Golfing 60-somethings might seem a cliche – but a study found that it is the best workout for the over 65s. So which activities are best suited to other life stages?
Retirees using golf to stay active might be a cliché, but a study published earlier this month in BMJ’s Open Sport and Exercise Medicine found that swinging your clubs really is the best workout for those over the age of 65. Researchers found the sport had the biggest benefit on blood glucose, blood pressure and blood fat levels over other walking-based activities.
But what about the best workouts for other stages of our lives? While there’s no-one-size-fits-all, and our exercise routines will depend on our individual enjoyment, ability and health, our age really does affect our exercise needs.
“The most important thing in every single life stage is that exercise is consistent and frequent, without overdoing it,” explains Tim Kayode, a performance specialist and founder of physiotherapy clinic Myoset. “But as we get older, a lot of things change in our bodies, and we need to tailor our training accordingly.”
Age 0-10: Play
The early years are crucial for brain and body development and physical activity is proven to help children flourish: a study published in 2022 showed that physically active children have better motor control and improved cognitive development.
NHS guidelines say that children under one should be doing at least 30 minutes of tummy time, while toddlers should do a minimum of three hours of physical play a day, including pulling themselves up, walking, jumping and gripping toys.
When they’re five, movement can get more intense. “Starting with sports and exercise teaches children coordination, strengthens their muscles and bones, and builds aerobic capacity to ward off issues like asthma,” says Kayode. It’s important for little ones to move for an hour a day, including bodyweight exercises, like gymnastics or martial arts, and cardio-based activities, whether running around the playground or joining a football team.
Getting started from a young age is mostly about instilling good habits that will last into their adulthood.
Age 11-20: Team sports
“Many teenagers suffer from a lack of confidence, depression or anxiety as they go through hormonal and physical changes – exercise is a great way to boost endorphins to counteract those feelings,” says Kayode. The best workout might be team sports, says personal trainer Tess Glynn-Jones, as it helps teens “develop physical skills like agility while teaching them to be a good communicator and team player”. And in a JAMA study, students who did group physical activity, either in team sports or informal fitness groups, had better mental health than those who exercised alone.
Don’t be a pushy parent: most teenagers benefit from a relaxed approach to movement. A BMJ study found that low-cost, fun, unstructured and social activities are the best way to increase activity in teens, so try getting them to a local Zumba class or out hiking with a friend.
Fitness is huge on social media, but where possible it’s best to avoid aesthetic sports (lots of research links them with body dissatisfaction). However, hitting the gym can be useful for building a strong foundation, says Kayode: “Lifting is absolutely safe but I would say it needs to be light, sensible and under supervision.” Any improper form now will set the injury agenda for later in life.
Age 21-30: Strength training and sprinting
Some research suggests that our strength peaks about 25 (although most of the research is done in pro weightlifters). But it’s true that “you really come into your own with strength training in your 20s,” says Kayode. Mehta agrees: “We can really maximise how strong and powerful our body is at this age to reduce the risk of weakness later in life.” Strength training involves lifting heavy weights for one to five reps, but work with a personal trainer if you’re just getting started.
You will benefit from intense cardio training, too – the International Journal of Exercise Science reported that training with a heart rate over 75 percent of its maximum improves markers of cardiovascular fitness.
Don’t burn yourself out with all that hard work. “The best way to take advantage of these years is to have a really good programme that allows you to progress but also pull back on the training when you need to. For women, get to know and work in line with hormonal fluctuations,” says Glynne-Jones.
Age 31-40 Pilates and HIIT
Your 30s are full of physical peaks, including bone mass and flexibility, so it’s important to keep moving to lay good foundations while you can. But our lives also intensify outside the gym too, particularly for women having children. “Your core, hips and lower back will be under pressure when you grow in size and shape during pregnancy, so strengthening those areas before, during and after pregnancy is important,” says Kayode. One of the best ways to do that? Pilates. “It focuses on strength and stability, particularly of the internal wall, without putting too much strain and stress on your joints,” he adds.
Men, don’t back away: a study published in the journal Age found that flexibility begins decreasing from the age of 30 by nearly 1 percent a year. Pilates is the perfect way to stretch out those muscles.
Keeping up your HIIT sessions can also help lock in the power of fast twitch muscle fibres (those used in explosive movements) that are the first to decline with age and it is quick enough to fit into busy schedules.
Age 41-50: Jogging and group training
According to Strava data from 2019, middle-aged runners run faster average marathon times than their younger rivals as our endurance capabilities build. It’s also good for us to pull back on intensity and increase distance: a study of people aged 40 to 65 years old diagnosed with hypertension found that gentler exercise, with a heart rate of 70, reduced blood pressure just as effectively as HIIT workouts when heart rates rose to 90.
Resistance training is still crucial to counteract testosterone declines in men and ward off osteoporosis that occurs when oestrogen dips in menopausal women. “At least twice a week, you should be using your body against resistance,” says Mehta. This might be best done at a dumbbell-focused group fitness class: a 2019 paper found middle-aged people who exercised with families or friends had higher life expectancies.
Age 51-60 Swimming and cycling
About 50 per cent of women and 20 per cent of men over 50 will experience an osteoporosis-related fracture. “A lot of cardio options like running and HIIT are stressful on the joints, so while I’m not saying stay away from them – especially if you are experienced or strength training alongside – lower-impact options might better reduce the risk,” says Glynne-Jones.
These include cycling and swimming, which fuse cardio and strength training without putting pressure on the joints. A Kings College London study showed that regular cycling warded off the expected loss in muscle mass and strength expected with older age, while an Australian study found swimming reduced insulin and blood fat levels better than walking.
Research shows recovery is slower between exercise sessions as you age, so while you should do 30 minutes of movement every day, only do intense workouts three times a week. “Focus on tailoring the workload and getting the right amount of recovery – you have to go the extra mile to look after yourself as you age,” says Kayode.
Age 61-70 Golf and power training
The latest study suggests that golf is the answer to mid-life health, despite the game involving stop-starts that lower your heart rate. Researchers put the benefits down to total time spent being active: golfers were playing for three and a half hours, while Nordic walkers were only out for one. At this age, slow and steady cardio is key.
Meanwhile, your strength work should be getting more intense – a review from last year found that older adults had the most physical and functional benefits from power training – moving quickly against resistance – and a 2021 study found that muscular force declines with the menopause. “This type of training should be reflective of day-to-day life, like squatting to help with standing up from a chair,” says Glynne-Jones. “It should also be unilateral, working one side at a time as with lunges or step-ups, to challenge your balance and coordination which helps prevent falls.”
Mehta agrees: “You can still improve muscle, build self-esteem and stay confident in later life by strength training at this age, even if you’ve never done it before.”.
Age 70+: Yoga
“The most important thing older adults can do is not stop,” says Kayode. “Once they become sedentary, muscle atrophy can occur pretty quickly, but they also lose confidence in their abilities.”
He suggests any moderate exercise that not only engages them physically but also mentally as “motor skills and coordination might start to drop off now”. A 2021 paper supported the idea of fusing body and mind, suggesting resistance training and meditative movements like Tai Chi and yoga were the best combinations for improving health in older adults.
Most importantly, “keep up the activities that make you happy”, says Glynne-Jones.