Getting Fit At 50…And Beyond

Been feeling a little “bleh” since the holidays?  Mid-winter blues can take the wind out of anyone’s sails.  Age is a big one, but not one of the more obvious ones.  Once we get into our 30s, our respective hormones are starting to fade.  If we’ve neglected exercise for a long time, age comes up as a secondary reason to not engage; “I’m too old for this.”

When we don’t keep up the maintenance, the fenders start to sag a little.  Into our 40s, the spare tire really starts to show.  The battery doesn’t seem to want to stay charged, and the gas tank empties quicker than it used to.  If it’s been a while since you’ve been active, whether it’s the winter blahs, busyness, or getting older, read on.

Even if you’re under the half-century mark, everyone can benefit from this advice.  My main point with targeting the 50 and older crowd is that it’s easier than you think.  Most of what I’ll describe here benefits overall physical health, and can be applied to everyone.  As with any fitness advice, take it, try it, and tailor it to your specific needs and body type.  Nothing is set in stone.  And, whether you’re 25 or 55, if you apply it and stick to it, you’ll see positive results sooner than you think.

I’ve written a longer article on the topic of fitness after 50, but it’s more tailored to men getting bigger and stronger.  It’s published on LinkedIn and you can find it on my website.  If that’s more your speed, check it out.  With this post, I’ll share some personal experience, cover a couple of main ideas behind getting fit at any age – especially the 50+ category – and hopefully leave you feeling inspired to go out and get pumped.

Can It Be Done?

About 15 years ago, I found this little hole-in-the-wall gym a few miles from where I worked.  It was around in back of an old bowling alley.  The gym and its owner are long gone, but the memories of working out there, even just a few times that I did, will stay with me forever.

The owner was a little 70-something year old guy.  He looked the part, shuffling around the gym, slightly bent over.  He wore a varsity-style windbreaker and a Harley Davidson hat.  He might’ve reminded you of Burgess Meredith’s Mickey in “Rocky”.

He was always sharing advice, ad hoc training tips, especially if you were squatting or deadlifting.  But unlike his famous boxing coach doppelganger, he was a former competitive power lifter, and…well, man!  He still had it.  I watched this guy squat 500 pounds, deep, for 10 reps.  This little 70 year old man!  My jaw hit the floor.  I still haven’t hit a 500-pound squat, even for a 1 rep max!

And he did it…to teach me a lesson.  The lesson was, go deep.  He did not believe in stopping the squat at or above horizontal (when your thighs are horizontal to the floor).  His point was, you won’t hurt your knees by going deep on squats, if your form is correct.  It gets the most strength and muscle development out of the exercise.  And he’s right.  I’ve done it myself, and it works.

“You’re a tank!”

This guy was still training competitive lifters, too.  He had guys in there that were in their 40s and 50s, some who’d never lifted much at all before.  Rank beginners, and he had them deadlifting 400 pounds within a few months.

So yes, it can most certainly be done.

What’s The Secret?

I’m probably not going to tell you anything you haven’t heard before.  What I can offer that’s different is this: I’m not selling any products or programs.  I’m just a guy in my early 50s who’s done these things, and they work.  Period.  I’ve seen the results first-hand.

There are gimmicky programs out there that tell you that because you’re over a certain age, you shouldn’t be in the gym trying to build muscle. While it’s fine to shoot for a lean, trim physique, it’s a complete falsehood that someone over a certain age can’t hit the gym to gain size and strength. If that’s your goal, go for it!

So, where do you start?  What’s the number one key to gaining a fit and stronger physique, even after 50?

Diet!  Of course.  It’s the old tried and true – garbage in, garbage out.  The first thing that comes to my mind is: Do not drink soda, or too many carbonated drinks of any kind.  The carbonation is not good for you.  Cut out sugar as much as possible.  Avoid other junky foods and additives.  Common sense stuff, just start with a general clean-up.  When all else fails, drink a glass of water.

