Patience with getting fit in my 40s
June 5, 2024 8:58 AM   Subscribe

How do/did you manage not to rush your fitness improvement? How were you able to embrace "slow and steady wins the race"?

I'm in my early 40s and have been getting healthier with a focus on going to the gym over the past year, working with a personal trainer for the past 12 weeks. My goal has been overall health and fitness, with some more specific goals in place now to track progress towards that goal.

I'm happy with the overall progress (how I look, how I feel, my muscle strength, my heart rate etc.), but am starting to get impatient. Intellectually I know that I am doing everything right and making changes that are measured, sustainable, and produce results in the long term. Now that I've (just started getting used to) 3x gym sessions a week + light activity on the rest days, I know adding more exercise or decreasing calories beyond what I'm doing now is actually more likely to increase risk of injury or actively reduce the results I'm seeing so far. While I'm working on my macros and finding a good balance between optimal and sustainable, I also know that I'm enough of a newbie that a lot of the micro detail management is a distraction or unnecessary cognitive load until later on in my health journey.

As an added snowflake frustration, there are a handful of key measures that are being very stubborn where I'm seeing much slower progress than I would like. Some of that will be explained by what I've chosen to prioritise in my training, my personal genetics, and imperfect measuring tools but it's difficult when certain universal metrics like weight and body fat % are not reflecting the positive changes I'm feeling and seeing with my own eyes and are being validated by other data points such as muscle mass and heart rate as well as subjectively by my partner, friends, and PT.

I want to keep measuring all the data and information to track progress as I've found that taking a holistic approach doesn't work well for me (at this point at least). The sense of progression is most palpable when I look back at how much I was able to lift at the gym 12 weeks ago versus now. Part of my impatience is likely caused by the fact that I now have actual practical, numerical goals, around weight, fat, strength and endurance that I am looking to reach beyond "I want to be healthier and fitter".

So how did you find patience with this? Do you have a success story to share? I know I have more physical plateaus and emotional mountains to traverse on this journey and would like to understand how I can fight the urge to "just do more and/or skip ahead" which is a strategy that might have worked in my 20s but is far too risky in my 40s.

posted by slimepuppy to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: After many years of a sedentary lifestyle, I finally started an exercise program when the pandemic lockdown occurred in March of 2020. I do mostly cardio with some sit-ups and push-ups. I initially exercised almost every day, but that was too much, and I settled on three times per week. I plan on adding some strength training soon.

I feel better now, and my resting heart rate is lower, but my weight hasn't changed at all, unfortunately. I'm still overweight.

Two things that I love and that keep me motivated:

When I'm at work and I have to walk upstairs with a group of co-workers, I get a cheap thrill out of noticing how out-of-breath they become, while I'm hardly affected now.

I run 5K races three or four times per year, and I track my times. I've more or less plateaued now, but the races are still fun, and I enjoyed seeing my times drop initially.

A word of warning: I upped my running distance and intensity recently... and promptly developed plantar fasciitis. It's been about six weeks, and I haven't noticed any improvement in my pain. I still ride an exercise bike, but I would have preferred to run instead. So don't do what I did. If you increase the intensity and/or duration of your exercise, do so very gradually.
posted by alex1965 at 9:16 AM on June 5 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I added a registered dietitian into the mix. I've got an autoimmune disorder and am vegan, neither of which most trainers (or dietitians) were skilled enough to be able to accommodate. Finding a really good RD has helped me fill in some of those stubborn gaps that training itself shouldn't be held to account for (and I specifically have been targeting recomposition with a target bodyfat percentage range in mind). Hang in there! This stuff is simple but not easy, you know?
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:20 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]

Maybe find something else to obsess over? like a knitting project or challenging crossword puzzles, memorizing poetry. Brain fitness is important too!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:29 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't know if I, or any of us, can help you, but that's because your question shows that you are incredibly knowledgeable and have completely reasonable expectations.

