How to stay fit over 40: advice for exercise, diet and more

Getting - and staying - fit over 40 requires the right mix of exercise, healthy eating and wellbeing, according to our experts

Couple keeping fit over 40
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you want to stay fit over 40 and beyond, there's a handful of different exercise and diet tweaks which will prove beneficial.

Even if you've previously enjoyed an active, healthy lifestyle, once you reach the big 4-0 it's likely that you'll notice things stat to change a little.

You may find it harder to shift any unwanted weight, thanks to the age-related slowing of the metabolism - a deceleration that becomes more pronounced after 40, slowing by about 5% every decade. You may also notice it's harder to maintain muscle mass; we lose 3-8% of our muscle mass every decade after the age of 30.

At the same time, staying fit and healthy comes into sharp focus during midlife, with the demands of work, family and personal lives demanding high energy levels, good mobility and all-round wellbeing.

In addition, what you do now will set you up for a healthy old age. Regular exercise and a healthy diet will result in improved mental and physical health into your 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond.

So when it comes to getting - and staying - fit at 40, what are the steps you need to take? Below you'll find a guide to key points to consider to set yourself up for a fit and healthy midlife and beyond...

Do regular high intensity (and perhaps low impact) workouts

‘To stay fit in your 40s and beyond, you need to exercise regularly ideally two to three times a week,’ reveals Luke Gray, founder of online fitness studio feelnoo.com.

He adds that getting fitter, trimming fat and losing those inches off your waistline isn’t achieved from spending two hours straight in the gym in a one-off session. 

‘There are a number of high intensity cardio exercises that you can do from the comfort of your own home that will get your heart rate up and into fat burning mode.’ This is where HIIT is your friend.

HIIT stands for high intensity interval training. During HIIT workouts you can expect rapid, intense repetitions of a particular exercise for say, 30 seconds, followed by 30 seconds of rest, which you then repeat with different moves.

Research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine gathered data from various different studies and found that those doing HIIT saw a 28.5% greater weight loss. So lace up your best workout shoes and HIIT the studio floor!

Of course, joint wear-and-tear is common as we age. For anyone concerned about joint issues, Gray advises looking for low-impact HIIT workouts.

'All of the classes at Feelnoo are tailored to provide low-impact, easy-on-the-joints movement. So, you won’t find squat jumps and high knees, however we will get you the cardio workout you need,' he says.

Eat more protein

Protein is essential for post-workout muscle recovery, a fact that becomes more important the older we get.

A review in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism reported that various studies have outlined how older athletes (those aged 40 and over) suffered impaired post-exercise recovery, and therefore needed more protein that their younger counterparts.

Some of the studies cited stated that, whilst younger athletes needed only 20g of protein for recovery, the needs of those in the older cohort were significantly higher: around 35 to 40g.

And it's not just recovery where protein is important. It also helps keep you feeling fuller for longer (thus reducing the temptation to reach for carbs and caffeine) and builds more muscle, which in turn increases your metabolic rate, boosting your energy levels and helping to fuel your exercise.

Good sources of protein include lean meats such as chicken and turkey, beans, lentils, legumes, fish and tofu. When preparing meats, be sure to opt for healthier cooking methods such as grilling or air-frying (we've picked the best health grills and best air-fryers to help you do just that).

You could also try protein powders, whether added to post-workout smoothies or enjoyed as occasional meal substitutes. We've compiled lists of the best protein powders for weight loss and the best protein powders for women as a guide.

Turkey kebab skewers, a good source of protein, which is essential for staying fit after 40

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Workout to maintain muscle

In addition to cardio exercise such as HIIT and upping your protein intake, it's also important to factor strength training into your workout routine in order to build and preserve muscle.

As stated earlier, muscle mass decreases around 3-8% every decade after the age of 30.  However, as Marc Bubbs  -author of Peak 40 – The New Science of Mid-Life Health for a Leaner, Stronger Body and a Sharper Mind (out May 20) - advises:  ‘If we can maintain muscle mass, all the chronic health conditions - cardiovascular disease, pre-diabetes, Alzheimer's - really plummet.'

