Be Well: Fitness in Your 40s and Beyond

From Mpls.St.Paul Magazine’s Be Well

My fourth decade started gently enough. I was a couple years in before the text on the drink menu started to blur ever so slightly. Nothing some colorful cheaters couldn’t fix. By 44—bam!—the computer screen was a glowing mess. Next came the lower back attacker, a sneaky devil who would strike after particularly unpleasant tasks like laundry, toilet scrubbing, or a morning commute on 35W. Nothing like being punished twice.

What next?

Turns out at precisely the moment your kids are able to survive without you for 30 minutes and you consider trying to get back in shape, your knees start to wear out.

Be not discouraged, 40-something comrades! Dr. Greg DeNunzio, DC, BSME, from Northwestern Health Sciences University Sweere Clinic and Biomechanics Lab in Bloomington, says there are some things we can do to remedy the cruel realities of this first stage of old age. Grab your cheaters.

Start strength training. Now.
There is so much evidence pointing to the benefits of strength training these days, but you may not see the urgency in it until you throw your back out or experience the rude awakening of a knee or hip injury. DeNunzio offers these pro tips for pre-empting the pain.

  1. Focus on functional movements. Simply put, functional movement is the way we move around every day. As unsexy as it sounds (welcome to middle age), reinforcing these movements through basic exercises like squats, lunges, and hip hinges, will help us maintain good balance, climb stairs, sit through long meetings, and do those everyday unpleasant tasks with less discomfort.
  2. Multiple planes are better than one. According to DeNunzio, in order to prevent joint problems as we age, we need to strength-train in different planes of motion. “So, for instance, if you’re doing a lunge, instead of stepping forward, step out at 45 degrees, or step laterally at 90 degrees,” he says. “We need to move in different planes of motion to strengthen all of the musculature that surrounds the joint.”
  3. Stay away from machines! Choose free weights instead. “When you get into a machine, you’re locked into a certain range of motion, and the body doesn’t necessarily move that way,” warns DeNunzio. “It isolates one muscle, and we don’t isolate one muscle when we move. Muscles have to work in tandem.” Free weights are also better at activating our nervous systems, he says, which helps improve our balance. “It takes a lot more of your musculature to lift a dumbbell over your head than if you were pushing on a handle of a machine.”
  4. Alternate sides. DeNunzio is a big proponent of what’s called unilateral training, which is exercising one side at a time. “If you’re doing shoulder overhead presses, don’t use one Olympic bar to go over your head because it lets you compensate for weaknesses. If one side is weaker than the other, then the stronger side can do more of the work.” Instead, use dumbbells, and work one side at a time.

Change it Up.
As our bodies age, DeNunzio says it’s crucial that we include variety in our workout routine in order to avoid repetitive motion injuries.

“Runners think they need to run more, swimmers think they need to swim more, cyclists think they need to cycle more, and that’s not the case,” he says. Just as you can develop carpal tunnel from typing at your computer every day, “the same thing happens when all we do is run. If you just keep running or walking, you keep hitting the quads, the hamstrings and the glutes the same way over and over again until at some point they break down.”

If you’re a runner, he recommends swapping one of your weekly jogs for a bike ride and another for strength training, ideally getting in at least two days of strength training a week. It gives your knees a rest and can improve your running performance. “If you build more lean muscle mass, the body uses oxygen more efficiently; it’s called running economy.”

Sit less. Here’s why.
“When you’re sitting forward, all the muscles in the front contract and get shorter, and some of the muscles in back get longer, and everything gets weaker,” says DeNunzio. “It causes a bad muscle-firing pattern. There should be a strength ratio between the muscles in the front and the back, and when that’s too far out of balance, which is caused by sitting too much, it starts to cause injuries.”

So request that standing desk if your company offers it. And more importantly, set that timer or Fitbit to get your rump out of your seat for a lap around the office at least once an hour.

Take the time to stretch before and after your workouts, or make it a workout in itself by including yoga in your exercise routine. Because, you guessed it, “our tissues naturally lose elasticity as we age,” says DeNunzio. “That rubber band feel that we used to get starts to decrease, and we get tighter.”

Rethink How You Work Your Core
“People always ask me what’s the best way to strengthen the core,” says DeNunzio. “And the studies show the best way is to work your upper extremities while in a staggered stance, which is the stance you should be in if you were taking a step and walking.”

For this type of work, DeNunzio recommends a cable machine. Standing in a staggered stance, grab the handle and do chest presses straight ahead, one side at a time.

“People always want to do sit-ups, and all you’re doing is activating the hip flexors and very

little of the abdominal and other musculature closer to the spine,” he says. “But really, unilateral, upper extremity exercises are the best way to activate the core because the body-muscle activation goes from upper right side to lower left side, right through the center of your core.” He adds that planks and variations of the plank are also good alternatives.

DeNunzio believes that if you do the exercises as described above, you don’t have to focus on working your core because it’s already being worked. “In my opinion, if you get a workout in both unilateral and multiple planes of motion, and in a staggered stance, you’re going to hit core as you’re getting your workout in, and that’s the best way to do it, because you’re working it in the same pattern that you move in real life.”

And fitness in our 40s (whether we like it or not) is all about real life.

Hear more from Dr. DeNunzio on how to prevent and recover from injury through the ages on June 16, 2021, 12pm CST, via Mpls.St.Paul Magazine ‘s virtual series, Wellness Wednesdays. Learn more and register here.