Transformational Guide to Getting Fit & Staying Fit Over 40!

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Getting Fit and Staying Fit over 40 isn’t easy and what used to “do the trick” doesn’t seem to work anymore. Truth be told, I was born an athlete. I was obsessed with kick the can after dinner on school nights, rode a bike as early as 5 and played on teams with boys by the time I was 12. In high school and college, I played tennis and field hockey competitively and have participated in both dance and rollerskating competitions over the years. Growing up, I water skied, canoed and swam daily during the summer, adopted snow skiing in my twenties and turned to kayaking and cycling when I wasn’t doing something else. When I first moved to San Francisco, I danced in the park on Sunday afternoons, regularly attended the late evening skate on Friday nights and hiked with friends in Marin.

Then, suddenly something switched off, almost like a light bulb that stopped shining bright when its lifetime warranty said it always would. When I was younger, I found that I could participate in sports and be active on weekends, drink great wine in the evenings and eat plenty of carbs, then sleep for five hours and still perform like a Rock Star come Monday morning.

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Frankly, I don’t want to perform like a Rock Star anymore and I no longer have the same desire to hike the tallest mountain on Saturday come rain or shine — sometimes I just want to veg, write or get lost behind my Canon 7D. It doesn’t mean I still don’t yearn to get the heart pumping, but it does mean that it’s harder to fit extensive exercise into my schedule and still manage everything on my plate during a work week. “You are getting older,” a friend or two remind me every now and then. Rather than blame less exercise on age, I’d rather point to a combination of things of which age is one factor, but only one of several that matter.

Body Metabolism Changes

As we age, our body metabolism does change. The good news is that if you had a fast metabolism years ago, you likely still do, but you may require a little more exercise and a different diet than you had in your twenties. I was never heavy on the carbs, but I didn’t think twice about having a sandwich, a piece of chocolate cake when I had the craving or my favorite go to: a large pistachio frozen yogurt. Ever since we expanded our coverage of Food & Wine on We Blog the World, not only did we learn that it was among the top readership categories, but we discovered that people love reading about new restaurants, so suddenly the number of reviews increased. I also started attending more “foodie” events and shows and tasting became a past time, a bit like hiking used to be every weekend.

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The good news is that the majority of my tasting came from organic farms, sustainably-minded chefs and the kitchens of some of the best restaurants in the world. In early 2015, we drove across country, taking 5 weeks across 14 states and later in the year, hit even more. Everywhere we stopped, we ATE. We ate in New York, Virginia, Memphis, Nashville, Oklahoma City, Baltimore, Lake Placid, Providence, Idaho, Lake Tahoe, Sedona, Santa Fe, Taos, Little Rock Arkansas, Clarksdale Missisippi, Kentucky, Philadelphia, and yes, even Amarillo Texas. Delicious carbs were thrown our way and especially in the south, we indulged far more than our bodies could handle, especially without regular exercise.

By the time April rolled around, I had put on 25 pounds, more poundage than I’ve ever known and the first thing I noticed was how much the weight aged me — I moved from point A to B slower and my pace was lethargic, my skin looked sluggish and tired, and frankly I had little motivation beyond getting digital deadlines done. When I could no longer wear my favorite jeans and leather coat, I realized it called for drastic measures. Where does one begin when metabolism has slowed down, exercise isn’t part of a daily routine routine and there’s no time to lose it? Or, so I thought.

Know that your metabolism changes, so you need to develop new patterns that work with you as you age….and they may differ from what you did earlier in your life.

Find a Routine That Works

While I’ve never been a gym addict, I became very fit in my thirties through regular lifting when I lived in Boston. Anthony has successfully remained toned and fit through a combination of heavy bag work, lifting and martial arts over the years and is a fan of integrating gym workouts into his  weekly routine. That requires discipline though right? Yes, it does, but here’s a few things I learned going through the hard process of “showing up” at a gym and continuing to show up every day.

