Fitness at 50

Couch potato to J.Lo and in-between

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Elizabeth Brooks, 52. Photo: Gabriella Boston

“How can J.Lo look like that at 50?!” That’s a common question I’ve gotten since Super Bowl LIV, which served up three quarters of good football and an excellent half-time show where a 43-year old Shakira and a 50-year old J.Lo showcased unparalleled physical fitness and acrobatic dance moves.

My response: “Hard work and discipline.”

But obviously that is just part of the story. There’s also genetics, talent, opportunity, money, time. So, when the follow-up question by someone in their 50s arrives: “How can I look like J.Lo?” the short answer is some version of “I’m not sure you would want to put yourself through that.” Or that you have the time.

It’s not J.Lo’s routine of lunges, planks and medicine ball sit-ups that are unrealistic for most people. It’s the whole workout-diet package that is all but unattainable. She’s worked out and danced her whole life and apparently doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, doesn’t eat any processed food, consumes mostly vegetables, lean proteins and buckets of water. She has personal trainers, daily workouts, dance rehearsals etc., etc.

In other words, not attainable for most of us. So, instead, let’s talk about what is possible and more importantly, sustainable, as we grow into our 50s and beyond.

Where to start:
A short guide for the De-Conditioned

If you’re entering this decade de-conditioned (another word for “couch potato”) your best bet is to start slow and easy with walking (always get a doctor’s go-ahead before starting any exercise routine).

If you can do 30 minutes a day of walking that’s a good start. Government guidelines suggest a minimum of 150 minutes per week of cardio. Once the 30 minutes a day of walking feels easy, pick up the pace.

But doing just cardio is not advisable. As we age – and women in their 50s especially experience this – our level of sex hormone drops which leads to loss of muscle mass and, sigh, body fat gains.

How to counteract? Weights. Lifting weights is key in keeping a good ratio of muscle to fat in the body. This ratio is important for our resting metabolic rate – the rate that the body burns calories when at rest. Government guidelines say we should do weight training at least twice a week.

There is a common misconception that cardio is the only way to burn calories. It’s true that during exercise cardio is the most energy-consuming. But not after the exercise is done – that’s when muscles matter. So, it’s important to do both cardio and weights.

A weight-training program is best designed by a personal trainer, especially if you’re a novice. A personal trainer can assess body imbalances and weaknesses and help set goals.

And let’s not forget that training and moving are not solely about weight loss. In fact, weight loss has more to do with how we eat than how we train. Cardio and weights are excellent ways to control blood pressure and blood sugar, prevent injuries and bone-density loss, fight depression, and improve sleep.

Maintaining

Many people in our community though – sometimes just by virtue of living in the city (and being Type A in a good way?) – have some type of fitness routine in place. They’re in the middle of the fitness spectrum – hitting the minimums of those government guidelines and maybe wanting to see how they can progress.

Take Sue Capozzi, 59, of Hillcrest who has been working out with a trainer for a couple of years. She tries to get 10,000 steps in each day and works out with weights at least twice a week.

“I never thought I would say this, but it feels really good,” says Capozzi who never had a fitness routine in place before this. “Exercising regularly has made me more mindful about how I treat my body in general.”

For example, when she lifts a 40-pound bag of mulch (she’s a gardener), she thinks to bend her legs (a squat) and engage her core (a plank) for the most efficient and injury-free type of lifting.

Aside from feeling stronger, Capozzi says she sleeps better and also lost eight pounds last year. Her long-term goal? “I want to maintain my strength so I can keep gardening 25-30 years from now.”

Others in this middle category might want to start branching out – try a yoga class for flexibility and balance. Or maybe train for a run or cycle race.

The Elite at 50

So, what does it look like to be at the top of your fitness game at 50+? Well, maybe you’re a long-distance runner who places in the top ten at national races.

Or, maybe like Elizabeth Brooks, 52, who’s a trainer at Sport & Health here on the Hill, you’re doing chin-ups (a pull-up with an overhand grip) and 140-pound bench presses.

How does she do that? Well, like J.Lo, Brooks has been an athlete her whole life and was even a competing bodybuilder in her 20s.

“These days I teach about 13 classes per week,” Brooks says of the weight training, HIIT, boxing and kickboxing classes that are on her weekly schedule. “In addition, I do 45 minutes of cardio twice a week and a full-body weight room training once per week.”

In other words, she moves constantly.

She also makes sure to get plenty of rest and to take time to destress (like reading novels) to control the release of stress hormones like cortisol which are known to cause tissue damage and weight gain.

She watches what she eats even though it’s not as extreme as her bodybuilding days where she ate six times a day – all veggies, oatmeal, lean proteins and proteins bars/shakes.

“I’m 52 now. I eat smaller meals, I don’t drink alcohol, I eat vegetables and lean proteins and drink lots of water,” Brooks says.

Sound kinda J.Lo-ish? That’s because it is.

In order to be at the top of fitness, exercise, nutrition and sleep (a topic we’ll have to cover another time) have to be consistent and well thought-out. Fads and extreme measures are not sustainable and often lead to quick victories followed by long-term failures.

“We have to mature beyond the idea of dieting and fitness fads. That’s an immature approach,” Brooks says. “Lifestyle issues can’t be addressed with temporary solutions.”

Gabriella Boston is a writer and fitness trainer based on Capitol Hill. For more information: gabriellaboston.com.