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5 Exercises Keep An Aging Body Strong and Fit

Hadley’s Intro:  Declines in muscle and bone strength
may start in your 30s.  How do you head off or reverse decline?

Build a smart workout habit you discover in a NYT guest post

By Connie Chang
Published March 1, 2023
Updated March 2, 2023
When we’re young, exercise can enable us to run
a race after an all-nighter or snowboard on a diet
of Doritos. But as we age, fitness has a much more
far-reaching impact, boosting our energy levels,
preventing injuries and keeping us mentally sharp.

Aging causes muscles to lose mass, bone density to
thin and joints to stiffen — affecting our
balance, coordination and strength. At the same
time, hormonal shifts and persistent low-level
inflammation can set the stage for chronic
diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease
and diabetes.

And the changes start earlier than you might
think. Muscles begin to shrink in our 30s and
continue their downward spiral in midlife, with up
to 25 percent of their peak mass gone by the time
we’re 60.

But there’s hope: Exercise can stall muscle
loss, cognitive decline and fatigue. “It’s
never too late to start exercising, and it’s
never too early,” Chhanda Dutta, a gerontologist
at the National Institute on Aging, said.

You can’t just start dead-lifting 150 pounds at
the gym, though. Start slow, experiment and
gradually amp up the intensity.

Experts suggest trying exercises that target one
or more of four categories of fitness, all of
which deteriorate with age: flexibility, balance,
endurance and strength. Preserving function across
these domains can stave off injury and disability,
keeping you active and independent longer.

There is no magic-bullet, full-body exercise to
forestall aging, said Dr. Brian Feeley, the chief
of sports medicine at the University of
California, San Francisco. Here are five
movements, targeting different areas of the body,
to try.

  1. Strengthen the lower body: Squats and stairs.

One of the simplest and most effective ways to
build lower body strength is the squat. It’s
important to keep your rear end behind you, and
your feet close to parallel, if you

During exercise, “injuries happen when you’re
fatigued, and your muscles can’t react as
quickly,” Dr. Feeley said. Squats help prevent
this fatigue by strengthening the large muscles in
your lower body while moving multiple joints at
once, which improves overall endurance as well as
balance and coordination.

Dr. Feeley suggests doing three sets of 10 to 15
squats four times a week. To further challenge
your balance, do them with one foot or both feet
on a pillow. Or to focus on strength, squat while
holding free weights — close to your chest to
start or extended in front of you to work your
core more.

If you loathe squats, but still want to strengthen
the same muscle groups, try climbing stairs, which
is adaptable to different fitness levels, said Dr.
Maria Fiatarone Singh, a geriatrician at the
University of Sydney. Start by walking up and down
the stairs, and graduate to sprinting or wearing
ankle weights.

For added difficulty, hop up the stairs on one
foot or two feet — holding onto the handrail if
necessary for safety. “Hopping is a power
movement for your hip and knee extensors,”
similar to the power training of box-jumping
exercises, Dr. Fiatarone Singh said. If you are
pressed for time, turn it into a high-intensity
exercise, with four four-minute bouts of
high-intensity effort, resting three minutes
between bouts, four times a week.

Can’t spare even that much time? “Even four
minutes, four days a week significantly improves
aerobic capacity,” Dr. Fiatarone Singh said.

2. Get your heart rate up: Take a Nordic walk.

Nordic walking uses the upper body to help propel
the body forward. It’s important to keep the
arms straight and the poles angled backward so
that they push with every step.Credit…Nicholas
Sansone for The New York Times

As a cross-country skiing enthusiast, Dr. Michael
Schaefer, a rehabilitation physician at University
Hospitals in Cleveland, loves Nordic walking —
an exercise using ergonomic poles that uses the
same movements. No snow required.

“Nordic walking is unparalleled as an aerobic
exercise because you’re not just using the major
muscle groups of your legs and hips, but your
core, shoulders and arms too,” Dr. Schaefer
said. The regimen lowers blood pressure and
improves the body’s use of oxygen. And when you
traverse hills or uneven ground, you’re
strengthening your ankles and challenging your
vestibular system — a sensory system housed in
the inner ear that enhances balance and

“Start with 15 to 20 minutes three times a week
and work up to one hour,” Dr. Schaefer advised.

The basic movement — walking, using poles to
propel your movement — can take some getting
used to, but online videos or your local Nordic
walking group can get you started. The key is to
swing your arms as if they’re clock pendulums,
keeping the elbows relatively straight and
planting your pole behind you and pushing off as
your opposing leg strides forward.

Gillian Stewart, the program director for Nordic
Walking UK, recommended buying Nordic walking
poles, since they’re angled to the position they
take during the exercise. In a pinch, Dr. Schaefer
said, “regular walking poles would work,” but
not ski poles.

