With aging comes a slower metabolism, meaning late-night meals and sugary snacks that were once consumed with impunity quickly become permanent fixtures around the waistline. And while it may not be as easy to shed those extra pounds at 40 as it was at 25, there are plenty of ways to shape up and enjoy a slimmer, healthier body. “[It] doesn’t have to be complicated,” assures Shayla Roberts, a Peak Performance Coach at Evolution Coaching U, who specializes in helping adults over 40 “get and stay fit.”
Of course, wanting to look good in a swimsuit shouldn’t be the only motivator to hit the gym: some of the best moves, says Roberts, have effects far beyond the aesthetic, including increased balance, coordination, and even improving brain and heart health. So dig out your favorite gym gear and get moving with these 40 best fitness moves for the over-40 set.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
HIIT, or high-intensity interval training, consists of short workouts that alternate between periods of intense activity and rest. Typically clocking in at 15 minutes or less, HIIT is the perfect option for busy individuals who want to shape up without spending hours at the gym. Better yet, in addition to its brevity, HIIT has been proven effective at recharging slowing metabolisms for a full 24 hours after exercising.
Planks can look deceptively easy—until you try them, that is. While lying face down, place your elbows directly under your shoulders and keep your wrists in line with your elbows. Then, push up onto your elbows (or hands, if you have a strong core) and toes, and make your back and legs into a straight line. While in this position, contract your abdominal muscles as if preparing for a punch, and hold for 30 seconds. Rest for about a minute, and then do it again, three to five times. While the plank engages multiple muscle groups, its core conditioning especially helps ease the back pain that afflicts many as they move past forty.
Balance Ball Crunches
In addition to eliminating the hard impact of the floor on your spine, performing crunches on top of an exercise ball can have some surprising benefits. Namely, it provides a significant increase in abdominal muscle activity over the same movement done on the floor. To perform a balance ball crunch, rest your back on the balance ball with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands behind your head. Inhale deeply and, on the exhale, contract your abdomen, allowing your head and chest to rise. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds, then release slowly, reverting back to your original position.
Push-ups, according to Roberts, are a necessary remedy to the sedentary lifestyle demanded by many of us performing jobs on computer screens. “If you spend time at a desk in front of any screen, you have shortened and tightened your pectoral muscles,” she explains. By performing a pushing exercise—bench presses being another example—you provide much needed exercise to your pectorals, anterior deltoids, and triceps. “No one does any pushing exercises in daily life,” she warned, so those muscles need added attention.
In terms of efficiency and a full-body burn, nothing compares to the burpee. This favorite of military officials and football coaches alike may be simple in theory, but is harder than it looks. The exercise is essentially a rapid, four-part movement repeated ad nauseam: begin standing, then move to a squat, and from there, jump into a plank with arms extended. Afterwards, jump back from the plank into a squat and then from a squat to a standing position, starting the cycle again. While there are several variations of the standard burpee, they all build off this standard, timeless foundation, toning everything from your arms to your abs in the process.
Osteopath and Natural Movement Fitness Coach Ed Paget recommends crawling to members of the over-40 set looking to tone up. “It is a full-body movement,” he explains, that builds core strength, balance, and flexibility of our toes, calves, quads and glutes. Start the exercise by doing a typical crawling movement, with six points of contact with the floor, and then increase the difficulty by only allowing four points: the hands and feet. As you progress, add complexity by crawling on uneven terrain, such as a balance beam or a rocky surface.
The simple act of swimming can be an amazing way to rejuvenate core muscle groups, especially among those over 40. In addition to lowering stress and inflammation, this low-impact exercise can also “enhance overall muscle strength, endurance, and tone,” according to Caleb Backe, a personal trainer and health and wellness expert at Maple Holistics. In fact, according to Backe, there simply isn’t “a better workout out there.”
Squatting is one of those exercises which, in addition to being a useful fitness movement, prepares you for the more mundane moments of daily life. “From getting in and out of your car to using the restroom,” squatting is a “staple movement,” says Lauren Seib, an NASM-certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. To perform an effective squat, stand with your feet hip-width apart and, shifting your weight to your heels, lower your hips towards the floor. While doing so, engage your abdominal muscles, trying to keep your thighs parallel to the ground and your knees over your ankles. When it’s time to get back up, simply push into your heels, releasing the position, and repeat.
The “dip” is a classic muscle-building move, and with good reason. Beside the fact that it can be done at home, without any expensive equipment, it also successfully works out almost your entire upper body. To get started, just find two sturdy surfaces of the same height that are close enough to hold comfortably. Then, lift yourself up, keeping your arms shoulder length apart, and hold your legs at a ninety-degree angle for two to three seconds. Afterwards, slowly lower yourself for four to six seconds and start over again.