I do know one way to ensure patience: Try to do too much, too fast, then get injured, then be forced to take months off, then restart from the beginning, feeling like you've wasted both the time you took getting fit and the time you were forced to wait for the injury to heal. Then repeat the process a few more times. Then finally accept that you're middle-aged and can't ramp up the way you could in your 20s. Or just do what you're doing, feeling frustrated at times but knowing that you're doing the right thing.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:36 AM on June 5 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I had to take weight and body fat right out of the equation in order to pursue fitness (grew up around a lot of dieting and poor body image, and I needed to undo a lot of that damage), and I've never added them back in. I only measure by how I'm feeling, and what my body is now capable of doing. It sounds like you are very much into body tracking, so you might just need to pull out those indicators that aren't serving you. While that might feel incomplete, consider the cost those indicators have by demotivating you from meeting your goals. You ARE becoming healthier and stronger by what you're doing. Anything that demotivates you from that isn't worth your time.
posted by eekernohan at 9:49 AM on June 5 [19 favorites]

Best answer: Honestly? I stopped tracking my weight altogether. It's still not measurably down (though it's now All Muscle as of recent testing and clothes are looser), but I don't care because I remember how many exercises I needed yoga blocks for and now do them easily.

I suggest you make a deal with yourself to check in with weight and body fat in three months and in the meantime focus on actual improvements in function. That's the true end goal of fitness - to be as functional as possible for as long as you can manage. Especially in endurance, because getting up those stairs without huffing feels fantastic.

That's the other thing - try to find use for your new powers outside the gym. Just not needing a trolley to get your groceries to the car can be a win, or lifting heavy boxes with proper form, or ducking under a low bar when before you'd be stuck going around. Try to find that joy of having a reliable fit body.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 9:49 AM on June 5 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Add me to the list of "I stopped tracking almost everything" -- I don't weigh myself; I don't do body fat measurements; I don't take progress photos. I do simply look at what I'm lifting. I'm 57, I started at absolute zero fitness level about 7 years ago at the point where the simplest, gentlest group fitness class almost made me faint. Last week I deadlifted 205 pounds.

So, when the 40-lb. bags of cat litter get delivered, I'm the one who carries them into the house. When my parents need to get their heavy suitcases from the second floor, down the stairs and into the trunk of the car, I do it. When my suitcase needs to go in the overhead bin, I do it. These are the things I measure my progress by.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:01 AM on June 5 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Absolutely divorce weight from exercise. I read somewhere that exercise after 40 is really “training for old age.” That stuck with me. Those are results you won’t be able to see for a very long time.
posted by caoimhe at 10:08 AM on June 5 [31 favorites]

Best answer: To add to St. Peepsburg suggestion above I found I obsessed way less over specific gains/speed of those things when I started an active sport/hobby that worked well with my personal exercise (for me I found Historical European martial arts so my exercise has more focus and instead of graphing my weekly weight loss or running times, instead I can see how I am able to spar longer/more sessions now vs 6 months ago)
posted by Captain_Science at 10:10 AM on June 5

Best answer: I find patience by reminding myself that this is very much about building a lifestyle I can sustain as I grow older than a quick fix for neglecting myself over the years. The success is not in the achievement but in the regular practice. You might enjoy listening to this podcast about exercise and living longer, where they stress the most important things are a) consistency of showing up and doing something and b) improving from where you are. Focusing on relative changes to where you used to be, not specific numbers.

In a (weight loss and wellness) community I'm a part of they talk about 'non scale victories' and encourage people who are struggling to focus on those b/c weight can be a pretty confusing metric esp if you are building muscle mass. Some of the previous answers allude to this. So maybe turn your data driven focus to some other metrics of your choosing. Recently my weight loss has stalled out/slowed down to a turtle's pace, which is easy for me to get upset at when I step on the scale, but I've been struck by how much better I feel and how much energy I have. So if I wanted to, I could measure those with some sort of daily check in on energy/mood levels. Other people have what they call 'honesty'/goal clothes, that they try on instead of stepping on the scale. The other thing that they focus on in this community is your 'why'. Really working on articulating your why and reminding yourself of it helps keep your eyes on the long term goals ahead and not focusing so much on where you are right now.
posted by snowymorninblues at 10:15 AM on June 5

Best answer: Here's what my instructor told me: weight is just not a metric where it's super helpful to have goals, maybe ever, but definitely not in your 40s, and especially not if you're a woman in your 40s. (Which I am, hence her including that detail.) It's just not a 1:1, do this > weight does that kind of relationship. So I took weight out of the equation entirely, threw my scale into the alley and have no idea what I weigh anymore, and that's one less plateau to manage for me.