3.  Train your upper body: Try hanging around.

You don’t need to do pull-ups to benefit from a
pull-up bar. Hanging for a minute at a time can be
a good way to build grip and arm

If Katy Bowman, a kinesiologist, had her way,
everyone’s New Year’s resolution would include
a trip across the monkey bars. “It’s such a
primal movement, and uses all these parts of our
upper body” that otherwise don’t get used very
often, said Ms. Bowman, the author of “Rethink
Your Position.”

Hanging from a horizontal bar enhances grip
strength and shoulder mobility, strengthens the
core and stretches the upper body — from the
chest to the spine to the forearms.

As with any exercise, it’s best to progress
slowly — start by hanging on a bar with your
feet supported on a box or chair so that muscles
unused to carrying a load can become accustomed to
bearing some tension. From there, proceed to an
active hang, in which your shoulders blades are
retracted and pulled down (as if you’re about to
start a pull-up), your core and arms are engaged,
and your hands are about shoulder-width apart.

Add a slight swing front to back or right to left
to work the core and spine even more. Or mix up
your grip — hands facing away from or toward
you, or one of each — to emphasize different
muscles. An underhand grip, for example, loads the
biceps more than an overhand grip, which works the

And you don’t need fancy equipment to hang. Ms.
Bowman suggested creating a hanging station in
your home with a “$20 doorway chin-up bar that
doesn’t take up much of a footprint.” Since
she’s installed one, she said, she’s noticed a
“radical” increase in her upper body and grip
strength — which is linked to a decrease in
all-cause and cardiovascular mortality. A little
goes a long way too: Begin with 20-second hangs,
twice a day, working up to a full minute.

“Frequent, shorter hangs distributed throughout
the day are your best bet for making progress,”
Ms. Bowman said. Once you feel comfortable with
one-minute hangs she recommended eight to 10 of
them, with an hour’s rest in between. These
breaks also give the skin on your hands some time
to adapt.

4.  Strengthen your core and hips: Use a slider.

Planks are an easy way to build core strength. To
make it more challenging, bring your knees up to
your chest. For an added layer of difficulty, use
sliders under your feet.

If you work at an office or a desk, all of that
sitting can do a number on your hip flexors, the
muscles that help you bend your knees toward your
waist and stabilize your spine. And hunching over
a desk shortens the muscles in the chest while
lengthening those in the back, contributing to
text neck, which is muscle strain and weakness of
the lower neck, shoulders and upper back.

To counteract this, Nicole Sciacca, a mobility
specialist in Los Angeles, pairs mountain climbers
with sliders — small disks on which you rest
your hands or feet that slide freely on the floor
(or, you can use paper plates). Training on an
unstable surface increases the intensity of an
exercise, forcing you to engage your core —
especially the diaphragm, transverse abdominis and
pelvic floor — to maintain position.

“It’s great because it asks everything along
the front side of the body that’s been sleeping
at a desk or in a car to get stronger,” Ms.
Sciacca said.

If you’re new to working your upper body and
core, Ms. Sciacca suggests holding a simple plank
for 30 seconds. Once that’s comfortable,
position your feet on the sliders, assume the same
position, and work to keep yourself stable.

To progress, move one foot in under your body
until your knee reaches your chest. Slide that
foot back out while your other foot comes in.
Continue alternating your feet for up to three
rounds of eight reps, keeping the core strong and
the back straight. Or try a timed effort of 60
seconds when you’re ready for more. Variations
include bringing your knees in and then out at the
same time or sweeping your legs out in a
jumping-jack motion.

5.  Improve your flexibility: Foam roll.

Foam is a good way to help your fascia become more
elastic. Experiment between rolling before and
after a workout and the parts of the body that
benefit most.

Tala Khalaf, a physical therapist at Stanford in
Palo Alto, Calif., thinks of fascia — a system
of connective tissue that wraps around our muscles
and organs — as the Cinderella of orthopedic
medicine. For years, this tissue, which is studded
with sensory nerves and can look like a sheath
around the outside of muscles or found within
them, toiled away in obscurity, ignored and

But research in the past decade has lifted up
fascial tissue as a crucial component of the
musculoskeletal system. As we age, fascia becomes
less pliable and elastic, which contributes to
back pain, stiffness and a limited range of

Dr. Khalaf, who is also a faculty member at
Stanford’s Orthopedic Physical Therapy Clinical
Residency Program, said one solution was foam
rolling, which massages out the fascial kinks and
improves flexibility. Best of all, the basic moves
are simple and time-efficient. Typical areas to
roll include the calves, thigh and back.
Experiment to see which exercises provide the most

A Workout Schedule to Get You Started
Now, weave all the threads together — with the
aim of least five days a week of exercise. Dr.
Feeley recommended mixing and matching exercises
that hit the four dimensions of fitness, but notes
that its components can be rearranged, depending
on what you like and want to improve.

Day 1:

Foam rolling

Nordic walking

Day 2:
Mountain climbers


Nordic walking

Day 3:

Foam rolling

Day 4:
Mountain climbers

Foam rolling

Nordic walking

Day 5:


Want to see images of each exercise?  Click here


Will you use this news to build strength, bone mass and flexibility?

Hadley Finch

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