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By now you know that getting and staying fit should be one of your top priorities. But if you're like most people...well, you find it very easy to blow off your workouts. Part of the reason is that not many people realize how much better they'd feel if they exercised, says Colleen Doyle, RD, nutrition and physical-activity director for the American Cancer Society. "Women have so much power to prevent disease and improve their health now and in the future simply by being active," she says.
In fact, many health bummers that we assume are part of getting older -- everything from a sluggish metabolism to clogged arteries -- are at least partly the result of a sedentary lifestyle. "There is no fountain of youth, but exercise is the closest thing you've got," says Dr. Doyle.
If you're ready to turn back the clock, read our guide. You'll learn some of the stand-out health perks of each component of fitness and how to max out the benefits. (Tip #1: You have to do all four types of exercise to get results.) You'll be inspired to lace up your sneakers immediately!Aerobic Exercise
Age-Erasing Rx: Do moderately intense cardio for 30 minutes, five days a week, or vigorously intense cardio for 20 minutes, three days a week.The Payoff
A healthier heart.
Sure, this is an obvious one. But what's surprising is how dramatically cardio workouts improve your ticker -- and there are even special perks for the ladies. "High triglycerides, low HDL levels, type 2 diabetes, and obesity are stronger risk factors for heart disease in women than in men, and doing aerobic exercise can help you avoid all of them," says Nieca Goldberg, MD, author of Dr. Nieca Goldberg's Complete Guide to Women's Health. Regular sweat sessions can also decrease levels of potentially heart-damaging stress hormones -- yet another boon for women's hearts, which are more vulnerable than guys' to the effects of stress, she adds. Think you're too young to worry about the state of your ticker? Actually, you're a little late: "Heart disease starts to develop around age 20 or even younger," says Dr. Goldberg.
The American Cancer Society states that a sedentary lifestyle, along with a poor diet, is related to about one-third of all cancer deaths. "People have a tremendous opportunity to reduce their risk of developing cancer but many people think it's largely out of their hands," says Dr. Doyle. For example, simple exercises such as walking and biking may offer protection against breast and colon cancer in part by keeping estrogen and insulin levels in check -- two hormones that may stimulate tumor growth. Aerobic exercise may also help shield you from other forms of cancer because it helps you keep your weight down. According to a 2008 study published in the Lancet, being overweight or obese may increase a woman's risk of developing up to 11 different types of cancer. Trying to drop extra pounds? According to the American College of Sports Medicine, you may need to log 60- to 90-minute sessions of physical activity instead of the standard 30 to see results.
A younger body.
A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine last year revealed that doing regular aerobic exercise throughout middle age can delay biological aging by up to 10 years or more. How? It's mostly because regular cardio workouts help maintain your aerobic capacity -- a measure of your body's ability to consume oxygen and use it to generate energy -- which begins to decline in your 20s.
Cardio workouts can help boost your body's defenses against viruses and bacteria. Last fall doctors at McMaster University, in Ontario, Canada, published a review of 17 studies that examined the effects of at least one month of exercise on the immune system. "We discovered that in healthy adults, regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the immune system and reduce chronic inflammation," says lead author Derek Haaland, MD.
Age-Erasing Rx: Work your core muscles -- which include your abs, back, and pelvis -- two to three times a week.The Payoff
You may think that senior citizens are the only ones who have to worry about falls, but if you're over age 25, your balance has already started to decline. Blame your diminishing powers of proprioception, which is your brain's ability to sense where your body is in space, says Vonda Wright, MD, author of Fitness After 40. For example, you might sprain your ankle by stepping in a pothole because your brain failed to "tell" your body how to navigate around it.
A healthy back.
Wimpy core muscles make you susceptible to several types of injuries, including one of the most common: lower-back pain, which typically occurs in your 30s and 40s. Considering that the lower back bears all the weight of your torso, it's easy to see why this spot often gets injured, says Randy Raugh, author of Prime for Life: Functional Fitness for Ageless Living. However, doing core exercises such as the plank can keep your back safe and strong. "All the muscles of your torso have to work together to stabilize your spine, so it's important to condition your entire midsection to avoid injury," he says.
When your core is strong, every task can feel easier, whether you're jogging or vacuuming. That's because your core is involved in nearly every move you make; even when you're seated, your core is working to keep you upright.
Age-Erasing Rx: Gently stretch all your major muscle groups at least twice a week (but ideally every day).The Payoff
Fewer aches and pains.
Stretching helps maintain the full range of motion at your joints -- something that diminishes as you get older and your tendons and ligaments become less pliable. (It may also help you avoid injury and muscle soreness; however, the evidence is mixed.) Fortunately, you don't have to develop Gumby-like flexibility to keep your range of motion intact. "People who are very flexible are actually more prone to injury because their joints are so loose and unstable," says Raugh. To stay safe, stretch after a workout when your muscles are warm and never push yourself to the point of discomfort.
Stretching your muscles may also relax your arteries, according to a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Researchers found that the most flexible women over age 40 had less arterial stiffness (a risk factor for heart disease) than less-limber women.
Age-Erasing Rx: Do eight to 10 strengthening exercises (eight to 12 reps each) twice a week.The Payoff
A faster metabolism.
As you get older you start to lose muscle -- more than half a pound every year after age 25, according to the American Council on Exercise. And that can spell trouble for your metabolism, since muscle burns more calories than fat. The rate of decline quickens in your 40s, when estrogen production wanes. "Once that happens, it becomes even harder to lose weight because estrogen helps your body burn calories," says Dr. Wright. But that doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to buying bigger jeans as more birthdays go by. Research conducted at the South Shore YMCA, in Quincy, Massachusetts, found that women who strength-trained two to three times a week for 10 weeks added three pounds of metabolism-boosting muscle mass and lost about five pounds of fat.
A flatter belly.
Does it seem that the older you get, the tougher it is to lose your muffin top? Unfortunately, you're not imagining it. As your metabolism dips and your body fat percentage rises, those extra pounds are more likely to settle deep inside your abdomen as visceral fat -- and that pudge comes with a special set of dangers. "The more visceral fat you have, the greater your risks for heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes," says Dr. Wright. Fortunately, weight training can help fight this process. A study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that overweight and obese premenopausal women who participated in a weight-training program for two years had only a 6 percent increase in visceral fat; those who were simply given advice about exercise saw a 20 percent increase in the same time period.
Osteoporosis may not seem like your most immediate health threat, but the reality is that women begin losing bone mass in their 30s. "Bone density declines even further when you go through menopause, so it's crucial to do everything you can to preserve the amount you have now," says Dr. Goldberg. Strength training can help you fight that decline because it actually stimulates bone growth. Your bones behave much like muscles -- when you stress them, they respond by getting stronger.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2009.