-athletes over 50 should do modified burpees that take out the jumping,” says Brett Russell, PT, ATC, LMT/NMT. Even when you’re doing this modified version, burpees can help strengthen your bones. Start from a standing position, then A) bend down to the ground and place your hands flat; B) hop your legs out behind you; C) lower your chest to the ground (place your knees down first if that’s easier); and D) press back up, jump your feet back under you, and stand straight up. Aim to do 5 to 10 repetitions.
Pull-ups are challenging no matter what your age and, according to Russell, put a lot of pressure on shoulders, a complex network of muscles, joints, and ligaments that have often suffered strains and injuries by mid-life. He prefers using the lat pull-down machine, which can work the same muscle groups.
According to Russell, the problem with this commonplace ab move is the curving of the spine and lower back, which can be hard on older bones if they’re not already reinforced with regular exercise. “I would suggest a plank to work the abs instead.” Find out how long to hold a plank.
“Dead lifts can put a lot of strain on the hips and torso,” says chiropractor Kelsey Nelson, DC. Instead, she recommends doing body-weight exercises such as glute bridges: Lie on your back and bend your knees with your feet flat on the ground; keep your heels close enough that you can touch them with your fingertips. Press your feet into the floor and lift your hips toward the ceiling, then lower them.
Plyometric leg exercises include things like jump squats and jumping lunges. “These can cause joint strains as well as wear and tear,” says Dr. Nelson. She still likes lunges; she just recommends removing the jumping part—or doing them on a springy floor.
Running until you feel like your heart may pop out of your chest is not a great idea at this age if you’re not super fit. It can also cause strains or sprains in knees and other joints, Dr. Nelson warns. “Instead, try steady jogging or intervals of jogging and walking. Consider these 8 walk-to-jog workouts.
“Leg presses are done using a machine that involves leaning back on a flat bench while pushing against a weight with the feet. This action flattens the natural arch of the spine and could cause damage to lumbar spinal discs,” says Dr. Nelson. “Use a stationary bike to target those muscle groups instead.” Now check out the best type of workout for every stage of life.