Maybe it’s because I turned 50 this year, but lately I’ve noticed quite a few posts on social media from exercise professionals who are also, ahem, middle aged about feeling as though they are “in the best shape of their lives.” Not surprisingly, they usually credit exercise and a healthy lifestyle for “keeping them young.”

While I really want these messages to resonate with me, they just don’t. Not because I haven’t led a healthy lifestyle, but because I have and do…and yet I don’t always “feel great!” or as if I’m in the best shape of my life. Sure, my brain may be convinced I’m still a vibrant 28-year-old, my body … well, it hurts almost all the time. Instead of motivating me like a good chorus of "Eye of the Tiger," reading these posts leaves me feeling “less,” as if I’ve somehow done “it” wrong. There’s also a nagging sense of sadness that my 50-year-old body doesn’t feel the same as my 40-year-old body. Knowing these exercise professionals personally, I realize their intention is to inspire a healthy lifestyle, but for some readers, like me, they might have the opposite effect.

So, how do we straddle that line between being encouraging and motivating to clients who are at or near middle age and setting them up for potentially outsized expectations about what their bodies can and should be able to do at this stage of life? This article examines what the research really says about the impact of physical activity on the aging process, and how to use that information to help your clients establish and reach their health and wellness goals.

Let’s Be Honest

It’s not a stretch to say that each of us are on our own distinct path through life. Mine has included some health and orthopedic problems, neither of which are especially unique. Some are even common among women. Overall, I’m a healthy person, thanks in large part to a healthy lifestyle, but every health issue I’ve encountered has taken a toll and they often show up as orthopedic or nervous system pain and fatigue.

On a recent hike, my friend and neighbor told me a bit about her journey of aging actively. Formerly an avid half-marathon runner, she’s struggling with osteoarthritis in her fifties. She tried biking, but that didn’t take enough strain off her knee, so she moved on to swimming. “Now, I’m with the really old people” she laughs. “They are in their seventies and eighties and still active. I love it.”

My experience and that of my friend is hardly unique, which is why it is so important that we be honest with ourselves and our clients as we talk about the impact of aging on the body. Yes, we should talk about the positive impact of a healthy lifestyle on aging. However, to honor what people are feeling as they age, we must also acknowledge that aging in and of itself has an impact.

Thankfully, we have largely put to bed the archaic concept that aging results in becoming inactive and feeble. Conversely, we need to resist being lured in by the social media posts of 75-year-old gymnasts and power lifters who represent outliers in their age groups. By understanding the physiological and sometimes psychological factors of aging, we can avoid setting unrealistic goals, and ensure an effective exercise program for our clients.

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Good workout music is essential for all ages, but if you or your clients are among the so-called Generation X, this Spotify playlist was created just for you. 

“This generation, currently reaching middle age, is the first to grow up with exercise as an accepted and encouraged pastime,” observed Pete McCall, MS, ACE Certified Professional and author of Ageless Intensity. “Previous generations didn’t see exercise as something you would do unless you were training for sport.” McCall's observation reminded me of a story my mother-in-law, now in her early eighties, once shared about seeing someone running through the neighborhood when she was young. “We all stopped what we were doing and stared," she told me. "I think we might have even called the police. He was just out jogging, but at that time, we hadn’t ever seen anyone do such a thing.”

McCall continues: “Most research on aging is done on people who have not led an active lifestyle. Research has been done on generations of folks whose experience with exercise was more like my mother-in-law’s than my own,” he observes. “Still, today, approximately 80% of the population does not exercise regularly.’

While we can agree that more research should be done on the physiology of aging in populations who have led a consistently active lifestyle, the research we have clearly demonstrates that exercise has a positive impact on a wide range of factors, including the incidence of disease, stress reduction, cognition and overall well-being. To date, however, there is no evidence that exercise reverses the physiological impact of aging, so we need to be careful with our words and expectations.

Regardless of age, exercise has a positive impact on strength, mobility and bone density in addition to improving overall health. In your work with clients, you need to understand these physiological changes to create effective workouts and recovery protocols that maximize reward while minimizing risk. Let’s take a closer look at some of the common effects of aging and if and how they might be addressed.

Decreases in Collagen Production Lead to Decreased Elasticity

Collagen is a protein found throughout the matrixes of the human body. Most often associated with the skin, collagen is an essential protein in tendons and ligaments and provides elasticity to these tissues. Both chronological aging and the onset of some diseases set off a process that reduces collagen production and decreases its elastic properties. This means that with normal aging, the body begins to lose tendon and ligament elasticity. As noted in the research, this process may be accelerated in individuals with diabetes.

At this point, the impact of exercise on collagen in humans is still unclear. While in vitro studies (studies on rats) have demonstrated an increase in collagen production and human growth hormone post exercise, studies on humans have yielded conflicting results, indicating that more research is needed.

How do you apply this to your clients’ trainings?