Be okay with baby steps and don’t be hard on yourself particularly in the beginning. Third, find a few things you love to do at a gym and pick one that is a challenge, but that you could learn to love over ti

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I started with CRUNCH Gyms, a national brand you may or may not be aware of — they have gyms across the country with a large number of options in New York State and California and given my east coast west coast travel schedule, it seemed like a good fit. I realized that doing weights without cardio wasn’t going to do much to shed the unwanted pounds. If you try a class and don’t like the pace, the music, the style, or the instructor, then try another one. The key is to not give up.

Humans are creatures of habits after all, so finding an instructor that gels with you is half the battle. I also tried a few yoga classes as well and while I love the power of yoga for building flexibility and body core strength, my core objective was to lose weight, then tone and strengthen.

Get Focused

It’s easy to get distracted when you try something new. With so many classes on offer, it was hard not to get lost in the volume of them. While it’s great to vary your routine, you need to get focused on a couple core classes or set of routines that you consistently do each week so you can build on what you learned and accelerate from there.

I found two instructors who combined dance and cardio with muscle toning so that during class, I could actually feel those calories burn in real time. Getting focused also allows you to be more disciplined even if you’re not great at the D word. Anthony had a much easier time sticking to regular muscle strengthening and toning exercises, something he’s been doing for years and that was relatively new for me at a gym.

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Dance wasn’t new so Zumba was a bit like a side cousin to what I could already do well. When you’re shooting for such a large number (25 pounds was significant for me), it’s easy to get discouraged. Finding things you love to do makes it easier to get focused and stick with it.

Set Up Easy Win’s 

Having goals is great but if you set your goals so high that it’s easy for you not to just get defeated, but to feel defeated, chances are you won’t stick it out for the long haul. In the second month, I found that I was only losing a max of 2 pounds a week, and usually only one to one and a half pounds. Remember too that when I did exercise, I poured myself into the routine or the Elliptical Trainer to take full advantage of that solid hour of burning fat and yet it was taking longer than I had hoped to take the weight off.

Setting up easy win’s is much easier to do when you choose things with smaller learning curves. In other words, if you’ve never cycled in your life, don’t start an exercise regime that includes cycling. If you’ve hiked a lot over the years, running or fast walking around a track or up and down hills could be an easy add-on. Zumba is a nice extension of dance for me and I find the motion of the Elliptical to be a nice blend of running and cycling.

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The other thing I did to increase my chances of success is to position myself in the front of the room when I took a class so I could feel more confident with the movies that much faster. By doing this, I could focus on making the moves count, increasing cardio as I improved and not on trying to learn something new. If I screwed up, I simply kept my body moving so I didn’t lose momentum.

Another suggestion is to find a “friend” early on to support you. Even if you don’t go to a gym to socialize (I’m one of those people who don’t), talking to other women in the locker room about their own challenges, made me feel more “normal” about my own.  It’s the soap opera effect.

This is also a great way to share best practices — by exchanging stories of what worked and didn’t work for you opens up a window for others to do the same. In this exchange, trust grows and so does community. A gym is a great place to build a community even if they don’t end up being close friends. That community can encourage you, even if it’s only at your weekly class, to keep going and not give up.

Drink Plenty of Water

You’ve probably heard this tip your whole life — from your mother at a young age and your doctor to Health Tips on The Today Show. Drinking plenty of water matters and it matters a lot. Not only does it improve your skin tone over time, but it increases your energy levels as well. If you’re feeling sluggish, you’d be surprised at how drinking a couple of glasses of water will give you an immediate surge of energy. Invest in a serious water filtration system or buy the purest of Spring Water you can afford — Fiji is a good one.

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Alkalinity of your water also matters so be sure to compare brands before you decide on one. Purified water in bottles sold at the grocery store is simply that – purified. If water bores you, then spruce it up with a squeeze of lemon or lime. You can also infuse your water with other low sugar fruits for flavor if you’d like as well but stay hydrated. Your hunger pains won’t feel as severe with more water in your system either. I’m astonished at the power of water — don’t underestimate its advantages. Simply add it to your “must” list and double your intake to see what the right amount is for you over time.