The best thing about a doorway stretch—besides loosening your upper body muscles—is that all it requires is a doorway. To perform one, simply lay your arms on either side of a doorway jamb with your hands up, perpendicular to the floor. Then, place one foot in front of the other, stepping through the doorway. With the same leg, bend your knee—while maintaining your arm placement on the door jamb—until you feel a stretch on your chest and shoulders. Hold for thirty seconds, and return to your starting position, doing it all over again with your other leg.
Calf muscles are integral to the proper functioning of your legs, meaning that keeping them fit will help maintain proper form when running and performing other cardio routines, as well as reducing your risk of a fall. Luckily, stretching your calves is easy: all you need is a wall. Stand in front of it with your arms out straight and palms laid against it. Keep one foot flat on the floor, and extend your other leg backward, placing it flat on the floor behind you without bending your knee. Lean into the wall until you feel a stretch in the outstretched calf. Hold for thirty seconds, then switch legs. Repeat two to three times and perform daily.
As you get older, a lifetime of poor posture can begin to wreak havoc on practically every part of your body. For that reason, it’s important to strengthen our shoulders and upper backs—that’s where the reverse fly comes in. With a set of appropriate hand weights, soften your knees and pitch forward at the hip, keeping your back straight without rounding it. Bend your arms as if “hugging a tree,” and exhale as you open your arms outwards. Jennifer McCamish, a former Rockette and owner of Dancers Shape yoga studio, recommends that those doing this move keep going until they “feel the sensation of trying to crack a nut in between the shoulder blades.” Exhale as you return to your starting position.
In addition to pushing exercises, it’s important to perform pulling exercises to even out your posture, strengthen your shoulder muscles, and even improve your respiration. To enjoy all these benefits, Roberts recommends the seated row. Make sure to keep your back upright at all times, your torso still, and your abdominals braced as you pull back. “It should be difficult,” she says, but “your lats, biceps, rear deltoids, traps, and rhomboids will thank you.”
While common wisdom says to shy away from deadlifts and other “hard” exercises as you age, Seib disagrees. “When was the last time your spouse left something directly in the middle of the floor and you had to move it out of the way,” she says, explaining why the deadlift is crucial for strengthening the muscles we’re bound to use well into maturity. First, make sure to keep your feet hip-width apart, and keep your lower back straight. As you begin to lift your chest from parallel to the floor to perpendicular to it, pull the weight toward your thighs, keeping your knees soft until your shoulders are aligned with your hips. Then, exhale, and, in a controlled fashion, move the weight back to the floor.
For those with the desire to build muscle, but without the inclination to necessarily grab a hold of weights, the lunge is an excellent move for building strength. The walking lunge, though it takes a bit more room to accomplish than the stationary variety, is highly efficient for working out your entire lower body, from foot to femur. Begin by standing upright, and take a step forward with one foot. Then, bend both knees to a 90-degree angle, but without letting the back knee touch the floor. The front knee, meanwhile, should be directly above the ankle. Pushing off with your front foot, bring your back foot forward and move into another lunge—this time with your opposite foot in front. And for an extra boon to your upper body, add some dumbbells to your routine.
As you age, it’s nice to partake in leisure activities like golf and tennis. To do so without pain, however, it’s important to practice rotational movement, for which Seib recommends the wood chop. Begin in a squat with a light weight or a medicine ball on your left hip. Exhaling, move the weight above your head on your right side, standing straight as you do so. After holding, return to a squat and repeat before switching to the other side.
Standing Push Up
Push-ups are ideal for toning your core and upper body in one fell swoop. However, as you age, the pressure push-ups can put on your wrists wrists may become overly stressful. If that’s the case, try a standing push-up instead. Begin by facing a wall at arm’s length, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Leaning towards the wall, place your palms against it at shoulder height and shoulder-width apart. Inhaling, slowly bend your elbows and lower your upper body towards the wall while your feet remain flat on the floor. Hold for one second, exhale, and push yourself back into your original position.
Barbell Bench Press
Weight training is crucial after you hit the 40-year mark, and few moves are as effective as the bench press—there’s a reason it’s included in virtually every on-screen workout. Begin by lying on a flat bench with a bar in your hands held directly above your head and your arms locked. Breathing in, slowly lower the bar until it’s just above the middle of your chest. After a brief pause, exhale and push the bar back to its starting position, locking your arms and squeezing your chest once it gets there. Hold for a moment, then slowly bring the bar back down, repeating the motion.
