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Special Men's Health Issue

A workout for every age and attitude

Your fitness plan may change with age, but the benefits don't: strength, flexibility and better health.

October 17, 2005|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

DREW WOODMANSEE prides himself on being in shape. The San Diego lawyer played baseball in college and stays fit by running and cycling. He faithfully keeps his appointments with his trainer. But as he eases into his mid-30s, Woodmansee is noticing minor "knots and aches and pains," he says. He used to bound out of bed and run five miles. Now he gets out of bed, stretches for half an hour and runs at the beach, which is easier on his joints.

As men age, their fitness needs change. The all-out basketball games played at 20 aren't so painless played at 36. During middle age, weight begins to creep up as metabolism slows, and the fat that puddles around the midsection threatens the heart and other organs. Elderly men discover the importance of flexibility and muscle strength as the simplest tasks, such as getting in and out of chairs, can become a challenge.

A woman's aging process is distinguished by particular physiological changes that demand specific workouts, such as resistance training to combat the osteoporosis that often occurs following menopause. But men don't have such definitive markers and may realize they need to change their exercise routines only when they suffer a sprain that takes weeks or months to heal.

It's vital, however, for men to keep exercising to maintain good health. One study, published last year in the Journal of Applied Physiology, found men ages 65 to 79 who did regular physical activity had far stronger immune systems than those of a sedentary control group. A separate Canadian study of 19,000 men discovered that those who exercised and were fit cut their risk of death by heart disease in half.

Men in their 20s are at the peak of their strength. That's why many head for the gym and load up on weights, sometimes neglecting the cardiovascular aspects of their workout. But cardio is necessary at this stage to maintain heart and lung health.

Throughout their 20s and early 30s, men also aren't giving much thought to things like warming up and stretching, says Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. "They're not seeing as much in terms of body decay," he says, "so they're not as good about doing preparation and cross training -- even though they should -- because they don't feel they need it."

At this stage, men should incorporate a variety of sports and activities into their cardio and weight routines, says Justin Price, a trainer who owns BioMechanics studio in San Diego. "Variety is important for cardio and weight-bearing exercises," he explains, so the body doesn't get used to the same repetitive movements. He advocates sports such as basketball or soccer, or activities such as kickboxing, all of which involve explosive movements as well as body rotation.

A sedentary lifestyle can creep up on guys in their 20s and 30s if they don't adhere to a regular fitness program. If competitive sports become too strenuous or even dangerous, experts recommend segueing to less-demanding activities such as exercise classes, running or cycling.

Opting for sensible exercises over contact sports becomes increasingly important as men hit middle age. "This is a time when I hope a man's underlying motivation for exercise might start to be a bit more mature," says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. "Think about why you exercise and start to look at the overall health benefits of being physically active."

Developing a consistent workout that includes cardiovascular and strength training should be paramount, he says, to keep weight down and muscles strong. Men typically gain abdominal weight, which puts them at higher risk for heart disease and diabetes. Maintaining flexibility is vital as well, says Bryant: "That only gets more important with each passing year." Yoga and Pilates are two disciplines designed to keeping joints supple, which helps prevent injury.

Workouts for men in their 60s and 70s should be geared toward functional fitness, or training the body to handle real-life situations, such as getting in and out of chairs or navigating stairs. That means relying less on weight machines and more on the body itself to maintain strength and balance, such as by lifting weights while on a stability ball.

Strength training is important, says David Haber, professor of wellness and gerontology at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. "If you let the muscles atrophy, sooner or later you're going to lose the capacity to be independent," he says. "If you don't strengthen your quads and hamstrings, one day you're going to struggle to get out of the chair."

Although men generally don't experience as much bone loss as women as they age, they can still suffer debilitating fractures and should strive to maintain good bone density. That can be done in part through weight-bearing exercises.

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