There’s No Time Like Now

It’s so easy to put things off. Trying to imagine how I would take off 25 pounds was overwhelming at first and it wasn’t until the third month that I saw some hope. I began to feel like my old self again even though I was only 9 pounds down and suddenly my metabolism picked up steam again as I continued on course. The key is not putting it off and not giving up after you start. Think baby steps, checking off little win’s as you go (see above on Setting Up Easy Win’s), and then progressing from there.

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Once you commit (NOW would be the time), then choose someone who is supportive in your life but firm who can hold you accountable. When you’re feeling like you can’t reach your goal or the routine is simply too hard, have them pep talk you through it. As silly as it sounds, leaning on a friend who encourages you that possible is not only possible but is a serious reality if you stay the course, can be the one thing that motivates you to get over a set back. We will always have set backs (we might get a cold in the middle and can’t work out for a week, have to travel for work or our child gets sick), but reminding yourself that whatever the set back is is just that, a set back, not a permanent excuse why you can’t get back in shape again. You can and you need to — your health is the most important resource you have. Without it, you’re useless to your children, aging parents, employees, employers, spouses and friends.

Diet Change: Take the Plunge

While no one likes to be on a diet or give up certain foods they love, I wish I could tell you that this guide has a workaround magic formula, but one simply doesn’t exist. Diet is a big deal, especially in the states where more and more of our available options are processed meal packages, processed snack bars with fructose corn syrup and so called healthy snacks that have more carbs and sugar combined in a small bag than you should have in two days.

Although I’ve mostly been thin for as long as I can remember, there were a few times in my life where I put on weight and had to take severe action to reverse the course. The most notable time was when I was an exchange student to South Africa, and like all the other exchange students who I ventured abroad with that year, I put on weight. We all did. When diet changes, you need to be aware of which foods affect you, how and where…

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After 40, I found that carbs landed around my middle and didn’t come off quite so easily. Around the same time I started with CRUNCH, I significantly cut out carbs. The combination of a gym cardio and toning routine and a very low carb diet began to pay off. While the weight came off very slowly the second month (slower the second month than the first month in fact), I stayed the course. Remember earlier how I talked about being gentle on yourself especially at first? Being hard on yourself isn’t going to help, so taking baby steps is the only course of action that will work over the long haul. When you see little successes from one baby step, you are more likely to take another baby step. After each baby step, you will see a reward, even if small — all of those little rewards will add up towards your ultimate goal.

When you change your diet, be clear about what you can’t give up or you’ll slide. Having lived in Europe for so long, I love having a glass of wine with my meal at night which roughly has 3.5 carbs. Be sure to read our latest write up on 5 California Wines We Love for a few good suggestions.

For lunch after a workout, I’d typically have an Arugula Salad with goat cheese, a hard boiled egg, onions and a half an avocado which is incredibly low on the carb index scale. I found a refreshing sparkling probiotic drink with Lemon Cayenne from Kevita that you can pick up at a Whole Foods or a grocery store like it. An entire 15.2 ounce bottle only has two grams of carbs and two grams of sugar. For dinner, we’d stick to organic meat (alternating between fish, chicken, pork, lamb and lean steak), a low carb vegetable like broccoli and a salad. Sometimes we’d go for a wedge salad with goat cheese, other times a mozzarella and tomato salad and other times, carmelized onions over Arugula and tofu. The entire meal including the wine came in at around 12 or so carbs.

I’m not suggesting eating a ton of meat and cheese as an ongoing diet is the way to go. To be fair, I’m not advocating for an Adkins Diet although I’ve done it a couple of times and it does work. Over time, high protein with too few carbs can be unhealthy. That said, sticking with very low carbs and high proteins for 3.5 months consistently helped me accelerate the weight loss process while exercise gave me the discipline I would need to keep the weight off once I started integrating higher carb foods back into my diet. As for fast food and processed food, just say NO. Not only are they bad for weight gain but they’re unhealthy period! That includes sodas, diet sodas, anything with refined sugars or grains, white breads, salamis, milk chocolates, sugared drinks and hormone-infused meats. Kick them to the curb to increase your chances at keeping heart disease and cancer at bay.

