Fitness for the Second Half of Life

I have a vivid memory from when I was a kid in the ’50s. I am in the family station wagon with my sisters and parents, leaving my grandparents’ farm. My grandparents are waving goodbye from the farmyard gate; my grandfather in his bib overalls with a kind of Santa physique and my grandma, who had serious shoes – the lace-up black leather heels – bird legs and these even more serious arms that kept waving long after she stopped. I remember thinking they were old. They looked old and dressed old and moved old. You know what? They were a decade older than I am now and I can assure you, I am not old. I have the shoes to prove it! If you are at all like me, you can remember Jane Fonda in her famous striped leotard, belted, standing lean and tall in her legwarmers. Or Joanie Greggins’ perky pigtails on her TV exercise show or maybe you were a devotee of Judi Shepherd Misset and Jazzercise. Those of us who fell into a high-kicking line with the fitness and wellness movement are redefining aging and more specifically, active aging. Fitness and wellness should sit in the front row of our lives, but after 50, with a little more comfortable seat, softer lighting and absolutely more sensible clothing. Here are the essentials to retool fitness and wellness for the second half of your life:

1. Hang loose: Flexibility and balance, part of the elements of fitness, become critical to active aging.“Use it or lose it” is an adage designed for these a regular routine consisting of some of the many disciplines that will keep us moving fluidly and painlessly. Pilates is first on my list to do the trick, whether in matwork form or on the Reformer, the table-like equipment designed for Pilates. The focus is on core strength and alignment. Pilates exercises move the body through range of motion for each of our joints, which includes our spine, shoulders, knees, ankles and hips. We can achieve some of the same benefit with Yoga or Stretch classes, but make some daily time for flexibility exercise as this is the stuff that keeps us moving and allows us to catch our balance on an icy walk, pull our boots on, bend down in the garden or do other daily activities with ease.

2. Build your core: Every movement we do from picking up grocery bags and grand kids to riding bikes and walking is done better with core strength. The “core” consists of muscles that stabilize the spine and pelvis and run the length of the torso, providing a solid foundation for movement. The core allows us to stand upright and prevents back pain. You know that position in yoga class called the plank? That’s core strength. That feeling of power in your golf swing? Core strength. Getting up out of an armchair? Core strength. We are always using it and need to keep using it and building it. This can be done as simply with home exercise workouts using our own body weight as resistance (think leg raises and modified crunches) or some of the newest core workouts like TRX (Suspension training), Kettlebell, Pilates and yoga.

3. Get Breathless in a good way: Can you say cardio? We are not talking running a marathon necessarily, but maybe training for a 5k. Cardio work is that stuff that makes your heart beat fast like your first prom BUT with better results. Not only does working in your target heart rate keep your heart healthy, it burns fat and adds oxygen to the system. Even better: It pumps endorphins into your system and nothing says HAPPY quite as well as aerobic-induced endorphins. Cardio work pays back way more than it costs, too. Working in your target heart rate for 30 minutes a day keeps your metabolism stoked and in return, you have more energy for hours afterward. Brisk walking, dancing like you mean it, biking, cross-country skiing can all give your heart the workout it deserves. If you are not sure about what your target heart rate is, learn how to use a heart rate monitor. Many clubs and personal trainers offer heart rate training. (If you have any heart health issues check with your doctor before stepping up your workouts.)

4. Keep in touch: For starters, exercise keeps you in touch with your toes. It is the best way to maintain a healthy weight, which is key to maintaining good health! Our aging bodies may require fewer calories but not fewer nutrients. So you need to keep burning those nutrient-dense calories and keep your muscle mass up to maintain a healthy weight. And if you are like most red-blooded Americans, we can stand to lose a few pounds, so see above 1,2, 3. Exercise keeps you in touch mentally, too. Aerobic workouts, dance-type classes, all exercise has a cognitive payback, whether you are learning new patterns or new skills, it keeps your brain working better with less fog and improved memory. I teach a class called Drums Alive with gymnic balls as makeshift drums. Though it is cardio and core strengthening and even endorphin producing in a big way, for those of us over 50, Drums Alive surely makes us work hard to remember all the patterns and sequences. You can almost hear the brain cells growing over the drumming!