The Turkish Getup
The Turkish get up (or TGU, for short) is a notoriously complicated, yet insanely beneficial, full-body workout. Involving a lunge, a rotation, and a press, as well as a getting-off-the-floor movement, the move builds a bodily awareness which carries over into all other exercises you do. Starting in a side plank, move one foot to the floor in front of you until your front leg is at a 90-degree angle, keeping one hand on the floor and one on a dumbbell at all times. Next, move your body to a seated position, switch legs, and get yourself into the side plank position again.
Chair Upper Body Stretch
The chair upper body stretch is—in addition to being an effective movement for loosening up your shoulders—a great way to get warmed up without even having to leave your seat. With your feet planted, reach back with your hands and grip the back of the chair, all the while keeping your arms straight. Slowly lower your upper body forward, keeping your arms straight, until your head is between your knees. Holding for 15 to 30 seconds, you should begin to feel a stretch within your shoulders.
Reverse Lunge and Rotation
This is just one of the many combined movements advocated by Seib to “challenge your balance, core stability and mobility” all at once. Begin by placing your feet hip-width apart, stepping back with one foot into a lunge, all the while remembering to keep your knee off the ground. Remaining in this position, and with your core engaged, rotating your upper body in the direction of your front thigh. Exhaling, come back to center and stand up, ready to go again.
Side Leg Lift
“Falls,” says McCanish, “are one of the biggest concerns for adults as they get older.” It’s critical, then, to improve balance as you age. One great way to work out the core abductor muscles around our hips that help us balance, she said, is the side leg lift. With knees softened, lean one side of your body against a hard surface, with your hand placed atop it. Exhaling, press your arm into the surface, while lifting your outside leg away from your body. Keeping it straight, flex your foot and rotate your heel to the ceiling. Inhale and return to your original position.
The crab walk is another highly efficient, compound exercise which manages to strengthen your core, your glutes, and your legs. Begin by sitting on the floor with your feet apart and your palms on the ground well behind your hips. Tightening your abs, press your feet and palms into the ground, raising yourself off the floor. Using your left foot and right hand, walk forwards, then repeat on the other side. After you become adept at moving forward, do backwards. To increase the difficulty, kick up your feet as you move along.
To build much-needed muscle, try the diagonal raise. With your feet hip-width apart, hold a dumbbell in one hand, resting it on the opposite thigh. While keeping your back straight, raise the hand with the dumbbell across your body, bringing the arm parallel to the floor and shoulder-height. As you do so, turn your hand out so your palm faces frontwards. Exhale and repeat.
The glute muscle is crucial to maintaining flexibility and movement as you grow older. However, it’s all too often forgotten. The glute bridge is an effective, machine-free way to help remedy this. Lying face up on the floor, with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, lift your hips upwards until they form a straight line with your knees and shoulders. While doing so, keep your abs taut, and maintain the position for a few moments before slowly coming back down. Make sure you’re not pushing from your heels—the power should be coming solely from your hips—and repeat.
While the box squat sometimes gets a bad reputation as a dangerous movement, it’s actually—when done properly—an exercise which can transcend all types of populations. With a bar on your shoulders and a box set behind you, push your knees and butt out to begin a descent downward. Eventually, you should reach the box in a position close to a squat. Slowly ease into the box—not bouncing off it—and relax your hips. After a brief pause, drive upward off your feet, pushing your knees out, until you regain your starting position. While doing so, maintain taut abs and keep your head facing forwards.
Because you may not have as much free time after you pass 40, it’s important to get the most bang for your buck when it comes to exercise. For cardio, consider the incline treadmill. By running uphill rather than on a flat surface, even if it’s just a 1 percent tilt, you can greatly increase the number of calories burned. In addition, it increases work done by your cardio without forcing you to run any faster, thus helping take some unnecessary stress off your knees.
Standing Calf Raise
Calves are one of the most crucial muscle groups for maintaining mobility as we age. The standing calf raise is a great, low-stress way to tone up your calves without even leaving your home. Standing on the edge of a step—or a fitness platform, if you have one—push up on your toes, letting your heels hang off the back. While doing so, keeps your abs taut, and feel free to lean your hand against the wall for support. Hold the position for a few moments, then lower your heels below the step until you feel a stretch in your calves. For maximum effect, lift as high as you can, and dip as low as you’re able.
Single Leg Forward Reach
The single leg forward reach is great for both toning your abs and improving your balance. Standing upright and with one foot off the floor, lean forward until your upper body is parallel to the floor. While doing so, hold your arms out straight, and kick your uplifted foot backwards until it forms a place with your feet, hands, and head. Hold the position for a few seconds, then return your foot the floor, re-engaging your original position. After ten to 12 reps, switch sides.
