Aging alone does not a weaker man make. A sedentary lifestyle is what really puts the skids on health and well-being. Starting at about age 50, the fight for fitness has one front that you can’t control (age-related muscle losses, called sarcopenia) and one that you can (exercise). How you’ll win: regular workouts. "At 65, you can maintain muscle mass at 90 percent of what you had when you were 20 or 30," says Greg Heath, professor of health and human performance at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. Even quasi-sedentary Johnnies-come-lately can regain 70 percent of the fitness they had as 20- to 35-year-olds by getting back into a steady exercise program.
A: Heart Lower stroke volume–a result of stiffening tissues–means that each heartbeat circulates less oxygenated blood to O2-loving muscles. Stiffening capillaries also constrict blood flow, causing blood pressure to creep up. That’s bad news, especially at altitude. The Fix: Hike, hike, hike. It stimulates your Frank-Starling mechanism (the body’s way of compensating for the lower heart rate that comes with aging), which in turn increases heart-stroke volume. And eat foods containing vitamin K (parsley, watercress)
B: Lungs That sucking sound at altitude? It’s due in part to weakened diaphragm and rib muscles making breaths shallower and less efficient. The fix: Endurance hiking–twice a week for 45 minutes at a perceived exertion of at least 13 –will keep your lungs and chest wall elastic.
C: Feet Sustained pounding makes your feet grow longer and wider, an effect compounded by age. The fix: Buy the right-size boots for your feet, and get a new pair before your old ones are trashed. (Try the multi-width New Balance 1500 Rainier; $170, newbalance .com), or visit a podiatrist, who can fix your foot ailments with a variety of orthotics.
D: VO2Max The maximum oxygen your muscles can use per minute has decreased about 10 percent since your twenties–up to 30 percent if you’re sedentary. The fix: Short, intense workout bursts (10-15 minutes, 3 times a week) will crank it back up. Older adults can achieve 10 to 30 percent gains in less than three months, according to a report by the University of Washington Department of Family Medicine.
E: Bones As you near 50, your body naturally begins losing more bone than it’s creating. This ups the risk for osteoporosis, which makes bones fragile. The fix: Load up on dairy (milk, which is fortified with vitamin D, is better than yogurt or cheese) and leafy greens to get your requisite 1,200 milligrams of daily calcium and 400 IU of vitamin D.
F: Joints/cartilage/back Cartilage loss isn’t conclusively linked to age, but wear-and-tear does thin the cushioning between joints, particularly in the knees, spine, and hips. The fix: Compensate by strengthening the muscles in these areas that support balance, and the nerves that control stability. Stand on one leg–like a flamingo–and do partial squats, or swing your trunk from side to side. Bonus: This is great prep for a Grand Canyon hike, or any trail with high, awkward steps.
G: Muscles Studies have shown a loss of roughly 10 percent of total muscle fiber per decade in sedentary adults after 50. The fix: Don’t sit still. Your body only feeds what it needs–unused muscle is denied energy and oxygen supply. Make muscles necessary by strength-training major groups 3 times a week, and cross-train to spread the fitness benefit.