For most of us, our 40th birthday brings with it a sense of dread. We’ve spent our 20s and 30s focusing on our career and abusing our bodies without realising it. As we approach the Big Four-Oh, we realise that when it comes to our health, it’s now or never.
Is 40 too old to start working out?
Obviously, the short answer is no.
Studies show that it’s never too late to become physically active. One of the most prominent of these was conducted in 2014 by researchers at the University of Rennes, France. The researchers assessed the effects of running and cycling on 40 healthy men aged 55-70. Half of the participants had started running or cycling before the age of 30 and the other half began doing similar activities after they’d turned 40. The study showed that both the groups experienced similar benefits to their overall health, measured by their heart rates and blood pressure readings.
However, even though it’s not too late to start working out in your 40s, remember that your body has already gone through a lot by now.
What happens to your body in your 40s?
For one, your metabolism doesn’t slow down. This very popular myth was broken as recently as a few weeks ago in a paper published in Science magazine. Researchers from Duke University found that the body’s metabolism remains more or less steady from 20 to 60 years.
But while you can stop blaming your metabolism for gaining weight in your middle age, muscle loss does play a role. “The more muscle you have, the stronger you are and easier it is for your body to digest the food you eat. But as you grow older, not only do you lose muscle, it gets more difficult to grow muscle too. That prevents you from losing weight faster (than when you were younger),” says Ketan Mavinkurve, founder and CEO of Alpha Coach, a fitness start-up that offers hyper-personalised fitness training and nutrition advice and helps its clients build healthy habits.
Muscle loss also makes the body prone to injuries. So when you suddenly decide to go for a run after watching, say, Akshay Kumar emerging unhurt from the midst of well-choreographed explosions, chances are you’ll end up with a twisted ankle.
So how do you start a workout routine at 40?
Whether you’re looking forward to posting that topless mirror selfie flexing your muscles, or you just want to lose weight to become healthier, here are some key factors to consider:
1. Accept that it will take you longer to reach your goal
No matter what workout you’re setting out to do, accept that it will take you longer to achieve your goal, says Siddharth Bangera. “It could be something as simple as being able to touch your toes without bending your knees,” says Bangera, who teaches Iyengar Yoga. “If you’ve led a largely sedentary life, you’re going to take time to achieve it,” he says.
2. Avoid any workout that advertises itself as a massive calorie-burner
Workouts that claim to burn an unrealistic amount of calories are the pet peeve of Vishnu Venugopal, co-founder and product head of Alpha Coach. “It doesn’t matter how young or fit you are, your body can only burn a certain amount of calories and that too differs from person to person,” he says. If a workout claims to burn any unrealistic amount of calories, he adds, chances are it’ll be very intensive and could well lead to an injury.
Read more: Fitness planner | Common running injuries, and their causes and solutions
Instead of setting calories burnt as you workout goal, Venugopal recommends focusing on being able to achieve things you couldn’t earlier, such as being able to play with your pets without gasping for air, or being able to go for a trek with your kid, or indeed being able to party till 5 am.
3. Start small
Hiring a personal trainer and starting out on a M-W-F routine is perhaps the laziest way to start a workout routine. Instead, nutritionist Dipti Patole Mayenkar suggests starting really, really light. “Start by counting your steps and see for yourself how far you can go. Then, over time, try to increase your step count. This will give you an idea of where you were and how far you’ve come,” she says.
According to Mayenkar, your initial walks could be as short as 20 minutes. Doing this doesn’t just help reduce injury risk, she explains, but also helps you stay consistent with your workout.
4. Be consistent
Vishnu Venugopal of Alpha Coach agrees: “All you need to do is aim for three light workouts of 45-minute duration every week. Taking up any extreme exercise suddenly will cost you dearly.”
5. Start strength-training
Once you’ve been consistent, incorporate strength-training into your routine. Strength-training will help you build muscle mass. The stronger your muscles, the fewer injuries you are likely suffer.
However, Mayenkar warns against lifting weights. “The idea is to build endurance,” she says. “Start by using resistance bands or exercises that use your body weight. Yet again, start easy and over time increase your reps or opt for scaled-up versions of the same exercises.”
Ketan Mavinkurve recommends incorporating strength-training in your daily activities. He says: “Instead of taking your car on your local grocery run, consider walking there. Carry the groceries back and climb up the stairs instead of taking the elevator.”
6. Watch what you eat
Food plays a larger role in your weight loss journey than workouts. However letting go of habits formed over a decade or more is easier said than done.
Mavinkurve acknowledges this. “At Alpha Coach, we incorporate small changes in our clients’ routine,” he says. “If you’re not in the habit of eating salads, we start by asking you to have just two salad dinners a week. If you smoke, say, three cigarettes a day, we start by asking you to cut down to one and so on.” Building habits, he points out, takes time. “But eventually you get there.” Building habits takes time. But eventually, you get there.