Updated: Oct 29
In my last article I listed the top 10 gym exercises to do to be fit in your 90’s. If you read the article, you may have also noticed that it is heavily biased towards resistance training. This was no accident, for 2 reasons. The first is due to the fact that the vast majority of the elderly population are limited by their strength more so than their cardiovascular system. Secondly, I consider resistance training to be the closest thing we have to a "fountain of youth", as nothing improves strength, power, muscle, bone density, and even mobility as lifting weights 3x per week. All of which are the main ingredients for being free to do the activities you want to in your twilight years.
And just as a refresher, the top points I want to bring to the forefront from the last article are:
There's a big difference between lifespan (how long you will live) and health span (the years of quality and independence you have)…. and they rarely line up according to the average
Humans die in predictable ways (such as breast and lung cancer, heart disease, alzheimer's, and type 2 diabetes), most of which can be related to poor metabolic health. Metabolic health is drastically improved with daily exercise.
If you want to be exceptional in your 80’s or 90’s, you can’t be average now.
It's NEVER too late to start exercising. Even modest improvements in fitness have a drastic impact on improving health outcomes
Despite my stance that resistance training should make up the lion's share of a fitness plan, there are several additional elements needed to make up a well rounded fitness profile. This well rounded approach will not only serve to improve your overall health, it can actually enhance the benefits you get from resistance training as well!
How? You ask.......
Many of the top 10 suggestions below have to do with improving recovery (especially Zone 2, Soft tissue, and Mobility). The idea is that the better you recover between workouts and between sets, the more you are able to exercises/lift weights at a higher intensity for a longer window of time. Which ultimately means you are able to build a greater reserve of strength, power, muscle, bone density, and mobility for future years (thus increasing your health span). Bottom line, the older you get and the harder you train, the more important recovery practices become.
This brings me to my top 10 exercises to do AWAY from the gym to be fit in your 90's. Of course you can still do these exercises in the gym, I just wanted this list to be as inclusive as possible for those that aren't gym goers. I also wanted to raise awareness and stress the importance of doing these activities on a daily basis.
Soft Tissue Routine. This has been a game changer for me and my clients. It's mind blowing what a $5 lacrosse ball and 5 minutes/day can do for maintaining joint function and reducing aches and pains. Our joints are designed to last 100 years, and many people stop doing certain activities or exercises in the gym because of achy joints. This is why soft tissue work is first on my list, I cannot overstate how much of a difference it can have on how the body feels and performs. (I have testimonials to back this up:)
Instead of thinking"I can't do this or that anymore because of my knees or back etc", ask yourself how much time and effort have I put into a mobility and soft tissue recovery routine? Obviously our bodies do change as we age, and there are legitimate limitations. That said, make sure you try to address the issue from mobility and soft tissue care perspective first before considering a limitation permanent. *Please consult a professional for guidance if unsure about any injury *
Mobility Routine. This goes hand in hand with everything said above. Mobility and soft tissue work together as part of a recovery plan. There are a ton of mobilizations you can do depending which part of the body you are trying to target. Even a few minutes a day can make a BIG difference in how the body feels and functions.
The couch stretch and squat hold are 2 of my favourites for the lower body because they capture multiple joints and muscle groups in one position. For the upper body try these for the T-spine and shoulders. I'd also recommend trying Yoga that targets mobility. *Please consult a professional for guidance if unsure about any injury*
Balance Exercises for fall prevention. Although balance exercises can help improve balance, fall prevention has more to do with power, or the ability to quickly correct oneself. Think of quickly moving your legs to recover when you slip. Power (expressing force rapidly), is again why resistance training is so important.
Besides getting stronger and loading the single leg stance exercises like lunges, and split squats, there are several poses in yoga that also challenge balance. You can also integrate balance into daily chores such as balancing on one foot while brushing your teeth or doing the dishes. These bodyweight exercises can also be added to your workouts.
Not only will these activities help you develop force rapidly (power), the impact from landing helps build bone density and strong connective tissue.
