Health & Fitness

Work back into a fitness routine slowly

My friend Sammy just turned 68, and once again he's got a plan to "get in shape." As always, I asked him —"In shape for what?"

This isn't the first time back to the gym for Sammy. In fact, making a play on his last name, I call him "Fits." As in, "fits and starts."

Unfortunately, that's how he approaches keeping his body youthful and supple. Even more unfortunate, he ends up getting injured and having to sit around recuperating, while his hard-earned muscle and flexibility fades away. Even though his friends have warned him about the dangers of the way he does his workouts, Sammy never pays attention. Are you in the same boat?

If you're a baby boomer, even if you've been sedentary for years, you can bring back a lot of energetic youthfulness to your body if you start regular resistance, endurance and aerobic training. But there's a difference in the way 20- and 30-year-olds can work out and the way boomers have to do it. The biggest difference is recovery time.

A simplified explanation: When muscles are worked, even for a short, leisurely 30-minute walk, they use up some of the nutrient supply contained in the muscle cells and produce the normal waste products of work. The circulatory system — your bloodstream — carries off the waste and brings back more energy-producing nutrients, food to replenish the cells. As the muscles and the white connective tissues of tendons and ligaments are worked harder, they naturally use up more food and produce more waste. The process of getting rid of all the waste toxins and re-supplying all the nutrients is called "recuperation."

Another part of recuperation comes from torn muscle fibers. A hard workout causes beneficial damage to these fibers. Some of the fibers tear, causing desirable "microtrauma." When the muscles repair the damage, they build up stronger in order to better handle more microtrauma next time.

The problem is that this process slows down as we age. Maybe you were athletic in your teens and 20s and could work out for hours every day with no ill effects. But by 50, a daily hours-long workout is too stressful for your tissues. Cells just can't recuperate fast enough. Instead of getting stronger, the buildup of microtrauma will make them weaker.

Back to Sammy. He'll spend months doing very little physical activity, then jump back into his workouts as if there's been no break. In his enthusiasm, he'll ignore little nagging joint pains that are signs of the beginning of tendonitis or muscle strains. He'll push himself harder than his body can handle, until something gives out.

Don't make his mistakes. If you've been sedentary, even if it's only for a few months, you must work back into your fitness routine slowly. Spend the first month doing only two workouts a week. The next month, add another session. Three sessions a week is usually all a boomer's body can handle, unless you're a master athlete with a scientifically planned conditioning program.

If you train at the right pace for your age, you can continue to build your physical capabilities to the same capacity as someone 20 years younger.

If you haven't seriously worked out for years, it may take six months or longer to build your body back up handle heavier training loads. But it must be continuous. You can't do it in fits and starts; being disciplined for two weeks, then slacking off for two weeks.

Consistent, planned workouts will rejuvenate your body and build it back to a much more youthful state. Stops and starts will just put you back on the couch.