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I”m more of a fan of the Paleo Diet or a variation of it. It mainly consists of meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit, and excludes dairy or grain products and processed food. Early on in my regime, I was eating vegetables but not ones that were high in carbs. In other words, beans were off the list and beans are an incredibly rich source of fiber. For the first four months however, beans were off the table as was all bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, sweets and fruit.

Six months later, I’m still not eating fruit but beans are now back on the menu and dishes with sauces, like Indian food. Earlier on, if I did land at an Indian restaurant, I would only order a dry chicken kebab, a salad with lemon and nursed a glass of wine until it took the edge off the papadum and garlic naan staring at me from someone else’s plate.

Committing to wellness is a lifestyle shift, not an experiment, as much as my six month stint might seem like one. My commitment to a holistic life, from food and exercise to time in nature and to sit in silence is an integrated part of my life and will continue to be even though I’m back to my normal weight. Being well when you travel is even more important since we often get hit with bugs and incidents we don’t expect and our diets change. Read my write-up on 15 Tips for Staying Healthy on the go and be sure to see my round-up on Wellness Travel vendors who came to this year’s New York Times Travel Show, the first time they’ve had a pavilion solely dedicated to wellness. Bravo!

Build on Your Exercise Regime

While I love my Zumba classes and don’t really vary my Elliptical routine, I have started to build new exercises into the program six months later. For four months, I was fairly strict about what I ate, when and how often I exercised. I stuck with high proteins and extremely low carbs, limiting my dairy to organic sheep and goat cheese, tofu, organic meats, eggs, tea, fish and a ton of salad. Lemon was my best friend as was chocolate tea when I had a sweet craving.

I began to work on machines that would tone and build body strength in the fifth month, focusing largely on my inner and outer legs, my but (what woman over 40 doesn’t want a great but?) and a few machines that worked my triceps and biceps.

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There’s always time to build and you’ll feel far more motivated to build when you see results. The most important reason to build on your regime is to increase your confidence and strengthen your heart. As we get older, cardio is more important than ever. Whether you’re doing fast walks around a track, running on a treadmill or taking a class, get out there and nourish that heart often. Your heart with its improved oxygen flow and stronger muscle will thank you as will your children. Being healthy means showing that you want to stay around for the long haul and that impacts everyone around you!!

Commit to a Personal Trainer

I’ve had a trainer a couple of times over the years and observed others in the exercise flow across the world. Some have amazing success stories and other feel it was a waste of money. Just like any teacher, whether it’s a fitness trainer, a tennis coach or a language tutor, you can find committed passionate ones and ones who merely show up and do a job. Don’t be afraid to interview a personal trainer — find out if their goals are aligned with yours. Do you like their style? The way they look? (how they train and tone their own body) Do you like the way they view the world? Do you agree with their value system on diet and exercise? Do you like their voice? As silly as some of these questions sound, getting aligned with the right personal trainer is 80% of the battle.

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Once you find someone you’re in sync with, you’re more likely to be motivated and show up. You’re also more likely to listen to and respect what they have to say, which helps to accelerate the process. Don’t be afraid of changing trainers if you have a couple of sessions and it’s not working out — remember, it’s your money and your time.

There are also circuit training routines you can do on your own at the gym. The machines are lined up next to each other (above) and you simply move from one to the next spending an allotted period of time at each. This is particularly useful for people who are on a time crunch but want to get a nice combo of some cardio and toning into one session. I’d recommend alternating this with straight cardio over the course of a week. Repetition and building on what you already know is a great way to improve your spirit and increase your level of exercise. Suddenly, you’ll be able to do twice what you did the month before and hitting another milestone will start to feel more and more significant as time marches on.

