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Why Is My Body Falling Apart at 50? (And What You Can Do About It)

Female personal trainer coaching a midlife client on the bird dog exercise

The father of my children used to playfully copycat my mom, a scrappy 4'11" Japanese woman who would exclaim Yokkorasho! with gusto whenever she exerted physical effort, like getting up from a chair. Now, as a midlifer--though not Japanese and with a more substantial frame--he Yokkorasho!s unironically as he propels himself from the sofa. He assures me it's quite effective.

When I catch up with friends, we share our latest health updates (who knew turning 50 meant so many screenings and tests?) and reminisce about our all-night dance-stravaganzas in 6" platform stilettos, wondering how we did it. I can still get my boogie on, but now it's in cute sneakers with orthotic inserts and preferably before sunset. I still got it--as long as it's before 10pm.

What got harder for you after 50?

As we enter midlife, many of us notice that activities we once took for granted now require new levels of effort and recovery. From getting up off the couch to dancing our hearts out, we may not feel quite as supple, strong, spry, and/or resilient as we used to. Naturally, if we don't intervene, our bodies undergo changes that lead to decreases in muscle mass, bone density, strength, and power—sometimes starting as early as our mid-30s. For those of us who experience menopause, this midlife transition can intensify and accelerate these changes. Fun, right?!

But don't despair: not only can we slow down these age-related declines, in some cases we can even reverse them. With a thoughtful and strategic approach to fitness, you can gain the strength, stamina and resilience to keep up with your zest for life.

Q: Is exercise anti-aging?

A: It’s more accurate to say exercise is anti-negative effects of aging. Exercise doesn’t stop us from aging (thank goodness!), but it does help mitigate many issues we face as we age, like muscle loss, bone density reduction, and joint stiffness. By staying active, we can maintain our strength, mobility, and overall health. Think of exercise as your personal toolkit to increase vitality and decrease age-related declines.

Why is working out harder when you get older?

It's not the years, honey. It's the miles. - Indiana Jones

Indy was right. If you’re a fitness enthusiast or engage in sports or physically demanding hobbies, you may be starting to experience recurring or chronic injuries. You may also find that it’s harder to recover from training sessions and it’s far too easy to “overdo” it. Throughout our whole lives, our bodies are in a constant state of tissue breakdown and repair, and it takes longer to rebuild and repair those muscles, tendons and ligaments in midlife than it did when we were younger. That’s just the natural trajectory of things—IF we don’t intervene. And let me repeat the good news again: we can game the system by mitigating and reversing the negative effects of aging through fitness. 

Which is better: cardio or strength training after 50?

The question isn’t should you do cardio or strength training after 50; the question is how do you cardio and strength training after 50. Prioritize strength training and supportive nutrition to build tissues like bone, tendons, ligaments, and muscle. Avoid restrictive diets and excessive cardio, which can break down tissues and increase injuries (but intelligently programmed cardio is still important). A mix of strength training, more lower intensity cardio and less frequent higher intensity cardio activities can support your heart and metabolic health and keep you active.

Can you tone your body after 50?

When the word “tone” is used in popular magazines and social media, it usually refers to leanness with some visible muscle definition. This typically requires two opposing fitness goals: building muscle mass but also having low enough body fat to see the muscle, which often requires dieting. Genetics and historical relationship with food and exercise play a huge role in whether someone can achieve and sustain this aesthetic safely or not (unfortunately, eating disorders in midlife are not uncommon).

If your goal is improving overall health and fitness, consider focusing more on strength and muscle building and less on weight loss. Changes in body weight and shape may occur as you adjust your activity levels and nutrition, but you’re guaranteed improvements in strength, stamina, agility and mobility (and fewer injuries, aches and pains) if you prioritize increasing your fitness over aesthetics.

[ Curious how you can improve your health & fitness without pursuing intentional weight loss? Read 12 Benefits of Exercise without Dieting]

Starting an exercise routine at 50 if you’re new to fitness

Maybe you’ve never participated in formal exercise before and felt fine, but now you’re starting to notice aches, pains, and fatigue that are impacting your activities and even your mood. Is starting a fitness routine for you? Yes, it absolutely is! The key is to be consistent. To be consistent, your program must be one that you’re both willing AND able to do. This is not a time to “wing it”--especially if you’re working with any new or chronic injuries or health conditions. Consider working with a personal trainer who understands the unique strengths and challenges faced by women over 50. A tailored approach can make all the difference in ensuring you stay safe, motivated and get results.

How long does it take a 50-year-old to get in shape?

It depends on what your definition of "in shape" is. Do you want to climb a flight of stairs without getting winded? Would you like to get on the floor with ease and play with your grandkids (and get back up again)? Is your goal to place a suitcase in the airplane's ovherhead bin without assistance as you travel around the world? All of the above?!

If you train consistently following a program designed for specific outcomes, taking into account your strengths and limitations, you could be making real, noticeable progress in a matter of weeks. Fitness goals such as improving strength, balance, or stamina respond well to practice—if you practice these skills consistently, you’ll make progress. If you’re following a program you enjoy and can do, you exponentially increase the chances that you’ll practice consistently. 

Q: How often should I workout after 50?

A: According to the current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults need 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity physical activity. In addition, adults need at least 2 days of strength training per week. 

But, if you’re just starting out, that may be too much right out of the gate. And that's totally fine--longterm fitness is a lifelong practice you build over time, it's not a 30 day challenge and then you're done. That means you have time and space to create the fitness routine you'll stick to. So, start with some light aerobic activity like walking (in a pool for lower impact on joints), swimming or stationary cycling just a few minutes several times a week. For strength training try some easy for you bodyweight exercises like elevated squats and wall pushups a couple times a week. Start slow and easy and progress gradually.

Is it harder to get in shape after 50?

It may take a little longer, require more patience and a midlife-friendly fitness plan, but it turns out that even older adults, well into their 90s, have the ability to build muscle and increase their fitness capacity. And it’s even easier for us in midlife! We just need to be more thoughtful and strategic in our approach to fitness. That means quality exercise programming tailor made for your body, goals and lifestyle (no more random “junk workouts” that do little else than make you sore and tired), more high quality fuel for your training (especially getting enough protein to maintain and build precious muscle tissue and bone density) and more quality rest and recovery (exercise is only the stimulus for change, during rest and recovery is where change occurs) . 

It's never too late to get midlife fit

The good news is that it's never too late to increase your fitness and physical confidence while decreasing aches, pains and injury risk. The even better news is that the sooner you start, the sooner--and longer--you'll enjoy the benefits.

Hi, I’m Emiko Jaffe, Certified Personal Trainer and fellow woman over 50. If you’re ready to create the midlife fitness you need to keep up with the activities and life you enjoy, I’m here to help. To learn more and to book your complimentary consultation, visit my website for virtual 1:1 personal training or in-person 1:1 personal training in Del Mar, CA.


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