Dividing up your working day with regular walks, taking the stairs or pottering around your garden is an essential part of your midlife fitness equation. Regular walks burn calories, strengthen your heart and lungs, and protect against diabetes and dementia. But how many steps should you aim for?
Many experts still talk about hitting the magic 10,000 steps mark, but there is little evidence this figure is necessary. Research by Harvard Medical School found that even 4,400 daily steps are associated with a 41 per cent reduction in mortality. The study found that mortality rates do improve with the more steps you take, but the benefits level off after around 7,500. Any more than that will of course help you stay fit. But it seems a daily target of 7,500 steps (and no fewer than 4,400) is the figure to aim for.
The pace of your walks also appears to be an important factor for midlife health. A brisk 4mph seems to be the optimal pace to aim for. A study of 475,000 people by the University of Leicester found women who walk briskly, at over 4mph, enjoy a life expectancy boost of up to 15 years over those who walk at less than 3mph. For men, the life expectancy boost was even higher at around 20 years.
Experts still debate whether a brisk walking pace is just a general reflection of existing good health and weight or a health-boosting activity in its own right. But another major study of 412,000 people published by the same university this year found that slow walkers of a normal weight are 3.75 times more likely to die from Covid than fast walkers of a normal weight. So it seems that picking up the pace on your daily walks really does enhance your health.
85-95 per cent +
Heart-pumping interval sessions are important for midlifers as they strengthen your cardiovascular system and improve lung performance. A growing volume of research suggests that poor cardiorespiratory fitness is as strong a predictor of mortality as other major risk factors such as smoking, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. In other words, your longevity is not just dependent on your weight and diet, but also on the health of your heart and lungs.
It seems that the best intensity to aim for is 85-95 per cent of your maximum heart rate, which means an exercise that leaves you out of breath. Research suggests that lower-intensity exercise, though beneficial, may not be enough on its own to improve cardiorespiratory fitness in sedentary or obese adults. But a major review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) – short bursts of 30-second or 1-minute efforts at 85-95 per cent of your maximum heart rate – significantly improves maximal oxygen uptake and other key cardiometabolic risk factors such as diastolic blood pressure and blood sugar levels in overweight people. Over time it also improves waist circumference, body fat percentage, resting heart rate and systolic blood pressure.
So make sure you pump up the intensity of your exercise sessions, with spin classes, five-a-side football or sprint intervals that raise your heart rate. Every little effort helps: a paper in the journal Circulation found even small increases in cardiorespiratory fitness can cut your risk of heart problems by 10-30 per cent.
x3 per week
High-intensity workouts can be fun but they are also tough on your body. So how many do you need to do? If slashing your body fat is your primary goal, it seems the answer is three per week. A recent review of 32 studies, published in the International Journal of Obesity, found the most effective dosage of high-intensity exercise for burning visceral fat – the kind of belly fat that increases your risk of diabetes and heart disease – was three sessions per week. But don’t panic, because they don’t need to be long. The optimal duration of each session was found to be around 30 minutes. So a quick gym class, a few sprints when you’re out jogging, or a body weight circuit in front of the TV will do the job, making this goal much easier than you think.
x2 per week
Lean muscle mass naturally deteriorates with age (a process known as sarcopenia), so midlifers need to do regular strength exercises to prevent their muscles wasting away. Strength training – whether through lifting dumbbells, gardening or yoga – has been shown to improve muscle mass, burn abdominal fat, boost metabolism, enhance balance and mobility, reduce inflammation and improve bone health.
It seems the current NHS recommendation to perform strength activities twice a week is about right. A major study by Penn State College of Medicine found that older adults who do strength training twice a week have a 46 per cent lower risk of death from any cause, a 41 per cent lower risk of death by heart disease, and a 19 per cent lower risk of death from cancer. A separate study in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research found that just two resistance training sessions per week is enough to protect your bone density and muscle mass. And you don’t need to spend hours in the gym either: research in the International Journal of Exercise Science found that simple 11-minute body weight workouts increase leg power by 10 per cent.
So you’ve got your daily walks, your high-intensity exercise and your strength sessions covered. But you also need to find ways to stay active during the sedentary working day. A global team of scientists, led by Glasgow Caledonian University, found that sparing the time to do just three minutes of moderate exercise for each hour of the day you spend sitting down can cut your chance of an early death by 30 per cent.
Although general health guidelines suggest we do 30 minutes of exercise per day, the experts found that this did not necessarily correlate with a reduced mortality risk for anyone who spends extended periods sitting down. And given that most of us spend 50-70 per cent of our time sitting down, that’s a lot of people. However, when those sedentary people did three minutes of exercise for every hour they spent sitting down, their odds of an early death were slashed.
It seems micro-bursts of exercise during the working day help counter the effects of sitting. A paper in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that subjects who regularly did just three short 20-second sprints on an indoor bike enjoyed a 9 per cent gain in cardiorespiratory fitness. Another paper in Experimental Physiology found that even short walks can reverse the vascular dysfunction – such as reduced blood flow and increased stress on the artery walls – caused by extended periods sitting down. Simply bolting on a few press-ups, stair climbs or yoga stretches at the end of each hour of work can protect your body from the risks of a sedentary lifestyle and ensure you live a longer and healthier life.
Do you have a question about staying fit in midlife? Ask our experts here.