Access to Nature is Vital

I’m a huge believer in getting as much access to nature as possible – it’s calming for the spirit and the mind. While I’d exercise outside rather than not if I had an opportunity to do daily, it simply isn’t feasible in our busy lives, particularly those of us who live in a city. While I have closer access to most (despite living in San Francisco, I can be on the ocean’s edge in 15 minutes and the top of a hill in ten), the weather isn’t always cooperative and I may not get the vigorous cardio I can get on an Elliptical Trainer or a spinning class for a fast paced hour.

Panoramic on my iPhone during a Northern California Hike

That said, as a society, we’re not connecting with the earth as much as we did in previous generations so I can’t praise this “must do” in your life enough. Go for a hike, take a leisurely walk through the woods, sit on a hill and look at a mountain, put music on and run in place at the edge of an open field, lie in a bed of flowers or tall grass and look at a clear blue sky — whatever you CAN do in your environment, DO IT! Even New York City has Central Park and I found plenty of opportunities to spend time with trees in Paris.

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If you live in more rural areas, rent a canoe and paddle down a river, have a picnic by the lake and tend to your garden more often than you normally would just to get your hands dirty. It feeds the soul and a healthy soul is critical to your overall well-being.

Mobile Apps & Connected Gadgets (IoT)

I found the iPhone app Lose It to be useful when I returned to a regular fitness routine since it allowed me to set a weight goal, log in my meals each day and track how many calories I burned over a given week to see if I was on target. It also kept track of the foods I ate regularly so I could easily add them to my custom foods and daily food log (above). After I met my goal, I find that the added work to log and track simply isn’t worth my time anymore, but I do think it’s useful for someone who’s just getting started so they can get an idea of their patterns and what needs to get modified and when.

The Results

Through a combination of diet and regular exercise, I lost the 25 pounds I put on from December of 2014 through March 2015. It took longer (and was harder) to take off than put on and remembering this will improve the likelihood of me not taking that path again. Awareness is critical to sustainable success.

From July through December 2015, I was on an extremely low carb, very high protein diet with almost no sugars. That meant no juice, fruit, candy or sweet drinks, not even an apple with peanut butter which I was craving from time-to-time. I exercised 4-5 times a week and only began to incorporate some low glycemic dishes back into my daily life in the six month. These included select foods that have a minimal alteration of circulating glucose levels. While I’ve never had a sugar issue in my life, I wanted to keep the Glycemic index (GI) and cemic load (GL) low, which are essentially measures of the effect on blood glucose level after a food containing carbohydrates is consumed. This meant that I re-integrated healthy high fiber foods like beans, artichokes and squash into my diet. I’m also a believer in some natural foods that do have sugars if they can help aid digestion and improve regularity to push toxins through your body, like figs and dates.

 Above, me on a trip to Jamaica in early December where I visited several yoga retreat centers, went on hikes and cycled during my stay. Read my Wellness in Jamaica article for some great suggestions along the coast.

I now feel healthier and am able to look at dishes differently, even when we do restaurant reviews. This might mean saying no to certain dishes but it also means occasionally saying yes to a slice of dark chocolate cake or pumpkin pie. I rarely have sweets but when I do, I opt for dark chocolate for the additional benefits that chocolate can provide, such as raising serotonin levels, which is particularly useful during rainy and overcast winter months.

Disclosure: I am not a doctor or a healthcare practitioner so this review is based on my own personal experience with diet and exercise over the course a couple of decades of trial and error, including the last six months of a diet/exercise regime with the primary goal of losing unwanted pounds and a secondary goal of improving my cardio and body tone.

I don’t work for or have any affiliation to any of the products or services I mention in this post. I reached out to CRUNCH Gyms letting them know I was interested in writing an article about Getting Back in Shape After 40, using their gym as my playground. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have had access to a variety of gym locations in their system as their standard membership tends to focus on one gym or a few gyms within a certain mile radius. They did not stipulate what to say or ask me to reference them in this article. The idea for the article was entirely my own — I did not use a trainer although would consider it in the future. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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