Ear to Shoulder
Having tight traps can feel like carrying around a heavy backpack—everywhere. It’s also a common cause of what may seem like unrelated neck and shoulder pain. For that reason, it’s crucial to stretch it out frequently. To begin, bring your right ear to your right shoulder, without lifting your left shoulder. Then, lift your right hand over your head, resting it on your left cheek. Without pulling, place gentle pressure on the head—you should feel a stretch in your upper traps. Breathing, hold the position for thirty seconds, subsequently releasing and doing the other side.
In addition to stretching your traps, it’s crucial to strengthen them, too. While a shrug is an isolation movement—meaning it only utilizes one joint and should be done in tandem with other, compound movements—it’s nonetheless highly effective in providing your traps the extra strength they need to get through the day. Begin by standing straight with a weight in each hand, palms facing your hips. With your arms straight, lift your shoulders and exhale, holding at the top for a moment. Slowly lower the weights, making sure your biceps are not engaged, and repeat.
Reverse Lunges with Bicep Curl
For those up to the task, there aren’t many movements as challenging and all-encompassing as the reverse lunge and bicep curl. For that reason, it’s crucial to have it on your repertoire. Begin with your feet together and weights at your side. Stepping back with one foot into a lunge, bring both weight to your shoulders in a curling motion. Bringing your foot forward, return to your original position, slowly bringing the weights back to your side. Switch to the other side, and repeat.
Single Leg Deadlift
For an all-body exercise that will strengthen your butt, legs, back, and core, look no further than the single-leg deadlift. While it may seem difficult at first, don’t let that scare you off—it gets easier with time. With a weight in one hand, bend at the hip, pushing your opposite leg off the floor and lowering the weight until you parallel to the ground. Make sure to tighten your core and avoid rounding your back. For an increased challenge, increase weight.
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese exercise involving slow, methodical movements and deep breathing. In addition to placing a light stress burden on muscles and joints—making it perfect for bodies of all shapes, ages, and sizes—tai chi can be a meditative practice, providing a brief respite from the day’s onslaught. And if you haven’t exercised since your 20s, have no fear, tai chi’s minimal demands make it the perfect re-entry into a physical lifestyle.
Pilates is an exercise system, developed in the early 1900s, meant to strengthen coordination, balance, flexibility, and endurance. The practice consists of a series of controlled movements, where focus is placed upon proper form and breathing. Much like tai chi, its atmosphere of calm is perfect for the overworked 40-year-old trying to find some mental rest along with their workout. Finding an instructor shouldn’t be hard, either: While it’s technically an unlicensed field, studies estimate there are over 12 million practitioners in the United States alone.
Despite appearances, yoga is much more than a fad. In fact, for individuals over 40, it can be just what the doctor ordered. Due to the many different types of yoga available (hatha, anusara, bikram, and kundalini being just a few), a particular regimen can be geared toward any number of age-related ailments, including loss of muscle tone, back pain, and inflexibility. In addition, the ancient practice’s focus on breathing and focus can help reinvigorate mental clarity, as well as brighten mood.
Stand-Up Paddle Boarding
This mode of aquatic transportation may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of exercise, but it’s actually one of the fastest-growing fitness trends today. That’s because, in addition to recreational fun, it also provides a full-body workout. For that reason, some have begun terming it “exercise by accident.” Over and above the head-to-toe strain of paddling, it also improves balance by forcing you to navigate obstacles and avoid tipping over into your local lake.
Walking briskly, defined as about 100 steps a minute, can be as effective a fat burner as a visit to the gym, and without all the expensive equipment or stinky locker rooms. Just get your technique down, put on some comfortable sneakers, and hit the road; experts recommend a 30- to 60-minute walk at least twice a week. In addition to its caloric benefits, brisk walking is also a weight-bearing exercise, thus helping to prevent the onset of osteoporosis. Finally, it helps ward off unwanted thoughts: people suffering from depression have been shown to receive benefits in their mood from just a couple of walks a week.
Spinning is a great exercise for getting the calorie burning, full-body workout of a run without putting all that unnecessary stress on aging joints. Classes, meanwhile, are often a great motivation for those who have trouble focusing on an exercise, as you are in a room of like-minded cyclists urging each other to go on. The ability to vary your own bike’ resistances also means you never have to worry about falling behind some 20-somethings—simply downshift for an easier ride.
Cardio exercise becomes crucial as you age. In addition to keeping our hearts in good working order, it’s been shown to improve brain memory and functioning, warding of dementia and other signs of cognitive decay. However, the most popular form of cardio, running, has its downsides, putting pressure on your knees, hips and backs. Instead, try an elliptical—you’ll get all the benefits of a treadmill without experiencing any of these potential pitfalls. There’s a reason you see one at almost every gym.