In Your 20s: 30 minutes of weight training followed by 30 minutes of cardio 3x a week, plus 45 to 60 minutes of straight cardio 3x a week. One day of rest.
The great thing about being in your 20s is that your body is so strong, you can get away with abusing it. The bad thing is that you often do, punishing it with late nights and bad eating habits. And you routinely fail to appreciate what you’ve got. This is the decade of anxiety—frantic exercise, fad diets, the mad pursuit of pinup perfection and self-hatred when you fail to meet it. The fitness challenge of these years: Get over it.
“I tell my young clients, ‘Forget looking like Jessica Simpson or Halle Berry, and forget weight; think health,’” says Jeanette Jenkins, a Los Angeles–based private trainer who has worked with rapper Queen Latifah and actress Taryn Manning. The mistake many 20-somethings make is simply opting for “endless cardio and crunches,” adds Vanessa Carver, a personal trainer at Pillar Performance in Encinitas, whose clients include professional ice-skaters and dancers. Lots of cardio is great, she says, especially if you mix it up so you’re really pushing the body. But it’s weight training that builds muscle definition, not to mention bone density, which will be crucial for staying active later on and preventing osteoporosis. “You’ve got to lift more than just three or five pounds,” she says. “If you can do 10 to 15 repetitions of a weight with no real effort, it’s too light. The last 4 or 5 reps should be challenging enough that you feel your muscles getting fatigued.” And put your mind into it, she says. “Lifting weights while chatting on the cell phone is a joke.”
As for killer abs, “it’s about subcutaneous fat, not how many crunches you do,” says Carver. “There’s no secret here: Eat lean meat, lean fish, vegetables, and fruits.” She suggests forgoing thousands of bouncy, quick sit-ups for focused core work, which strengthens not only the abs but also stabilization muscles and lower back. One great exercise is the “plank.” In a push-up position, balancing on your forearms and toes with legs stretched straight back, pull your belly button toward your spine and hold it tight, keeping your back flat enough for someone to eat off of. Work up to staying there for a full minute. Jenkins also pushes yoga, “which women this age are usually not very attracted to. I want them to learn to be still and to look at themselves from the inside out rather than the outside in.”
In Your 30s: One hour of circuit training (cardio and resistance) 4x a week, plus at least one day of cardio for 45 to 60 minutes at a high intensity. Take one day off.
With the 30s, you start noticing that weight doesn’t come off quite as easily as it used to. This is because after age 20, your basal metabolism drops by 1 to 2 percent every decade, and as lean muscle decreases and body fat increases, you don’t need as many calories to sustain yourself. “Exercise is the number one form of preventive medicine,” says Jillian Michaels, who is in her 9th season of NBC’s The Biggest Loser and is the author of Winning by Losing: Drop the Weight, Change Your Life. “You won’t see that big a difference between 31 and 39 if you’ve been living a healthy lifestyle, but if not, you’ll see a huge difference in muscle tone, weight, and shape.”
In this decade, experts agree, keeping fit means working harder. Jenkins favors circuit training—a series of resistance and cardio exercises done swiftly and back-to-back. But however you do it, Michaels advises strength training each muscle group twice a week with two days of rest between sessions. Don’t stick with heavy weights/low reps or low weight/many reps, she says; switch it around to keep your body from getting used to the routine. One day of rest a week is crucial.
After pregnancy a program like Pilates can be invaluable in “pulling everything back in and up,” says Brooke Siler, whose re:AB studio in New York City has attracted famous figures like Amber Valletta, Madonna, and Liv Tyler. “I especially like exercises that involve standing, because they teach you to fight what nature wants you to do, which is slump,” says Siler, the author of The Pilates Body. One of the best antigravity moves, she says, is to stand with heels together, big toes two to three inches apart. Drawing your lower abs and inner thighs in and up, rise onto the balls of your feet, making sure the heels stay glued together. Now slowly bend the knees into a plié, keeping the tailbone straight. Lower your heels to the floor and slowly straighten legs, drawing together your inner thighs and pulling up deeper into your abdominals. Do five reps; then reverse the sequence for five more.
Now is the time to make good fitness habits a part of everyday life. “You always want to be standing instead of sitting, taking stairs instead of elevators,” says Siler. “I’m constantly aware of how I sit and stand and walk down the street. I’m forever pulling in and up. These invisible workouts are really important for a woman in her 30s. It’s how you start preparing your body for what’s to come.”
In Your 40s: One hour of weight training 3 days a week if you do your whole body at once (4 days for half an hour if you split it up), plus 45 minutes of cardio five days a week (it’s more than in the 20s and 30s but with less impact and intensity). Take one day off.
This is the decade of the triple whammy: gravity, hormones, and yet more slowing of metabolism as lean muscle mass continues to decrease and body fat increases. Even women who don’t put on a pound may expand, according to Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Body for Life for Women. “After 40 and certainly after 50, virtually all women find that they gain fat more easily in the torso—below the bra, through the triceps area, on the back, and in the belly,” she says. “You’re not doing anything wrong; your body composition is changing.”