(You didn't list this as one of your metrics, but she also mentioned that the metric of "how your clothes fit" which people often use instead of weight, also sucks, because as your body comp changes your clothes WON'T always fit better! Sometimes they'll fit worse, or just differently.)

Also seconding the advice to stop tracking so granularly. Sure, still collect all your data but don't evaluate it daily. Just log it and forget it. Set your strength and endurance goals further out -- these are not short-term improvements. In other words you may not actually be IN a plateau with these, but rather making the very tiny daily improvements that lead to long term larger changes.

So. What you need to figure out is whether it's just a matter of reframing "plateau" or whether you need regular, frequent wins to stay motivated. If it's the latter, I really like the idea of small, non-caloric diet changes. Increase the portions or variety of greens you eat each week, for example, or make a point of adding a new recipe to your repertoire each week.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:42 AM on June 5 [3 favorites]

I have an exercise watch and on the app it has a section on my progress which will warn me if it thinks I'm doing too much. Something like that could be useful to remind you that your training is already going well and that you don't want to overdue things.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:24 AM on June 5

Best answer: I'm a little older than you. Every single time I've tried to rush fitness gains in the last decade, I have had to stop because of injuries. Now I tell myself "the time will pass, regardless" when I get antsy about not making progress "fast enough" or when I'm not feeling motivated.

It's a mantra that means, in this context, "The time will pass, regardless of whether I take it slow and workout consistently, push too hard and injure myself, or do nothing".

It reminds me that I will have made more progress at the end of the next 12 weeks with slow, consistent progress than I would have by pushing myself into an injury which derails my workouts for days to months.
posted by burntflowers at 11:38 AM on June 5 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I will echo other comments that you are placing a metric of tracking and improvment and seeking progress, onto a hobby which should be about feeling good in your own body both during activity and at rest. When I decided to get fit years ago I loved having accomplishments like my first pull up, my first pushups, running around the block, and watching my lifts slowly increase until I hit plateaus. My weight did change dramatically, like I lost 15 pounds of fat, and then gained 10 lbs of muscle, within about four months. But I never had number goals, other than something like, my squat is at 195 lbs maybe I can get to an even 200. You may be robbing yourself of enjoyment by focusing on unimportant details.
posted by panhopticon at 11:45 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]

I read somewhere that exercise after 40 is really “training for old age.” That stuck with me. Those are results you won’t be able to see for a very long time.

100% cosign this. And everything that others have said.

I've been at this for.... sixteen months? I moved from 15 second straight arm planks at the beginning through wall push-ups, desk push-ups, and stair push-ups to floor push-ups (on knees) just this week. That's the kind of feedback that keeps me motivated to work out between sessions with my trainer.
posted by eirias at 12:18 PM on June 5 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Your question asks about fitness improvement. Weight and appearance can be poor indicators of fitness.

certain universal metrics like weight and body fat %

They are not universal metrics. Well, not metrics for measuring health or fitness. Some (many) people use these metrics to measure adherence to a certain subjective standard that has been en vogue for a minuscule slice of human history.

would like to understand how I can fight the urge to "just do more and/or skip ahead"

In my experience, i did the Do More Skip Ahead thing and repeatedly found myself unable to so much of anything and dealing with the consequences (pain, resuction or elimination of activity, etc.) I eventually learned, but I don’t recommend this approach. I would have been better off attending more to the mental/emotional factors behind my motivations to push myself, and let myself be ok with accepting that where i was at was not only Good Enough, but potentially Better. Hopefully you’re not like me and don’t have to learn things the hard way.

Practically, this means: when you make an increment, make the smallest possible increment, and then wait TWO DAYS to see if your body is ok with that. That absolute worst guide to “can i go farther” is “how do i feel while i’m doing that, or immediately after?” Stick to the small increment. If you’ve done it 2-3 times AND THEN WAITED and you’re not hurt — which is the only reasonable measure — then do another MINUSCULE increment.