  • As far as a particular menu plan, a keto or other low carb plan works best.  Fruits and vegetables, a good amount of protein, and fats.  Don’t shy away from avocados, butter or coconut oil for cooking.  Keep your carbs at 10 grams or less per day.  Carbs take time to break down for energy use, so they get stored and used a little at a time.  Fat is burned immediately by the body for energy.  By keeping the carbs low with a “healthy” fat content, your body will burn the carbs and then dive into its own fat stores for energy.
  • There is confusion about how healthy or not a low carb diet is.  You may have heard that the keto diet isn’t safe to sustain long-term.  With proper management and food choices, it can be safe and healthy for the long haul.  If you’re unsure, try it for a few months, then switch back to a normal carb-loaded diet for a while.  For more details on low carb diets, check this out.
  • I tried the keto diet at the turn of the new year a few years ago, and coupled it with intermittent fasting.  In three to four weeks, I’d dropped 10 pounds and gained lean size and strength.  I kept it going for 3 months.  My energy level was better than ever, and I was sleeping great at night.  It works.

Exercise:  This one is pretty flexible, because it depends on your desired results.  If you want to get lean with some increased muscle tone and strength, you’ll want to incorporate more cardio or HIIT training, with a moderate, higher-rep resistance training plan.  If you want to get big and strong, hit the weights.  Hard and heavy.

  • Try to do your cardio and anaerobic activity in the morning.  Your strength training is better suited to afternoon to evening hours.  Again, there are no hard and fast rules, but research shows these are the optimal times for the respective activities.  You can pair your cardio/HIIT with your strength training, if you don’t want to do two workouts in a day.  Or split up the days, one for cardio and one for lifting.

Sleep:  The last (but not least) piece of the fitness triad.  How much good, quality sleep are you getting a night?  Everyone’s different and have differing sleep behaviors.  But, there are well-established studies and guidelines relating a healthy amount of sleep to good overall health.  This is not a new topic, or new advice.  In general, if you’re an adult, you need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night.

  • I have always been a light, fitful sleeper, so it’s taken some work for me to get at least 7 hours of sleep during the week, when I have to get up for work.  I try to hold close to the same schedule over the weekend, allowing myself up to an extra hour on Saturday and Sunday.  It’s tempting to stay up late on a Friday or Saturday, and sleep in the next day.  But significant changes to your sleep schedule will have negative effects on your sleep quality and health.
  • Your body does the majority of recovery while sleeping.  If you want to get in – and stay in – great shape and stay there, don’t skimp on sleep.

The Big 3 Are Common For A Reason

The “Big 3” – Diet, Exercise and Sleep – are so commonly repeated because they are the core elements for getting healthy and fit.  At any age.  Someone in their 50s isn’t going to be able to go out, at least not right away, and keep up with a 20-something in the gym, or on the treadmill.

But proper diet, sleep and exercise can get ANYONE fit, no matter how old.  The key is consistency.  There’s yo-yo dieting; don’t yo-yo on your exercise, or sleep.  Keep it up.  You’ll always have an off day or two, just don’t let them become slumps for days or weeks.  Get right back in the swing of things and stay on target.

The Pros and Cons of Doing It Yourself

I am, admittedly, reluctantly mechanically inclined.  My DIY career started off in a fitful, hesitant manner.  I did things (as many of us do) out of necessity (translation: save money).  I did not always enjoy working on cars, dishwashers or toilets…actually, I still don’t like toilets.

“Uuugh…”

But I work on them.  I’d rather be under one of my kids’ cars, or unclogging the dishwasher, or even up to my elbows in a toilet tank than call a professional.  I’ve saved thousands of dollars over the years buying over-the-counter parts and putting them on myself.  Money can be a big motivator.  Let’s see…have a “certified pro” fix it for $500, or buy $100 worth of parts and spend an hour or two on a Saturday getting my hands a little dirty?

It’s A Nasty Job, But Somebody’s Gotta Do It

Fixing things around the house wasn’t always easy.  In fact, it didn’t really come naturally.  Oh, I could figure out what was wrong easy enough.  I could think through how things had to come apart and go back together.  But, this is the great difference between academic and hands-on knowledge.  Knowing and doing are two very different things.  I learned the hard way that, especially with cars, it rarely goes the way you expect.

Maybe you glanced through a Hayne’s repair manual you picked up at the local auto parts store.  Or you’ve watched a YouTube video.  They make it look so easy.  So you think, “ah, give me an hour and I’ll have both front brake discs and pads changed on my kid’s car.”  That, my friend, is fantasy.  In reality, an hour and a half later when you’re just getting the first side put back together, and you’re muttering to yourself, and the occasional wrench goes flying across the garage accompanied by a much louder, far more emotional outburst, you’re thinking, “what did I do wrong?  This should’ve gone so much easier than it did!”  Welcome to the world of DIY.