Cardio work at least three days a week is still important for keeping weight under control, but resistance training is crucial now. “Women should be doing more weight training—and really going for it,” says New York City–based celebrity trainer Kacy Duke, who is in her 40s. “You have to find the time to do it consistently and train hard.” If you’re just starting, says Peeke, “you must learn proper form—take a class, get a trainer, make sure someone is there to correct you so you don’t get hurt. And add intensity. If you’re doing a biceps curl, tense the biceps—squeeze them—as you lift. Just when you think you’re all the way up, push another 10 degrees.”
Certain body parts may call out for extra attention. “Pilates can help some with the midsection,” says fitness veteran Karen Voight, who teaches and writes a workout column for the Los Angeles Times. To tone the back of the upper arm, she instructs, “get on all fours in a bent-knee push-up position, with fingers facing forward and hands directly under your shoulders. Make sure your elbows point backward when they bend, and lower only halfway, which works the muscle but avoids strain on the joints.” Then there’s the butt. “For that,” says Voight, who is in her 40s, “I’d try squats with weights or stair-climbing. Exercise is different at this age, because everyone has some aches or pains. I hold positions longer and do things more slowly and with more control. It’s about precision and form, not quantity.”
It’s also about enjoyment. “I find exercise that’s satisfying on a deeper level,” says Donna Richardson Joyner, creator of the video Sweating in the Spirit and a recent appointee to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. “It’s not just about moving my body—it’s about strengthening my mind and my spirit.”
In Your 50s: 4 to 6 cardio sessions a week, 20 to 40 minutes each, with an intensity that lets you answer a simple question but not chat, plus half an hour of weight training twice a week, 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise, or 15 to 20 using lighter weights. Always stretch afterward.
If your metabolism feels like it’s slowing to a crawl, it’s not in your mind. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh studying 541 midlife women found an average gain of 12 pounds eight years after menopause. We also tend to gain a little potbelly, what Peeke calls the menopot. And other places begin to droop noticeably. “At this point, loss of muscle mass and tone really shows,” says longtime fitness expert Kathy Smith. “It can actually start to change your posture.”
The classic shoulder slump from years of hunching over a desk or computer “will really age you,” says Smith, who suggests this stretch: Clasp your hands behind your back at the level of your butt and squeeze your shoulder blades together, pinching your spine. Try, with straight arms, to stretch your fingertips toward the floor until you notice a tug between your ears and shoulders, then lift your hands as high as you can, feeling the stretch in your chest.
“If you haven’t started weight training, you must,” says Smith, “although if you’re a beginner, I really recommend guidance. Women in their 70s have doubled their strength in nine weeks. If you feel intimidated going to a gym, you can rent videos to do at home. You want to hit all the major muscle groups, and you can do the whole cycle in 15 minutes if you keep some dumbbells around.”
Peeke says you should be thinking of adding activity to your life in general. Programs like Shape Up America aim for 10,000 steps a day, about five miles of walking. Regular cardio sessions are important, too, but expect a change in recovery time. “Can I run like I used to?” asks Smith, who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in her 50s. “Sure. But can I do the same run again the next day? No way.”
Other additions to your program should include warming up (for instance, with walking or light yoga stretches) before exercise and more intense stretches (such as sitting spread-eagle and bending forward) after. “Many yoga classes have a heavy stretch component, making them perfect for the body that needs to maintain its flexibility,” says Smith.
Yoga—along with tai chi, dance, and the Bosu ball (a soft half-dome used for standing and sitting exercises)—is also great for balance, which will become an increasingly important issue. While the physical changes this decade brings may be hard to take at first, ultimately, says Smith, “you shift into an acceptance mode. You change what you can, and live with what you can’t. It’s a gentler way.”
In Your 60s: 3 days a week of challenging but not exhausting cardio, such as a slow jog, plus 3 days of weight training, using lighter weights and slower, more controlled movements combined with slow, sustained stretching. Walk whenever possible, and do daily balance exercises.
In the 60s, problems like arthritis, bad knees, and spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spaces between bones that can put painful pressure on the spinal cord) become common. “But aches and pains shouldn’t be an excuse for giving up on exercise,” says Marilyn Moffat, PhD, a professor of physical therapy at New York University and coauthor of Age-Defying Fitness. “We now know that a decline in strength and fitness isn’t entirely a natural consequence of the aging process but is also due to lack of use. We need to push ourselves physically no matter how old we are—we just may need to alter the activity.”
Adapting a workout routine for the 60s sometimes means giving up aerobic exercise that jars and stresses the joints—for example, replacing long runs with jogging one or two miles, jogging in a pool, swimming, or riding a stationary bicycle. (Women with bad backs may need to use a recumbent bicycle.) Moffat, who is in her 60s, says that, on average, she walks three to five miles a day because it offers both cardio and bone-strengthening benefits.
Resistance training is still important, “but I would not advise anyone to lift heavy weights if it aggravates your joints,” Moffat says. And stretching and balance are absolute musts. If you don’t stretch now, “by the time you’re in your 80s, your joints will have lost their flexibility.” One of Moffat’s favorite stretches is holding the head tilted earlobe to shoulder for 60 seconds; another (if you don’t have osteoporosis) is sitting on the floor with legs straight out in front of you, feet flexed, and lowering your head toward your knees. For balance, she suggests “rising up on the toes of one foot and trying to hold the position for a minute. You can do this while brushing your teeth.”
In fact, that’s a good image for any age—the sooner exercise becomes like brushing your teeth, the longer you’ll feel younger than your years.