Most women over 40 who are looking to get fit begin by committing to a single exercise or workout routine. While at the gym, you’ll choose a cardio machine (elliptical, treadmill or bike) or try to master a skill like swimming or running. Perhaps you’ll pair your cardio with some strength-training moves (use resistance bands, dumbbells or weight machines as part of a circuit). There may not be much of a plan for your workouts other than “getting and staying fit.” Is that you? If so, cross-training can help you find a purpose for your workouts, prevent injury and build fitness that lasts a lifetime. Cross-training is a tool that many athletes use, but I’ll argue that it’s vital for women over 40. Here’s why.
I coasted through workouts for years—meandering around the gym without much of a plan. That changed when I reached my early 50s and fell in love with indoor rowing. Rowing was the spark that got me interested in going to the gym consistently, and strangely, it was my love of rowing that made me seek out other forms of exercise. I also discovered the benefits of cross-training to help me (a woman over 40) prevent injury.
My Love of Indoor Rowing Pushed Me Into Cross-Training
There was a flip side to my love affair with rowing. I had a bit of a problem—I secretly worried that if rowing got stale, I’d drop off my exercise routine and fall off the wagon. I had a long history of being inconsistent with workouts. I’d try one type of exercise for a few months and then give up on it, stop exercising entirely and then take up a new routine months later as a new surge of motivation struck me. Yep, I had no discipline.
Something clicked in my 50s (I thank perimenopause symptoms for forcing me into the gym), and I lost 60 pounds and stuck to my commitment to exercise. I’d finally gotten off the yo-yo dieting roller coaster, and I wanted to keep the weight off and maintain my fitness level in a sane, consistent way. In the back of my mind, I worried: What if I get injured on the rower by overtraining? From that worry and a desire to keep my workouts exciting and fun, I turned to cross-training—using various workout types to work different body parts, learn novel movement patterns and exercise pain- and injury-free.
Post-Workout Muscle Recovery: Enter Cross-Training
Post-workout muscle recovery, letting the muscles you’ve just worked today rest so they can get stronger tomorrow, allows muscles to heal after the “damage” that your workout has done to them. They grow stronger as your immune system kicks in to repair the little tears in muscle fibers caused by lifting weights and other activities. Over time, you get fitter and stronger.
It makes sense that after you’ve completed a strenuous run or lifted heavy weights, the muscles most worked during that session would need a break. Athletes are concerned with this recovery period because they know how essential this opportunity for muscle growth is for performance, but it also helps keep them safe and injury-free. What happens when you don’t let muscles and bones recover? Overtraining can take you out of the game altogether, forcing you to stop working out. Progress comes to a screeching halt as you wait for your energy levels to return or you deal with injuries that have sidelined you.
Cross-Training Keeps You Active
Whether your goal is to avoid overtraining, reduce the risk of injury and pain, or stay motivated and engaged in your workout routine, cross-training can help achieve it. But, for women over 40, cross-training also offers a way to expand exercise options, stay engaged in a workout routine and age well with a firm, flexible body that’s capable of multiple movement types. Women over 40 should seize the opportunity offered by cross-training to stay active through their perimenopause years and beyond.
7 Benefits of Cross-Training for Women Over 40
With cross-training, you can rotate workouts (dance, rowing, cycling, lifting weights, yoga, boxing, swimming), using different combinations of muscles and body parts on alternate workout days. Cross-training allows older exercisers to add flexibility to their workouts in ways that support many different goals: weight loss, muscle strength, coordination and endurance, balance, flexibility, mood enhancement, and opportunities to socialize and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Here are 7 ways that cross-training can help a woman over 40 stay fit and injury-free for years to come:
1. Cross-training allows you to have active recovery days. On active recovery days, a lower intensity/lower impact exercise will allow your muscles, joints, bones and tissue to repair. If you lifted heavy weights today, tomorrow, you might want to swim a few laps. Swimming will loosen up your muscles, offer an enjoyable feeling of weightlessness and still work your heart through a gentler movement pattern.
2. Cross-training allows for total body conditioning. We can work a greater number of muscles and body systems when we rotate through different exercises. Each exercise will activate a specific group of muscles in a particular movement pattern. For example, a boxer may develop upper body strength through jabs and uppercuts, while a runner works mostly the lower body. By rotating both types of exercises into your workout schedule, you address a greater number of muscles and body parts, and you are moving them in unique and varied movement patterns.
3. Cross-training is excellent for generalist exercisers. Not everyone is a single-sport athlete. We may have goals that include heart health, weight loss, muscle strength or balance. We may not be interested in reaching a personal best record in one favorite sport. I love to row, but I’m not super competitive (or even that interested) when it comes to my stroke rate or what my 500m split time is. Rowing is my main exercise because it uses some 85% of my body’s muscles in a low-impact exercise that suits my body type. Rowing makes my body feel good and burns calories like nobody’s business! It’s my enjoyment of the movement pattern that keeps me coming back.
4. Cross-training holds your interest. Workouts can get stale no matter how much you love them, so mixing things up with a new sport or routine can give you a break and get things interesting again. I first started taking spinning classes because I wasn’t enjoying my rowing as much. I didn’t want to fall out of love with rowing, so I added spinning on the weekends to give my body (and mind) a break from it. It worked! I fell in love with spinning too, and now have options when I need to mix up my workouts. If my shoulders feel a little sore or tight from rowing, I’ll rotate in some spinning classes that give my upper body a rest while working my core, hips and legs.
5. Cross-training builds confidence. When I started spinning, I sucked at it. My out-of-the-saddle pedaling was awkward and slow, my butt hurt, and I was aggravated by how easy the regulars made it look. I felt that way for my first three sessions; somewhere around session 4 or 5, I started to get the hang of things, and I built up speed and stamina every workout after that until I made it look easy. On that journey, I met new people, enjoyed great music that reminded me of my disco days (yes, disco), and I felt accomplished. I went from being clumsy to confident.
6. Cross-training helps you age with grace. As I enter the later part of my 50s, I realize how important exercise will be when I’m 60, 70 and 80. I don’t want to lose my balance, stamina, ability to walk, dance, and saunter. I want to feel vital and age gracefully. Cross-training will allow me to do that. If I listen to my body and don’t overtrain it through any one exercise, I should be able to dance, row, spin, lift and walk well into my 80s. What a wonderful life that will be!
7. Cross-training helps you accept your body’s limitations while making the most of its strengths. I may not be able to take on strenuous workouts as frequently as I used to, but if I’m mindful of my body’s needs as I age, I stand a better chance of maintaining injury-free workouts. For example, I’ve lengthened my warm-up session to give my muscles a chance to loosen up, and I always stretch after workouts to help the muscles release. If I go full-out with a total-body, weight-lifting routine one day, I wait a few days before going that heavy again. I still push my body and help it grow, but I respect its need for rest too.
Once you’ve built a fitness mindset and know that you’re in it for the long haul, there’s no rush to get fit through one workout. You’ll be exercising today, tomorrow and the day after that, so find a combination of exercises that complement one another (and your body’s strengths) to achieve your goals. My ideal week is rowing on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, full-body, strength-training circuits on Tuesday and Thursday, and unstructured, fun dance workouts on the weekends. If my hips or back feel any strain from the full-body weight lifting, I do upper-body or lower-body moves only instead. If the rowing workouts feel stale, I may do some hill walking instead.
Fluidity and flexibility go a long way to staying fit, healthy and mentally engaged with your workout routine. Mix it up, and get cross-training (at any age) on repeat!
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