How to change your fitness routine to stay strong and mobile as you age

This professor of biomechanics shares tips he swears by himself.

This professor of biomechanics shares tips he swears by himself

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

It's obvious that the appropriate fitness regime for an average 20-year-old may not suit the average 60-year-old. Many have vague ideas about shifts from hockey to golf or from CrossFit to aquafit, but can we be more specific? How should our approach to fitness change as we age?

Dr. Stuart McGill is professor emeritus in Spine Biomechanics at the University of Waterloo and founder of Backfitpro Inc.. He's both a researcher and clinician, and he's worked with everyone from desk workers to elite athletes to help them live and perform without pain. Now in his 60's, with hip replacement, McGill is focusing more and more on adjusting fitness regimens to enhance function in an older body. We asked him to explain how the demands and capacities of our bodies change as we age, and to take us through the seven-day training cycle that he uses to stay strong and mobile into his later years.

Tuning your body to meet the demands of your lifestyle

According to McGill, the key to designing a fitness regime is to first understand the specific demands of a person's job and lifestyle, then measure the person's ability to meet the demands. A training approach should be designed to develop the capabilities that the individual needs but currently doesn't have.

Demands, of course, vary with each individual. Playing squash, working at a desk, or being a firefighter all call for different forms of physical fitness, and individual training should reflect that. McGill is blunt about this: "Many people have back pain because they are an office worker training like an NHL hockey player, when they should be focusing on addressing the physical stresses from prolonged sitting, then build fitness for resilience."

He says that most often they're either overtrained or undertrained. And the reality is that physical capabilities change with age as do the specific risks. As such, he recommends we change our training accordingly. "Fitness programming is like tuning a vehicle. Tune the body to efficiently meet a specific demand," says McGill. He adds that it's essential to "work within your capacity, and increase your health and injury resilience without crossing a tipping point that causes injury."

Risk of falling

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, falling is the leading cause of injury-related hospitalizations among seniors in Canada. Therefore, says McGill, one of the key physical demands for aging people is "to maintain the ability to recover from a stumble." He takes a very practical view of the problem. "When you're stumbling, your job is to get your foot out in front of you. To arrest your fall, it has to be ahead of your centre of mass. It's pure mechanics." Older people fall more easily because they have lost the hip muscle power to get their foot out in front of them, together with the mobility in the hip that allows them to do it easily.

With this in mind, McGill has tuned his fitness regime to this new demand. "Hip power and agility have become a much more important part of fitness for me. I used to squat and deadlift, now I'm more interested in quickstep dances and other footwork exercises." He's also added elements of grip-strength training for when he needs to quickly grab a tree branch or stair rail when he stumbles.

Despite the increased risk of falling that comes with age, McGill does not think that fitness for seniors is just training to avoid falls. But developing our capacities to recover from falls can help us avoid injury, which is essential for enjoying other activities. In McGill's case, this means cross-country skiing, splitting firewood, swimming, and hiking in the bush.

The seven-day training cycle 

Even though every individual has particular training needs based on ability and lifestyle demands, McGill has devised a seven-day training cycle which provides an overall structure for staying fit into old age, and which can be adjusted according to individual preference. It's very simple and consists of:

Strength training: two days

Mobility training: two days

"Something else": two days

Rest: one day

The two strength and mobility days should not be performed consecutively.

Strength training: Grip, hips, and patterns

After 40, says McGill, people tend to lose muscle mass and strength. "I can't strength train and recover like I used to, but I have to maintain some strength." Therefore he's shifted his strength training from heavy lifting and bodybuilding to lighter pattern-based training. This means choosing exercises based on common functional patterns such as pushing, pulling, lunging, lifting, lowering, and carrying. For example, to train his pull strength, he adopted a TRX strap pull. For pushing, instead of hitting the bench press, he'll do some standing press exercises.

Instead of splitting up the week's strength work into different body parts, McGill recommends working through the whole body on each strength day. He also advises focusing on specific kinds of strength that will help meet your demands (such as recovering from falls). This means working on his grip strength (he holds an iron bar and waves it in a figure-eight in front of him) and hip flexion strength (using hip flexion exercises on a roman chair).

Mobility: Unsticking what's stuck

"Mobility didn't matter very much to me when I was younger. I had it. But now things are getting stuck." As we age, we tend to get stiffer, particularly in ball and socket joints such as the hip and shoulder. Decreased thoracic mobility is also common, leading to more slouched posture. McGill says that this means that it's important for older people to focus more on maintaining their mobility.

Mobility work should focus on your own particular creaks and stiff spots. Pay attention to how you feel, and when something starts getting stuck, find some mobility exercises that use your full range of motion, says McGill. For him, that means just a few deep squats with no weight, as well as thoracic extension exercises to combat the tendency to slouch.  If you have pain radiating down from your neck or lower back, he says you might benefit from "nerve flossing" mobility techniques, which he describes in his book Back Mechanic. 

"Something Else"

In addition to strength and mobility training, McGill prescribes two days per week of "something else". Follow your own tastes here; the point is to enjoy yourself. For McGill, "it changes with the season. I might ride a bike, go for a swim, or go for a cross-country ski. Something to get the old ticker pumping."

However, "cardio" isn't one of McGill's favourite words. "Yes, cardiovascular exercise is the intent, but 'cardio' makes me think of indoor treadmills and exercise bikes, which I absolutely abhor. Life is too short to be a rat in a wheel." Instead, McGill recommends activities that incorporate a greater variety of movement. Because falling is a bigger risk, it's also important to "create a balanced environment so people who are getting older can keep challenging and testing their balance." Hiking works. McGill also said that Tai Chi is a great exercise for older people that builds strength, mobility and balance.

Recovery: More exercise isn't better

Young bodies recover quickly. A twenty-year-old may experience a day of soreness before recovering, stronger than before. This process slows down as we age, and McGill says we should take that into account.

Older people should stop exercising before they get sore, says McGill, because that usually means they'll need an extra day to recover. "It's better to have two moderately easy days of activity than one hard day and then two days off." He also recommends dividing physical tasks into manageable intervals. Instead of spending eight exhausting hours raking leaves at once, McGill divides the job into four intervals of two hours.

Because older bodies take longer to recover, he says the one "day of rest" in the seven-day cycle is non-negotiable.

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.