Zone 2 Training or Low HR cardio. I won't bore your with the science but basically Zone 2 is the highest intensity of cardiovascular training you can do without accumulating lactate. Research shows this is essential for metabolic fitness by improving mitochondria number, function, flexibility, and fitness. Many diseases that reduce lifespan are related to poor mitochondrial/metabolic health.
Without measuring lactate, you are most likely in Zone 2 if you can maintain a conversation while training. In reference to Max HR its about 65-75%. The unfortunate trade off with this "easy" type of cardio is it takes a long time. The min/effective dose for the mitochondria is 45 min, 3-4x a week. This is where podcasts or calling up a friend for a chat come in:)
Zone 5 or High HR Training. Improves speed and power by taxing both the aerobic and anaerobic systems. HIIT, sprint intervals, or Tabata workouts would classify as Zone 5 training. This zone improves insulin sensitivity and cardiovascular function. *For safety, make sure you can handle Zone 2 training easily before attempting Zone 5*
The tradeoff with this type of training is it's near maximal and very uncomfortable. On the other hand, you don't need to accumulate much time in Zone 5 to yield the benefits. Many endurance athletes do Polarized training. Which is 80% in Zone 2 , 20% at harder efforts.
Think of this as a Behavioural habit. Doing 10k steps all at once may seem like a lot. However, if throughout the day you decide to take stairs, get off one stop early on subway, take a business call while walking, it's more easily done. Not to mention, if you want to be able to do all these things in your 90's these behaviours need to be ingrained decades before.
Walk bare foot and/or use minimalist shoes as often as you can. Strong feet set the foundation for how the rest of the body performs. Strength, stability, balance, power, and mobility are all related to how our feet function and interact with the ground.
One of the things I under appreciated in my earlier days as a coach is the impact our feet have on the rest of the body. I explain this in detail in this article. Choosing the correct shoes is paramount if you want the right mechanics for lifting, walking, and running. *For safety, make sure you can handle walking in minimalist shoes first before trying running in them*
Jog or Run. I personally don't enjoy running, that said, it's something I make myself do on a weekly basis. My thought process is that running is a basic human function we should all be able to do. And if I want to be able to jog across the street if I had to in my 80's, I need to be able to run 5-10k easily now.
I'm not suggesting anyone become a marathon runner, all I am suggesting is running is a skill/capacity we want to hang onto for as long as possible. If you are not a "runner"like me, the key is to work within your capacity. Maybe for you it's adding a few seconds of light jogs into your walks and gradually building up over time.
Mental/Social. My list of recommendations would not be a "deep health" approach if I didn't include a mental health component. So my suggestion is to do as many activities as you can socially. Because connecting with people and having solid relationships is as much of a predictor of longevity as anything else.
Try group classes, make conversation at the gym or on walking trails, you never know who you will connect with. The more socially connected you are to something the more likely you are having fun, and the more you enjoy something, the longer you will stick with it!
There you have it, my top 10 exercises to do away from the gym that have the most impact fending off Father Time.
For those that may be overwhelmed at the totality of the 20 suggestions. Here are a few tips that may help you reframe and process the information a little better.
1.For those that are not gym goers or are not regularly active: Don't get down on yourself! Instead, choose just one thing from anything I've suggested. Pick the thing you think is the easiest and most enjoyable. Try to do it socially.
2. For those that are active but are thinking "how in the Sam Hill do I fit everything into a weekly routine?" Look for the things that overlap, so you are essentially checking off multiple boxes at once. For example, going for a light jog in minimalist shoes with a friend takes care of Zone 2, daily steps, foot stability, and mental/social.
3. Another way to frame things might be to think of it as alternating between day one and day two. On day one you prioritize the gym strength exercises (post 1), the next day you prioritize the non-gym activities (everything above) . By the end of the week you will probably check off most of the boxes.
Thanks for reading. Please comment and SHARE this post if you found it useful. You can also join my private group here so you don't miss my next blog post:)
If you, or someone you know, needs help setting up a plan with these exercises, either in the gym or online, please reach out. I specialize in helping busy professionals over 40 get fit without burning out. My personal training studio services downtown Toronto and is just steps away from the UP train at Union Station.
Edith here did not start going to the gym until she was 91 years old (it's NEVER too late!)