He recommends working individual body parts with 10 sets of 8-15 repetitions per week, including your arms, core and legs. You could of course break these sets up into two lots of five across the week.

‘This is like two days of training - a half hour to 45 minutes; it’s totally doable and you can split this into upper body, lower body and across multiple days,' says Bubbs.

Some of the best arm exercises include arm circles, punches, tricep dips and bicep curls, the latter of which will require weights (check out our pick of the best adjustable dumbbells to workout at home).

Meanwhile, the best workouts for abs might include crunches (including variations such as bicycle crunches, ab circles and the mighty plank. You could also incorporate an ab roller into your routine.

And to workout the legs, you may want to try squats, lunges and calf raises. Learning how to deadlift - whether with dumbbells or barbells - can also be beneficial.

Stay hydrated 

‘I absolutely drive my clients crazy about drinking water, especially when you hit your 40s as the body loses water as we age,’ says Gray.

‘It’s bad enough that not drinking enough water leads to poor performance in your muscles and can increase the risk of injury, but one of the main side effects of dehydration is tiredness and fatigue, so drink 1-2 liters per day.’

If you're on the move a lot, keep one of our best gym water bottle picks handy to sup as you go.

Ditch late night eating

‘Over 40% of all the calories we eat now are after 6pm and this isn't ideal,’ says Bubbs.

‘When we look at some research, people in the obese category eat the majority of their calories an hour before bed. The more you eat after 6pm, the greater the likelihood you will drink alcohol and eat ultra processed foods.’

His advice? 'You don’t have to do this every night, but start having nights of the week with no snacking after dinner. If we can cut late eating down, we can cut caloric intake and improve blood sugar levels.’ 

Marc adds that in addition to high blood sugar levels going hand-in-hand with weight gain, it also leads to pronounced menopausal symptoms in women. These include sleep and mood disturbances, and changes in libido.

‘Improving glucose control is a big piece of the puzzle,' he says of menopause, adding that for women carrying excess weight: 'Simply losing weight is a good way to improve glucose control.’

Focus on sleep

Exercise is a great place to start to improve sleep and vice versa. 

Studies have in fact found a direct correlation between regular exercise and sleep quality as Gray explains.

'It is scientifically proven that if you make exercise part of your regular routine it will improve your quality of sleep. In turn, sleep gives your body time to recover, conserve energy and repair and build up the muscles worked during exercise.'

The takeaway? 'The better rested you are, the better your mind and body can function – and that includes at the gym.'

Gray recommends choosing an activity that you like, be it walking, running, a certain exercise class or otherwise. Not only will this improve fitness if done regularly, but doing something enjoyable will also help release stress and give you a sense of wellbeing. 

Struggle to sleep due to comfort issues? Take a look at our pick of the best mattresses toppers to enhance your overnight environment.

Over 40s couple asleep in bed

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Aim for consistency

Midlife is typically a busy time, and there will be roadblocks that get in the way of your exercise routine. 

With this in mind, Bubbs explains the need to establish healthy routines that are feasible in the long-term, but also offer 'good bang for our buck' when time is limited. 

‘Consistency is the best predictor of success,' he explains. 'e want a long term plan and we need to be patient with it.’

He suggests 'exercise snacking', scheduling regular short workouts (such as 15 minute slots), so that when life is hectic it's still possible to fit in some exercise - with little room for excuses.

Reduce refined carb intake

Regular consumption of refined carbs such as cakes, biscuits and 'white' grains (think white rice and pasta) can cause you to enter into a vicious cycle of elevated sugar levels, blood sugar-lows and tiredness.

'This is going to have a negative effect on your motivation to work out and get fit,' says Gray. It can also result in you feeling less sated and hungry more often.

Instead opt for wholegrain varieties such as brown rice, oats, fruits, vegetables and wholegrain pasta.