And be wary of the lies that endorphins tell.

And be even more wary of the lies that Should tells. “I should be able to look this way”. “I should be able to lift this much.”
posted by armoir from antproof case at 12:19 PM on June 5 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I also want to say to take weight out of your goal list. Have you discussed this goal with your trainer? Are you a female-bodied person? Before and after pictures aren't always useful (and are often faked or weird poses or whatever and can be damaging to see depending on your mindset), but it might be helpful if you looked at some photos of women who are strong and have higher weights. As one example, Casey Johnston (aka Swole Woman) shares photos of herself at different weights (scroll down this about page to see), and one set shows that she's slimmer and weighs more after lifting weights and increasing her calories. (But if photos are triggering for you, please just ignore this advice!)

It's really hard to get past the notion of body weight as a meaningful standard, so it might be healthy for you to stop weighing yourself for a while, period.

More generally, Casey's She's a Beast content might be helpful for you. Some of it is paid but much of it is free. Also her old columns, Ask a Swole Woman, are on her website and are a treasure trove. Here's one example.

Also, while I agree that recovery was often easier when we were younger, I don't think that means we always recovered fully. I hurt my back when I was in my 20s, and it stopped hurting for many years. But I think an injury in the early pandemic, so in my late 40s, impacted that very same spot. All of this is to say: if you are lamenting that lost recovery time of youth, well, maybe it wasn't so simple even then? Maybe overtraining then was also bad? Now you just realize it sooner.

I also wonder if part of your impatience is a bit of boredom. Are you antsy? Maybe it would be good to have some variety or new goals. Have you thought about doing an amateur lifting event?

In the longer term, you can also think about the centenarian olympics. This is more of a lifestyle goal. What do you want to be able to do when you are 80, 90, or 100? I want to be able to ride my bike or walk to get groceries for many years. So, what do I need to be able to do now to be able to get groceries by foot when I'm 80?
posted by bluedaisy at 12:42 PM on June 5 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'll echo the folks who have said to take weight and fat off the metrics you track, as outside of "joints would be happier carrying around less weight" sorts of concerns, they are very blunt instruments for tracking health on an individual level, and really more about vanity than anything else. But as a person who likes metrics and finds them motivating, I suggest you start working with your PCP to get some other numerical metrics to track, that *are* actually about health and longevity. Get a full work-up, and see what blood numbers you can improve over time with exercise and diet. Track things like cholesterol, glucose, a1c, liver and kidney function, etc.
posted by JuliaIglesias at 1:05 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]

Well, retiring in Nov. 2023 has given me more time to be active and go for walks in the part with my wife. I also have an elliptical, Garmin fitness tracker and use the Cronometer app to record my diet and interface with the Garmin. Since I retired (at 70 years old) I went from 227 pounds to 218 as of today (but I'm only 5 foot 8 so that's not so great). I do have an elliptical in a home gym for bad weather or extreme heat days. That also has the benefit of instant feedback on the display for distance, heart rate, etc.

Of course diet usually trumps exercise for long term benefits (my experience at least).

On the other hand I do have spinal stenosis which makes my walking stamina lousy.

As far as motivation goes, I want to go to smaller clothes sizes when I get to that point. Also I I keep one eye on my aging. You might want to read this Mayo Clinic article or watch this YouTube Video to remind yourself of the relationship between overall fitness and maintaining brain health (which after all is where the you that is you lives)!

Seconding the caution about plantar fasciitis (I didn't get it probably because I can't move so fast, but my wife did unfortunately).

I imagine there may be pleasurable activities you can enjoy while working on fitness (music via headphones, movies while on the elliptical, reading fitness forums for possible inspiration, etc.)

Don't forget, your body has been crafted by thousands of years of evolution and so when the numbers seem to be stuck there's probably a good reason. YMMV.
posted by forthright at 1:22 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Me again. I agree with JuliaIglesias above about giving priority to tracking the right/important metrics in concert with your PCP. But just for closure, while I was writing my answer earlier today I kept looking for a link I had saved discussing weight loss and my records indicate I was steered to that page from this Reddit thread.