5. Make new friends: Maybe the best part, exercise and fitness activities can keep us in touch with friends and build new social networks, which, of course, keeps us healthier. Much of the research on longevity finds our social networks and relationships to be the key ingredient to a long and well-lived life. It’s not only WHO we hang out with but also WHAT we are doing with them. If you are in a Nordic walking group, go dancing with friends, have a tennis or golf group or hang out regularly at a health club, chances are you are with people who share your healthy values and attitudes and that is like a free health care program!

6. What’s the best exercise to do? As someone in the health and fitness industry, I wish I had a nickel for every time my staff and I have been asked this question because we could pay off the national debt and move on to health care reform. Folks think there is a magic bullet to fitness and exercise… and there is. Here is the magic answer; the BEST EXERCISE for you is the ONE YOU WILL DO! If you are an extrovert and love social interaction, how long could you keep up a program of solo running on a treadmill at home? If you thrive on learning and like new experiences, using the same workout routine from high school will not cut it for you. By this stage of the game you know yourself well enough to set yourself up for success. If you need structure and accountability, get yourself a personal trainer or an exercise group. If you need music to energize you, find a good Zumba or dance-based class. Love to be outdoors? Commit to a walking buddy. Work best with a target or goal? Plan an exercise-based vacation like hiking or biking – and develop a 4-6 month training plan to get in shape for the trip.

7. Feel the love: These days we have many choices for where we do our fitness activities and with whom we do them. Choose a setting that is more community than club and where staff know your name and needs. There are big box clubs that sell on value and big menu and some have fitness groups focused on the post-50 crowd. There is a new crop of “keyless entry gyms” that are not staffed but have equipment. I think these a great for folks in their 20s who may just want to run on a treadmill but I don’t recommend them to those who may actually need some coaching to use equipment or to prevent injuries. Many of the new housing developments with a more senior focus have fitness rooms and even trainers who will come and work with you on your turf. At the SweatShop, we have people of all ages doing Pilates, Yoga and Zumba classes, lifting weights and doing their cardio work on equipment and we have staff of all ages so that cross-generational cross-pollination occurs; our clients value it and our staff loves it.

8. Speak the language: Fitness trainers and instructors have a lot to offer us. We can learn new skills and make our workouts more effective with their coaching but choose someone who has experience with clients over 50. I can tell you as a woman in my 50s, nothing is more frustrating than training with a 20-something male who approaches a training session from his vantage point: buff and testosterone laden, working on muscles he can see and doesn’t speak the language of a postmenopausal body where parts have migrated south and are on vacation (whether we can still see them or not). The usual result is the client (us) works too hard, has muscle soreness or may even injure her or himself and then takes a year off to recover. SO find someone who looks more like you to train with, as there are plenty of fitness professionals also in the second half of life, with loads of wisdom and experience to share with you. Until recently, the SweatShop had a Pilates staff member who rode her bike to work to train her clients! There’s someone whose secrets we want to know! We have come a long way from the lives of our hard-working grandparents and their definitions of aging. Today, I watch my 88-year-old father go to the gym and lift weights 3-4 times week. He also tries to get a weekly massage to keep all his parts moving well and relieve some of his aches and pains. I know that weights are important to his well-being, but so is the social network of his cross-generational contacts and seeing what’s happening at the gym. My 84-year-old mom fits in two long walks a day with her active dog, in between teaching Yoga class several times a week and working for the community theater, all the while producing three health-conscious meals a day. Our goals to live longer should also focus on better, healthier, with more energy and an eager attitude to learn new things and meet new people. All of this will keep us aging well and with vitality. While we are at it, let’s go for flashier shoes too!


Gayle Winegar, founder and president of the SweatShop Health Club in St.Paul.

Written by Gayle Winegar, founder and president of the SweatShop Health Club in St.Paul. Winegar’s mission is to change peoples’ lives for the better through physical, mental, spiritual and social health. Contact her at the SweatShop at 651-646-8418 and visit the SweatShop online at