If you’ve only occasionally tried to fix something around the house yourself and had a bad time of it, you’re not alone.  There are those who are truly gifted with their hands.  They can knock out a repair job like nothing the first time through; they can really “spin a wrench”, as the saying goes.  Then there’s most of the rest of us.

But take heart!  Just like anything, practice makes perfect.  Not that we want stuff to break around the house so we can chalk up more training hours, but it’s a simple fact.  Unless you’re naturally talented at something, it’ll take several times before you’re really proficient at general around-the-house repair.

The Benefits of Doing It Yourself

Besides the money savings, if it takes a while to get proficient at it, why do it at all?  Most people have a budget for emergencies, or car repairs.  Plus, it’s so much nicer to have someone take care of it for you, isn’t it?

Believe it or not, there ARE tangible benefits to DIY.  For one, your problem solving improves.  It also aids creativity.  And, if you find that you like fixing things yourself, it can become a hobby and even a weekend side gig.  Not to mention, you’re learning something new and keeping active at the same time.

A former neighbor of mine is a certified Honda mechanic at a local dealership – he can really spin a wrench – and he’ll take several side jobs a month for a little extra cash.  He’ll even go to people’s homes, if they can’t get their cars to him.  He’s helped me out a time or two.

DIY time can mean together time

My current neighbor, who bought the house of my mechanic friend, is a builder and an expert at home improvement projects.  He spent a couple of weekends helping me rebuild our deck from the joists up.  He just loves to stay busy, and he likes helping people.  Not such a bad thing, eh?

The Co$t of DIY

But…don’t you have to have a lot of nice tools and equipment to do a lot of repairs?  No, not really.  It depends on what you’re doing.  Most plumbing jobs require just a few simple tools.

For example, when I work on our slow, stubborn drains, the only thing I need is a pair of regular pliers or small channel-locks, and a long screwdriver.  Our plumbing is all PVC under the sinks, so I can easily hand-loosen the joints to remove the trap and pipe from the sink drain.  The screwdriver is actually used to shove the paper towel through to clear out all the gunk.  You can use a butter knife or any similar long object.

Now, the garage is another story.  I’ve put some money into my tools for car repair.  But…I still did it economically.  I have hardly any name-brand equipment.  The vast majority of my tools, both hand and power, have come from Harbor Freight.  If you haven’t been to Harbor Freight, look up the closest one to you and go wander through.  It’s a veritable toy store for the DIY-er.

Both of my tool chests came from Harbor, as well as my floor jack and my electric impact wrench.  I have an old reciprocating saw that, if you believe the reviews, is cheap plastic junk that doesn’t last more than a few jobs.  But I’ve had that thing for years now…I’ve used it to cut suspension components off of our cars.  And it’s still running strong, for less than half of the name brand competition.

The weaponry of the weekend warrior’s arsenal

Harbor Freight has really increased the quality of their lines of power tools recently, and they have some good quality products that rival Snap-on, Milwaukee and other top brands.  And they’re still much cheaper than the big names.  Everything in my garage was bought at a fraction of what I would’ve paid if I’d gone name brand.

Are there downsides to DIY?  Sure, a few obvious ones.  Such as…

  • You Have To Buy Your Own Tools: If you don’t have many tools, you have to go out and get them.  This is especially true for the car repair side of DIY.  Like I mentioned earlier, this is where my biggest investment is.  And I can’t count the number of times I had to stop what I was doing and run back to the store to get just the *right* sized socket or wrench for something I encountered further in.
  • You Could Make It Worse: Then there’s this elephant in the room – if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re liable to mess it up even worse, which could mean a very costly professional repair (or replacement). 
  • Time Is Not On Your Side: Doing it yourself takes time, especially the first time or two you do a job.  Like I said, you don’t get good until you’ve paid your dues.  I’m much faster now at most around-the-house jobs than I was when I first started out.  But I still sometimes make mistakes that cost time.

Try It, You Might Like It

Despite the few drawbacks, everyone should give some DIY a try.  The benefits outweigh the negatives. The biggest, most obvious benefit is the money savings over having a professional do it.  But the other benefits can be just as positive – learning a new skill, improving problem-solving thinking, even finding a new hobby that’s useful as well as stress-relieving.  You might just surprise yourself and enjoy it.  And, you can use some of that hard-saved cash to spend on something fun.