Also, looking at the issue from the other end of the telescope, my PCP tells me my Blood Pressure, cholesterol, liver, glucose, etc. are all fine (despite my body mass index being lousy, and the spinal stenosis I still have to deal with).
posted by forthright at 3:53 PM on June 5

Best answer: I can't tell if you're tracking what you're lifting but I have found that to be extremely motivating. I'm in my early 40s and joined a kickboxing gym last November. I go six days a week, three days of kickboxing and three of weightlifting. When I started, I never grabbed more than a 5-15 pound weight. Now I am lugging 30 pounds for the same exercises. I track what I lift for every exercise every session and if I'm not failing, I lift heavier next time.

I also got a heart rate monitor and can see how much more endurance I have in kickboxing.

I've only weighed myself twice since I started. I didn't see as much movement on the scale as I expected but I can tell I've gained a lot of muscle so that's not so surprising.

It so happened that I had cholesterol screenings just before I started (miiiight've been a motivating factor) and a month ago, and seeing a 20% improvement in my LDL sure was motivating too. NSVs are great!
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 5:24 PM on June 5

One thing I read about today is the "Helen Mirren" 12 minute a day Canadian Air Force Workout. What is key about it is that you have to finish each level before you start a new one so it seems like a very systemic approach - plus it is free.

posted by Word_Salad at 5:29 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]

I have a garmin watch that estimates my VO2 Max and uses this to give me a heart health age depending on my running performance. Yesterday was my 27th birthday (according to Garmin) and I celebrated this with a little dance around the house -) but I'm actually 51. I find this extremely motivating.
posted by Tanya at 10:52 PM on June 5

Oh, and I'll tell you a form of exercise that's fun and very underrated - playing tug with a strong dog if you have one. It's a strength and cardio workout and tires the dog out too.
posted by Tanya at 12:13 AM on June 6 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi everyone, thank you so much for the thoughtful suggestions, comments and anecdotes. The responses have been very helpful in reframing the issue and helping me get out of my own/brain about it all! I think I'd started to lose sight of the forest for the trees, so I appreciate the realignment.

"This stuff is simple but not easy" - this hits the nail on the head

I also very much appreciate all the warning examples of learning lessons the hard way. I'm sorry you went through that but I appreciate the sharing and helping me and others avoid the same fate!

Here are some comments that stood out and resonated with me:

- consider the cost those indicators have by demotivating you from meeting your goals
- use for your new powers outside the gym
- 'non scale victories'
- 'honesty'/goal clothes
- “training for old age.”
- The success is not in the achievement but in the regular practice.
- You may be robbing yourself of enjoyment by focusing on unimportant details.

The key takeaway is that I will focus less on weight/fat (and talk to my GP about getting some bloodwork done). I don't want to ignore them entirely but I feel more confident in leaving them to lag behind in the distance as I focus on the things I care more about (in the long term): being physically strong, feeling good, having solid mobility, and a healthy heart/lungs.
posted by slimepuppy at 12:47 AM on June 6 [6 favorites]

Re: training for old age. Peter Attia's book Outlive talks about the concept of the "centenarian decathlon", in the context of how muscles mass, strength, and cardio capacity will decline in adulthood if it's not carefully cultivated. The concept is: pick ten things you would like to be capable of easily doing when you are elderly. Hiking? Stairs? Lifting grandkids up into the air? Pick your goals--and then strive to get VERY, VERY GOOD at doing them now and keep cultivating your capacity to do them for the rest of your life.

The book overall is a good wakeup call and, though there are parts of it where Attia tends to kind of spin off into the fringes a bit, it inspired me to make some changes that would have been unthinkable to me earlier in my life (like nearly entirely laying off caffeine, so I can sleep better.)

I am 54 now and have been steadily improving my fitness since its absolute nadir in my mid thirties. I have experimented, adjusted, shifted my exercise regiment, make it through a total hip replacement, and keep on trucking. I started CrossFit four years ago (indeed, that's how I learned I needed the hip replacement) and am still at it and love it. My fitness capabilities continue to improve even as I remain a fat middle aged lady. My philosophy is: it's a practice. The #1 thing I need to go is just keep showing up and doing it. I block the time on my calendar and it's non negotiable. That's it.
posted by Sublimity at 12:35 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

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