Research shows we can slow down or even reverse our biological age through healthy living, so should we pay attention to age-specific workouts anymore? Is there such a thing as the best exercise to do in your 20s, 30s or 40s, and should it change as we age?
Every time I get my heart-rate pumping with a burst of exercise, I like to glance at my FitBit. It tells me my cardio fitness is “excellent” (ah thanks, FitBit – but here’s the subtle bit of shade) “…for a woman your age”.
This little bit of passive-aggression from my tech has got me thinking: when women can be the same age but at such different fitness levels, let alone life stages, is age-based advice relevant when it comes to exercise?
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Google “best exercise for your 30s” (or 20s or 40s) and you’ll get well over 17 million results. The advice tends to go like this (and I paraphrase): 20s = peak energy, anything goes; 30s = maybe babies (watch that pelvic floor); 40s = get ready for the menopause and the slow slide towards decrepitude. There’s a lot of advice based on a reductive notion that all women in their 20s or 30s or 40s and beyond share the same physiology and circumstances.
Shouldn’t we pay more attention to where we’re at personally? A ground-breaking study in 2021 found that an eight-week period of regular exercise, along with good nutrition and quality sleep, reduced biological age by three years.
Fit and healthy people who continue this lifestyle can knock well over a decade off their chronological age – a 33-year-old could have the heart and aerobic capacity of a 23-year-old. Similarly, our life stages aren’t as set in stone as they were decades ago: nowadays one 39-year-old could have a new baby while another is entering perimenopause.
So, does the date on our birth certificate matter? Do we really need to change our exercise routines as we age?
When age doesn’t matter
“The narrative that as a woman, once you are over 30, things are suddenly different to how they were in your 20s, is something that I’m sensitive not to encourage,” Alana Murin, head of ride at Psycle, tells Stylist. “I’ve personally experienced, and witnessed in others, the biggest and most positive fitness transformations in the mid-30s.”
Naturally, Murin is an advocate of cardiovascular exercise, such as spinning, to boost heart health and improve endurance whatever your age. “It’s an incredible way to boost your mood, increase overall energy levels and deepen sleep, helping you to show up more powerfully in all aspects of your life.”
Monique Eastwood, trainer to stars such as Emily Blunt, believes that adjusting your exercise routine to match the major hormonal changes of life, such as pregnancy and menopause, achieves greater results than focusing on age alone.
She tells Stylist: “Teaching clients through their 20s and now into their 40s, there have been times when I’ve had to adjust their routines during and after pregnancy, but as they age they’re able to train in the same way as they did in their 20s. It’s really a matter of choice whether you want to push your body the same way you used to.”
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Although Eastwood believes that a fit 35-year-old can train like a 21-year-old, she concedes that there are some physiological signs of ageing, particularly to our bones and muscles, that we can’t ignore. “We should add challenges to our workouts to stimulate changes in our musculoskeletal system, but we also need to be conscious that with age come niggles and injuries.
“We need to be slightly more protective of the way we want to push our bodies, ensuring sufficient rest and recovery is prioritised. It’s about staying fit, agile, strong and happy doing what we do, so we can continue doing it for as long as possible.”
When age does matter
Even if you’re fitter than you were 10 years ago and ageing slower than average (well done on your lengthened telomeres), there are some unavoidable physical changes that we will all face in our lives. As we get older our metabolism, muscle mass, lung capacity and flexibility slowly decrease, often accelerated by hormonal changes.
One issue that’s particularly acute for women is bone health. Elisabeth Clare, director of MBST UK, a community of physiotherapists, warns that women are at greater risk of thin or weak bones particularly as we reach menopause when oestrogen, the bone-protecting hormone, naturally decreases. This can lead to breakages, fractures and conditions such as osteopenia and osteoporosis. Clare calls these “silent diseases” as we often have no way of knowing how strong our bones are.
“Our bones reach their peak in our 30s. When strong, they help to protect vital organs, provide support for muscles, and supply minerals to the body,” Clare explains. “But bones after 40 will not be able to build, therefore everything we do before that is vital. You can make simple adjustments now to reduce bone thinning and protect yourself and your bones through lifestyle, diet and exercise.”
Clare recommends low-impact aerobic exercise – walking, dancing and hitting the stair-climber and elliptical machines at the gym – and cardiovascular activities that work directly on the bones in your legs, hips and lower spine to slow mineral loss and improve overall bone health. She adds: “It’s so important to improve that peak bone mass when we’re younger, and with prevention, we can increase our bone strength. Any head start you can give yourself will pay off in the future.”
Aida Yahaya, founder of Good Stretch Studio, points out that women lose flexibility by an average of 0.6% a year, with the sharpest decline coming after age 40. She explains: “As you age your body struggles to respond to exercise like it did when you were younger. You may notice fatigue, aches and injuries happen more often. The great news is you can do something about it.
“Stretch for 10-15 minutes a day, and consider incorporating a total body stretch, involving all major muscle groups, into your routine a couple of times a week.”
The exercise advice that is ageless
All of the PTs and physios I spoke to had similar suggestions for truly “ageless” exercises that you should do whatever your age – exercises that are never too late to start. All favoured low-impact, weight-bearing or resistance workouts that build strength, protect your joints and can be ramped up for cardio when required, and equivalent activities such as swimming, cycling, walking and yoga. This is exercise that you can adjust to your fitness ability from week-to-week or decade-to-decade, in turn creating lifelong habits that you love.
One piece of advice cropped up repeatedly: whatever your age, prioritise strength building to benefit your body now and protect it in the decades to come. Strengthening muscle, bone and (as a side product) mind is the answer to ageing well and enjoying a long and healthy life. Being strong really is the future.
For more age-defying fitness tips, visit the Strong Women Training Club.