“If exercise could be packaged in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.” This quote, attributed to Robert Butler of the National Institute on Aging, reinforces the benefits of exercise as one of seven dominant predictors of successful aging that’s within your control. Yet, with myriad exercise program options, it can be hard to know the right approach. For this post, Big Retired Life synthesized exercise programs from six leading exercise and longevity experts* into one plan that works for anyone who is already active.
For those of you who don’t exercise, confer with your physician before starting. In Age Later, Dr. Barzilai recommends that older individuals exercise for at least 25 minutes around four times a week. Make that your first milestone, and then progress to this more strenuous plan. Data from a JAMA Network 2019 article shows it’s never too late to start exercising and reaping its longevity benefits.
The synthesized plan
This plan contains four exercise types: easy aerobic exercises, hard anaerobic exercises, strength training, and flexibility + stability exercises. It’s a little more than 5 hours of exercise per week; about 45 min per day. Pair hard anaerobic exercise and strength training on the same day. Alternate those hard days with easy aerobic and/or flexibility + stability exercise days.
Easy aerobic exercise
How often? 40 minutes, 4 days a week.
What is it? Aerobic exercise includes walking, jogging, cycling, and swimming as well as using gym machines such as a stationary bike, treadmill, or stair climber. Target 60-65% of your maximum heart rate. In From Strength to Strength, Arthur C. Brooks emphasizes, “…the single best, time-tested way to [stay active] is walking every day.”
Why is it important? Aerobic activities condition the heart and lungs, improve circulation, and have been shown to provide cognitive benefits.
Hard anaerobic exercise
How often? 25 minutes, 2 days a week.
What is it? Hard anaerobic exercise can be calisthenic, interval, strength circuit, or high-intensity interval training. These exercises involve sets of alternating short, fast, high-intensity movements followed by periods of rest. It’s more intense yet shorter in duration than easy aerobic exercise. An example would be doing three sets of the New York Times 7-minute workout or adding a one-minute sprint at defined intervals during your easy aerobic training. Target 70-85% of your maximum heart rate.
Why is it important?: A 2020 Norwegian University of Science and Technology five-year study showed HIIT workouts resulted in 3 percent less mortality risk as compared to moderate exercisers.
How often? 30 minutes, 2 days a week.
What is it? Strength training uses resistance bands, weights, or body weight to build muscle mass through exercises such as push-ups, squats, lunges, and dips. Target all major muscle groups: chest, shoulders, biceps, triceps, glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, and back. Use free weights versus machines, as they also strengthen stabilizing muscles and support functional fitness. Big Retired Life recommends TRX suspension trainers.
Why is it important? Loss of strength is a significant problem for aging and can lead to mobility issues. Strength training allows you to live with more function for longer. According to Younger Next Year, “aerobic exercise saves your life; strength training makes it worth living.”
Flexibility + stability exercise
How often? 45 minutes, Once a week.
What is it? Flexibility + stability exercises are foundational to produce nearly all movements and include fitness programs such as pilates, yoga, and tai chi. With long-term benefits, you can also incorporate snack-sized stability exercises, such as balancing on one foot for 5 minutes.
Why is it important? A 2016 Center for Disease Control study cited falls as the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries among people over 65. A 2018 British Medical Journal study reported higher grip strength is associated with longer life. Staying flexible, having good balance, grip strength, and foot strength reduces your risk of injury, improves your posture, reduces musculoskeletal pain, and ultimately extends your life.
While lifespan is how long we live, health span is defined as living with the absence of disability. This synthesized plan is built to increase your health span. Physical activity becomes easier over time. Consistency carves canyons.
* Six expert resources:
- Peter Attia, M.D. – Physician focused on the science of longevity, received his medical degree from the Stanford University School of Medicine.
- Nir Barziali, M.D. – Age Later author and founding director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
- Arthur C. Brooks – From Strength to Strength author, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, and social scientist who studies human happiness.
- Michael Joyner, M.D. – Anesthesiologist and physiologist who researches exercise physiology and professor at the Mayo Clinic.
- Henry S. Lodge, M.D. – Younger Next Year co-author, board-certified internist in New York City. (deceased)
- New York Times Well + Phys Ed Sections (subscription required) – People Who Do Strength Training Live Longer––and Better; The Secret to Longevity? 4-Minute Bursts of Intense Exercise May Help; What Your Exercise Habits Might Say about How Long You’ll Live; The Right dose of Exercise for a Longer Life
The information provided is to be used for educational purposes only. It shouldn’t be used as a substitute for seeking medical care. Work with your doctor and personal trainer to develop the right workout program for you.
Throughout the “Top Priorities” section of this blog, we will provide data-backed insights for a long, active retirement.