The 7 Secrets of Staying Fit After 40

The 7 Secrets of Staying Fit After 40

This 41-year-old expert reveals strategies that even regular guys can use.

I’m not an elite athlete. I’m just a guy on the precipice of middle age who enjoys running, biking, soccer, and tennis. If I can push myself to my physical limit a couple of times a week and still have the energy to crawl around with my daughter, then I’m satisfied.

That makes me a useful filter. The pros have unlimited budgets and few demands on their waking hours beyond making themselves fitter. If you want to spend thousands —or tens of thousands — to sleep in an oxygen pod wearing infrared pajamas, then knock yourself out. But chances are you care only about things that work, are safe, and fit your schedule and budget. So trust the guy with a day job, a bad back, and a new baby. Here’s what I learned in two years of reporting for my book Play On.

Periodize Your Regimen

The importance of periodizing and the risks of not doing so have been drilled into my head by the likes of soccer coach Raymond Verheijen and exercise scientist Trent Stellingwerff, Ph.D.

For an elite athlete, periodizing can mean creating a structured program of buildup and tapering that yields peak fitness at a precise time. For me, it’s more about the principles: ramping up training gradually, preparing my body for specific demands, and avoiding fatigue. If you invite me to play soccer and I haven’t been keeping in soccer shape, or if I’m nursing an injury I could play through, I say no. Benching yourself sucks, but it doesn’t suck as much as missing an entire season because you got hurt.

Emphasize Recovery

Elite lifters end their workouts differently than the rest of us do. Strength coaches talk about loading and unloading–that is, the former should always be followed by the latter. I now think in those terms. “Unloading” for nonlifters can mean yoga, foam-rolling, ice tubbing, running in water, or meditating. It encompasses both recovery and range-of-motion work that prevents the sorts of movement limitations and compensations that can build up over time and lead to injuries.

I used to consider happy hour a valid cooldown routine. Now I’m a fanatic about stretching and self-massage and have a closet full of straps, bands, foam rollers, and lacrosse balls to show for it. Committing to this is tough if your schedule is packed, which could tempt you to extend your workout and skip the stretching. That’s a bad tradeoff.


Go Hard (and Easy)

A percentage of your workouts should be high intensity, and the balance — say, 80 percent — should be performed at very low intensity. Again, I don’t stick to any formal program of polarization, but I try to avoid what Stellingwerff says is the most common mistake athletes make: going too hard on easy days and then not being able to go as hard as you want the next time out.

Instead, I make my hard workouts both shorter and more intense than I used to. Elite older athletes stay competitive by being more deliberate in their training, focusing their limited time honing specific skills, and correcting their fitness weaknesses. For me, this often means taking two minutes before I start to write up a plan on a sticky note. A little intentionality goes a long way.

If you’re looking for a new challenge to get in the best shape of your life after 40, check out Muscle After 40, a 12-week workout program from Men’s Health.

Eat for Muscle

Much of the nutrition “science” peddled to athletes is bunk. If you’re eating a healthy diet–lots of different fruits and vegetables, proteins, and whole grains, not too much sugar or processed stuff–you’re probably fine. But if you want to avoid losing muscle as you age, it’s worth making a couple of tweaks. I’ve increased the protein in my diet as well as the number of times I consume it during the day, following the advice of triathlete and nutrition scientist Asker Jeukendrup, Ph.D. A side benefit: Adding protein to anything you eat effectively lowers its glycemic index, says Chris Jordan, M.S., C.S.C.S., director of exercise physiology for the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute.

So if I want to have an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie without feeling a sugar crash, I’ll put a smear of almond butter on it. I also try to consume 3 to 5 milligrams of creatine powder a day, usually in a smoothie or a glass of milk, just before or after a workout. It’s had a noticeable effect on my ability to build and maintain muscle.

Sweat the Small Stuff

For athletes with a history of injury or physical limitations (that’s all of us, eventually), the key to optimal fitness is separating desirable training stresses from undesirable ones. If you have access to an AlterG anti-gravity treadmill or Kaatsu bands, great. If you don’t, there are still plenty of ways to embrace this concept.

Instead of adding weight to an exercise, I’ll incorporate a balance element, like doing pushups with my hands on medicine balls, or add a second force vector, like having a resistance band around my knees during squats. Focusing on smaller, neglected muscle groups is not a recipe for getting huge, but it’s great for developing functional strength and avoiding injury.

Learn New Skills

Challenging your body in the same ways day after day for decades is an efficient way to chew up your body. Challenging it in different ways is the perfect cure. I marvel at elite athletes and, like most regular guys, I envy what they’re able to do. But they should envy us too.

There’s nothing like trying something new and sucking at it, and then sucking a little less every day. Science hasn’t yet made it possible for us to get younger. This quest —getting fitter, faster, and better at what we each love — is the closest thing we have to a fountain of youth.

Run Without Pain

This one’s not for everyone. Nowadays I see a lot of older runners in “maximalist” shoes made by Hoka One One or Altra, with soles as thick as a Game of Thrones paperback, and not caring whether they’re landing on their heels or toes.

But after wading through the conflicting research and talking to biomechanists, I’m convinced: There are benefits to forgoing a little cushioning and learning to strike the ground with your midfoot or forefoot rather than your heel. Your legs are springs–the stiffer the spring, the more efficiently the forces you put into the ground return to your body, propelling you forward.

WARNING: If you feel strongly about the need to change your footstrike, find a coach who can work with you on it. Recent research suggests that the most energy-efficient running style for most people is the one that comes naturally to them. Your problem may be more stride than strike, though, and biomechanist Jay Dicharry, M.P.T., readily concedes this.

“The vast majority of runners actually overstride,” he says. By focusing on shortening your stride, you may ultimately change your footstrike pattern. This leads to less of a “pulling” and more of a “pushing” running pattern, resulting in less stress on (and potential damage to) your joints. Slower times in exchange for less pounding on my spine is a tradeoff I’m happy to make.

Get a Workout In

Ready to put these principles into practice? Try this week-long workout from the Men’s Health Muscle After 40 program to start. Make sure to include at least one full day of rest between workouts. You’ll do each exercise as straight sets, completing all the sets of one exercise before moving onto the next.

Week 1, Day 1

Dumbbell Incline Bench Press

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Seated Cable Row

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Dumbbell Curl

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Dumbbell Incline Triceps Extension

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Goblet Squat

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Lying Leg Curl

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps


3 sets of 30 second holds

Week 1, Day 2

Trap Bar Deadlift

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Dumbbell Split Squat

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Dumbbell Bench Press with Neutral Grip

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Dumbbell One-Arm Row

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Lateral Raise

3 sets of 12 to 15 reps

Dumbbell Rear-Delt Raise

3 sets of 12 to 15 reps

Standing Calf Raise

3 sets of 25 reps

Week 1, Day 3

Lat Pulldown

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Cable Fly

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Rope Hammer Curl

3 sets of 12 to 15 reps

Rope Pressdown

3 sets of 12 to 15 reps

Leg Press

3 sets of 15 to 20 reps

Leg Extension

3 sets of 15 to 20 reps

Back Extension

3 sets of max reps