Best exercises for every age and gender

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published May 5, 2020

Key Takeaways

Less than one-quarter of American adults (23%) get the recommended amount of aerobic and strength-training exercise, according to 2018 data from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Unfortunately, as adults age, the amount of exercise they do tends to go down. 

But, it doesn’t have to be this way. Exercise is good for everyone at any age. And exercise doesn’t have to be complicated either. Sure, you can fret over how many reps you need to blast your lats. Or, you can just follow the simple recommendations put forth in The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services. 

According to these guidelines, adults should do at least 150 to 300 minutes (2.5 to 5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1.25 to 2.5 hours) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (or some equivalent combination of the two). Add in two or more muscle-strengthening sessions per week and you’re done. Easy-peasy. 

Then again, just as there’s no one size of sneaker to fit every foot, there’s no one-size-fits-all exercise regimen that fulfills everyone’s activity requirements. 

Workouts for your 20s

The third decade of life may as well be called The Roaring 20s because the body is full of energy, strength, and resilience. Now is the time to make exercise a lifelong habit. Try out different activities, with a goal toward finding one you can do for life. Focus on cardio—such as running, cycling, swimming, or walking—while you’re young and energetic. Play team sports, or go for a run or bike ride with friends. Aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, 3 to 5 days a week. This is also a good time to begin a habit of resistance exercise 2 to 3 days a week to build muscle while your body is at its physical peak. (Sorry. It’s all downhill after your 20s, physically speaking.)  

Starting in college and continuing through life, men generally get more exercise and do a wider variety of exercise than women. According to 2018 CDC data, more men (39%) than women (28%) aged 18-24 years met federal physical activity guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. Researchers aren’t sure why this is, noting that men and women at this age report the same number of reasons for exercise but also the same number of barriers to exercise. 

Both men and women in their 20s should include activity that’s outside their conventional workout and sets them up for the future: 

For women: Get pumped. Women need to build muscle and strengthen bone density to better prevent osteoporosis later in life. Do some serious weight lifting to build muscle. And don’t just use little hand weights—feel the burn. 

For men: Get flexible. Men tend to ignore stretching at this age, but they’ll need flexibility and mobility as they get older. Do yoga, tai chi, or dance

Workouts for your 30s

People in their 30s begin to settle down. They’re starting families and building their careers. But even with greater obligations, now isn’t the time to cut back on exercise. Surprisingly, many 30-somethings don’t. Despite having more responsibilities for their families and careers, this age group generally maintains the number of hours they exercise, the number of activities they do, and their reasons for exercise, researchers found.

That’s good because this is also the decade when muscle mass and strength begin their gradual decline. So, use that time in the gym or outside to focus on strengthening muscle by increasing weight-bearing exercises. But, keep up the aerobic exercise, too. 

For women: Interval-based cardio, like spinning or high-intensity interval training, can help burn calories and battle the slight loss of metabolism that comes with this age. But, maintain strength training, too, including weight-bearing activities such as tennis, stair-climbing, elliptical, or brisk walking. 

For men: Many younger men may limit weight training to bench presses and the like, so they can compare stats with their pals. (“How much do you bench?”) But, lifting weights is not just about beefing up your pecs and biceps. Work on all your muscle groups: shoulders, arms, abdomen, back, hips, and legs. And don’t forget to stretch. 

Workouts for your 40s

We begin to slow down in our 40s, in more ways than one. Metabolism slows, muscle mass declines, and body fat inevitably creeps in. We don’t have the strength, resilience, or energy we had in our 20s. We’re sitting more and moving less. Among middle-aged adults, only 24.1% (27.3% of men, 21.1% of women) meet federal physical activity guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. 

Emphasize activities that work out numerous large muscle groups or the entire body. Perform several days of moderate-intensity cardio activity spread throughout the week, along with at least 2 days of strength training, working all the major muscle groups at each workout.

For women: You know that heart disease is the number 1 killer in women, right? Well, if your enthusiasm for exercise has slackened, this is a good age to pick it back up to help fight against heart disease. Keep up with cardio workouts, 3 to 5 times a week. But don’t forget to strengthen your muscles on days in between. 

For men: Like a vintage (ie, older) car, your body needs more time to warm up before it gets rolling. Before hitting the barbells or the track, take the time to get your blood flowing and ligaments loose with some light cardio and mobility exercises. (This is where that stretching that you started in your 20s begins to pay off.) Add more time to your cool-down routine, too. 

Workouts for your 50s

If there is one law you must abide, it’s the law of gravity. And gravity is in full effect in your 50s, when your body begins to sag and droop. 

You can’t defy the law of gravity, but you can fight it. First, resist your body’s natural tendency to curve forward and hunch over. How? Strengthen your core by working the muscles in your abdomen and back. This will help you stand up straighter and stronger.

You may also feel more sore after a run or a weightlifting session. Try reducing the intensity of your workout but increasing the frequency. If needed, go easy on your joints by going for low-impact exercises, such as walking, biking, or swimming. 

For women: Emphasize resistance training to improve bone density. In particular, strengthen your legs. Researchers in England found that middle-aged women who had greater leg power also had better brain power (in the form of slowed cognitive aging). Squats, biking, hiking, running, and walking are all good to strengthen leg muscles. 

For men: What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Men in their 50s, like women of the same age, should also put time into resistance training. Furthermore, as metabolism slows, men can develop the old “fat tire” around the waist or “beer belly” out front. Besides reducing calorie intake, men also need to burn more calories to lose that extra adipose fat. So, along with strength training, keep up the cardio—low impact, if need be. 

Workouts for your 60s

As work and family responsibilities lessen, there’s more free time for physical activity. Exercise at this age is also a good reason to stay sharp, get out of the house, and hang out with friends—or make new ones. 

Continue aerobic exercise on a regular (if not daily) basis, interspersed with strength training 2 to 3 times a week. Tennis, walking, and other weight-bearing activities can be good exercise and good fun, too. 

Feeling just a little wobbly? Add balance exercises now (walking heel to toe, standing on one foot, etc) to help prevent balance problems in older age. 

For women: Still lifting weights to prevent bone loss? Good, but watch your form. Quality is better than quantity, so pay attention to the control and precision of your movements.

For men: A disabling injury at this age could put you off exercise for the rest of your life. So, avoid going to extremes at the gym (or anywhere, really). Low- or minimal-impact training, done consistently, is key. Also, continue to strengthen your core muscles and weight-bearing muscles. 

Workouts for your 70s and beyond

You may slow down as you age, but that doesn’t mean you stop exercising. Unfortunately, only 13% of men and 8% of women aged 75 years and older meet federal physical activity guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. 

Keep getting aerobic exercise several days a week through walking, water aerobics, or other activities. Use weights or resistance bands to maintain muscle. Continue with balance exercises to prevent falls. 

For women and men: Maintain flexibility by staying active, including light activities such as yoga, gardening, and cleaning. Walking, riding a stationary bike, and other safe forms of cardio can keep weight from getting out of hand. Importantly, take plenty of time to warm up, cool down, and rest between sets to prevent injury. 

The best workout at any age

Ultimately, the best workout for any age and gender is one that you actually enjoy doing. This helps you to exercise consistently and maintain the habit for life. 

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