We like to believe age ain’t nothing but a number. We hit 35 and feel better than ever… until we try to start up a workout routine again after taking some time off from our fitness.
Coming back into the gym after a long break? That’s when we really feel the power of age. In every bone and muscle in our bodies.
For those of us who haven’t been particularly fit and healthy in the years leading up to our third decade, getting back to the gym in our 30s - especially post-35 - can be akin to a form of mild torture. We might feel breathless and injury-prone, exhausted and unmotivated.
But even pro athletes find that their bodies suffer when they’ve hit pause on their workouts: a 2011 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that competitive collegiate swimmers who took a five-week break after their last competition of the season had a 12% increase in body fat - and they were nowhere near their 30s (they also continued with some form of mild exercise out of season).
People get off track with their fitness for lots of reasons, from demanding work schedules to the pressures of family life. Not enjoying our workouts, feeling we’d rather see a friend for a pint then spend an hour in the gym and wanting to save money are other reasons fitness becomes a chore for some of us, rather than a part of our weekly schedules that we look forward to and embrace.
Oh, and the fact that it can feel harder to work out each time we try - a by-product of ageing - most certainly isn’t going to help.
“From the age of 30, our body experiences hormonal changes which also affect muscle mass and bone density. This translates into a slower metabolism and a reduced ability to burn fat,” explains personal trainer and nutritionist, Amélie Khellaf of AMK Training.
There’s also a reason your jeans are starting to feel tighter around your waistline: once we reach our thirties, fat tends to get stored around our midriffs.
“The good news is that exercise will help rev up your metabolism, by building muscle and keeping your bones strong. Cardio alone won’t do it so it’s time to hit the weight room,” Khellaf advises.
How to get started
If you’ve been away from your regular workout or routine for a significant amount of time because your schedule’s gotten completely chaotic, there are plenty of training methods you can try to quickly - and safely - get yourself back on track with your fitness.
“The quickest way to get back in shape is to keep it varied and low impact (to start with),” says Khellaf.
“Aim to train three times a week, integrating a mix of strength training and cardio - it’s the most effective way to build muscle, get fit and build up stamina.”
If you fell off the fitness wagon because of an injury, start back with low-impact, low-intensity workouts: think spinning, swimming, strength training with light weights and running at a steady pace. These can all yield results and are safe forms of training - now probably isn’t the time to try that exciting-sounding hypoxic chamber workout.
Khellaf’s top tip? Learn to perform an exercise correctly first, before you crank up the speed or intensity.
How to stay motivated
Even if you’re committed to working out, finding the time each week to exercise isn’t always easy - especially if you haven’t been prioritising your training. Khellaf recommends making a realistic fitness plan and sticking to it, favouring a short and intense workout over nothing.
“Modern life is hectic and time is the number one hurdle to exercising. Make sure you train at a time that is convenient for you and for a duration that you can sustain. Use compound exercises that engage several muscle groups simultaneously or interval and high intensity training, which saves time and delivers results quickly,” she advises.
One way to get yourself in gear? Hire a personal trainer: it’s a lot trickier to bail on an individual than it is on a fitness class. Also, a PT can help you avoid injury and find the exercises you enjoy that also help you reach your goals. They’ll also make sure you’re doing everything correctly.
“If you are more of a class person, choose one that has different levels i.e. beginner/intermediate/advanced. That way, you can control your progression and move up levels more naturally than if you’re constantly trying to keep up with the rest of the group,” says Khellaf.
“Same rule applies if you’re looking at getting back into practising your favourite sport. It’s all about gauging your fitness level and working up to your top form!”
Help! What if I’ve had a really big break from fitness?
The longer you stay away from exercising, the harder it can be to get back into it. Not a huge surprise: studies have found that even two weeks of no exercise can cause your VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use) to drop by 10%. After another two weeks, it might be down 15%.
“When you take a break from fitness or take time to recover from an injury, your body reverts to its old ways and gradually your muscle fibres start to decline and fluid retention kicks in,” explains Khellaf.
“In essence, the longer the break, the more your fitness level decreases, meaning that you are losing muscle and retaining fat.”
So if you haven’t worked out for longer than a few weeks - because you’ve just had a baby, for example - it’s understandable you might be feeling hesitant about getting back to the gym. This can feel even scarier if you’ve had a difficult labour.
“It’s the delivery that can play havoc with your pelvis, lower back and neck,” says Khellaf. “It’s also important to bear in mind that - at any age - having children often means being constantly tired which in itself slows the weight loss process as cortisol levels are persistently high.”
I’m really worried about getting injured. How should I get back into things?
If you’ve taken time off from fitness because of an injury, you might be especially worried about getting back in the gym. But there are certain steps you can take to ensure your workout is safe, according to Khellaf: warming up, watching your form, staying hydrated, choosing the right shoes, stretching and recovering properly.
Here are her top tips for safely reintroducing exercise into your life:
1. Warm up
Whatever routine you are going for that day, start light and slow to warm up that muscle group. For instance, if you’re training with weights, start your session by doing body weight squats and lunges. When moving to upper body exercises, start by using lighter weights and go up on the second set. If you are on the treadmill, warm up at low/medium speed for five minutes. That way, you literally get your muscles warm, minimising the risk of injury.
2. Watch your form
Good form is the number one factor to keep injury at bay. It’s true for any type of exercise and it’s the quickest way to seeing results. I advise a strong mind-muscle connection; be in the moment and think about the exercise you are performing and the muscle you are working. Even if your body wants to give up, your head will keep it going in the correct manner. Also, know your limits: keeping your workout challenging is one thing, but lifting too heavy or running at a speed that’s just too high for your current level of fitness will be completely counterproductive as you will likely engage the wrong muscles and lose your form.
3. Keep hydrated
Sweating while training means losing essential fluids. Drinking water throughout will help you minimise muscle soreness.
4. Choose the right shoes
Whatever the activity, choose supportive, shock-absorbing trainers which will help minimise the impact on joints.
5. Stretch and recover properly
Don’t skip the cool down and bear in mind that muscles are built between workouts. The same applies if you are a runner. Knees, glutes and thighs work hard when you run and they suffer from wear and tear like anything else. It’s vital that you stretch correctly after each workout to alleviate the stress your body has just been put under and maintain flexibility. Choose movements that target the muscles you’ve worked and make sure that the stretch feels good. Don’t go to the point where it hurts as it means you’ve gone too far.