Ask an expert: Shaping up in middle age

Q: “I am a 57-year-old woman in good health (5’10”, 165 pounds). I have never been a jock or worked out for any length of time. Is it possible to get in shape now? Can anything be done about sagging upper arms and a spare tire after so many years of neglect? I've tried doing exercises to tone these areas, but after a while I give up because I don't see a difference. Any advice?”

Answer provided by Mindi Robinson, M.D., family medicine and obstetrics, Providence Medical Group – Sunnyside, and Erika Lewis, P.T., physical therapy, Providence Sports Care Center

In answer to your first question: Of course! You can get in shape at any age. At 57, you’ve lost some muscle and your metabolism has slowed down – that happens naturally with age. But it’s still possible, and well worth it, to get in shape now – it just might take a little more time, effort and dedication than it would have when you were younger.

Our first piece of advice is to understand why your previous efforts might have failed. Here are some common barriers you might have encountered, and some strategies for overcoming them this time around:

Overdoing it: If you started out at a sprinter’s pace, you might have been too sore and exhausted to keep it up. The older and more out of shape you are, the more time your muscles need to recover after a workout. This time, give your body some time to adjust. Start with what you realistically think you can do, and then do half that much.

Under-doing it: If you started out slowly, but never increased the intensity or duration of your exercises, you wouldn’t see much progress. In order to build and strengthen your muscles, you need to challenge them. Do begin gently, but start pushing yourself more as you begin to feel stronger.

Improper technique: Doing certain exercises too quickly, too infrequently or with poor form might have hampered your progress. We recommend a few sessions with a trainer or physical therapist to learn how to do each exercise the right way, and with the right frequency, to get the results you’re looking for. If a trainer is beyond your budget, get some virtual training online – a quick search will turn up plenty of photos and videos that show you how to do exercises correctly.

Boredom: You’ll never keep up an exercise program that you find boring. Plan your workouts around activities that you enjoy enough to keep doing, and enlist an exercise buddy to do them with you. Exercising with a friend is fun and motivating, and makes you more accountable for showing up.

Unrealistic expectations: Expecting too much, too quickly, might have set you up for disappointment. It’s likely that you actually were making progress, but you simply gave up too soon. Try not to be discouraged when you don’t see immediate results. It took you 57 years to get out of shape; it’s going to take a little while (but not another 57 years, thankfully) to get in shape.

Hidden results: If you exercised regularly for a few months before you gave up, you probably did tone up your arms and mid-section a bit, but you might not have noticed it if your newly toned muscles were hiding beneath a layer of adipose tissue – aka fat. Muscle mass declines with age and is replaced by fat – especially if your muscles don’t get much use. Your body mass index (BMI) is in the healthy range, but it is on the high side of healthy (we figured your BMI at 23.7; the healthy range is 18.5 to 24.9). Dropping 10 to 15 pounds would put you closer to the middle of the healthy range, trimming some fat to give your muscles better definition.

Missing the big picture: If you focused 100 percent on toning your arms and mid-section, your disappointment at not succeeding immediately may have overshadowed some pretty important victories that you achieved along the way. While you work toward your goals, try to appreciate the broader benefits that you get every time you exercise: better sleep, mental clarity, a healthier heart, a boost in energy, a feeling of greater strength and agility, a glow to your skin and a sense of achievement. To stay motivated, remember that every minute of exercise is benefiting you in a multitude of ways, including building more toned arms and abs – even if you can’t see the results yet.

So, ready to move forward? Here is our advice to help you tone up those problem areas while keeping an eye on the bigger picture.

To strengthen saggy upper arms: Do exercises focused on the triceps – those are the muscles under the upper arms that start to look saggy if you don’t use them regularly. One exercise is to hold a can of soup in each hand, at about ear level, then slowly drop your elbows down and backward, then return to the start position. A trainer can show you more exercises and how to do them correctly to maximize results and minimize the risk of injury. You also can find videos online that demonstrate how to do a variety of triceps exercises.

For a bigger-picture workout, we recommend exercises that work both your triceps and your core. It’s always best to work multiple muscle groups with one exercise – that’s how your body functions naturally in real-world activities. The easiest exercise to start with is push-ups. Start by doing them in a standing position, hands against a wall, with your body at an angle. Engage your core (belly), your glutes (rear end) and your upper back muscles as you bend your arms and come slowly toward the wall, then push slowly back to the start position. If that’s too easy, try chair or counter dips. When those become too easy, move to the floor and do modified push-ups, with your knees on the ground, and eventually work your way into traditional push-ups.

To tone a spare tire: There are several types of sit-ups that can help tone up your mid-section, but take care – many people do sit-ups wrong, which can strain the neck and back. An alternative that’s easier to learn, but also effective, is called the plank. Grip the edge of a counter with your hands and lean into it, keeping your body in a straight line. Hold the position for a while, rest and repeat. For more challenging planks, do the same thing on the ground, holding the plank position with your toes and forearms on the floor.

To shape up in general: Spot-toning can help strengthen specific muscles, but the best way to look and feel toned all over is to trim body fat. To burn more fat, get at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity – such as walking, swimming, bike riding or dancing – on most days of the week. Don’t forget the huge role that nutrition plays: focus your diet on vegetables, whole grains and lean protein to trim fat and keep your muscles well fed. And for a balanced exercise program, add yoga or other stretching exercises a couple of days a week to improve your balance and flexibility.

With time and perseverance, you should notice a difference not only in your arms and mid-section, but in the way your clothes fit, the way you feel, and the way you look all over. Most importantly, when you make exercise a part of your life, you are building a strong foundation for a healthy and independent future. We wish you success!