Elasticity is on display during most exercise and sport, but it is especially important when an exercise requires quick changes in direction and/or powerful ballistic movements like Olympic lifts, plyometrics and agility drills. Depending on individual health and injury history, clients who have included these types of exercises in their regular training regimen for years may or may not see a decline in their ability to perform them over time. In fact, continuing to include these exercises can help them maintain overall elasticity.

But what about the clients who are new to exercise or returning after a hiatus? When you are starting a training program with clients who are in their forties or fifties, be sure to include some multidirectional movements that require elasticity. Regardless of how long someone has been participating in this type of exercise, increase the intensity and load slowly to reduce the risk of injury. As your clients age, their ability to create collagen slows, so adaptation will take longer. Sticking with the same exercise, at the same intensity will continue to provide benefits, so avoid the temptation to progress your clients too quickly.

Here are a few of my favorite exercises to help promote elasticity:

Slower Healing Leads to Lapses in Activity

As cells age, they are less likely to retain the ability to divide, slowing our capacity to heal. Practically speaking, as the body ages, little injuries seem to last longer and longer. Whether it is one injury with a particularly long healing time, or a series of injuries that each take their time in resolving, injuries can get in the way of a regular exercise program.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for the beneficial effects of training to start to fade. In fact, Dr. Lance C. Dalleck and his team of researchers at Western Colorado University found that even a four-week pause in exercise has detrimental effects on cardiometabolic health markers. As Dr. Dalleck noted, “Interrupting sedentary behavior is key.”

How do you apply this to your clients’ trainings?

It’s important to recognize that injuries can and do happen to active people, so take the time to help your clients understand that, while they may need to change their exercise program, they don’t need to stop exercising altogether. A shoulder injury may mean a break from upper-body lifting or cycling, but it might not interfere with hiking or some lower-body resistance training. “It’s important to remind clients that something is better than nothing when it comes to physical activity,” urges Dr. Dalleck.

If your client’s goal is better overall health and well-being and physical independence, avoiding injury is even more essential. As a health and exercise professional, it is your responsibility to understand the risk and reward of the exercise selection for each client, as well as the importance of recovery time.

Avoiding injury is one of the exercise considerations that feels new and a little annoying to folks who have reached middle-age. After all, it can be an unwelcome reminder that they are getting older and may need to treat their bodies a bit differently. For this reason, Sabrena Jo, PhD, ACE’s Senior Director of Science and Research, urges professionals to teach their clients self-compassion. “Sometimes even the client’s goals can be in conflict with their body and it’s important they practice self-compassion,” explains Dr. Jo.

McCall agrees: “As you get older, you come at your workouts a little differently and it takes time to realize that not every workout needs to be hard. Help your client to have permission to come at it again tomorrow.”

Chronic Conditions Impact Motivation

Chronic pain is a fact of life for many people, particularly those who are middle-aged or older. In fact, of those who report chronic or high-impact chronic pain, over 78% are older than 45 years, and, notably, over 35% are between the ages of 45 and 64. Of course, the presence of constant pain can make being physically active a challenge for even the most dedicated exerciser. They may want to exercise, but chronic pain poses an exceptionally challenging barrier.

In an interview for Apple News, Aubrey Gordon of the Maintenance Phase podcast talked about the value judgements we associate with being healthy. “Being healthy is a virtue,” said Gordon, “and it is an earned virtue, which also invites astonishing levels of judgment aimed at disabled people and chronically ill people. Consequently, you must've done something wrong if you’re sick or if you’re disabled....We lose sight of the biases that replicate within us and the ways that we become messengers of bias and exclusion rather than (being)...kind and compassionate.”

What is important to remember about Gordon’s position is that each one of us is vulnerable to a similar bias and, at any point, may apply that bias to ourselves. In addition to being aware of your own biases as a health and exercise professional, it is important to help your clients recognize their own biases and how they may be passing judgement on their own progress.

Much like an injury, pain is a limiting factor to starting an exercise program or staying consistent with one. Aside from injury, pain can come from neurological conditions, side-effects of medication, different forms of arthritis, post-surgical wound healing and more. Pain doesn’t have to be orthopedic to make curling up on the couch far more appealing than going to a gym.

While some studies suggest that exercise may help reduce one’s perception of pain, exercise may also exacerbate fatigue, which in turn increases the perception of pain. Pain and fatigue seem to be closely related, so whether your client is struggling with long-term chronic pain or short-term acute pain, it’s important to continue to check in frequently using both the perceived exertion scale and the perceived pain scale (below).

How do you apply this to your clients’ trainings?

When designing programs for clients who experience pain, Dr. Jo suggests focusing more on movement rather than exercise. Similarly, McCall questions whether having a quantifiable goal is necessary. “Maybe the goal is just to exercise consistently,” he says. Both agree that the objective should always be for the client to feel better at the end of their workout than they did at the start.

To ensure that a workout is relieving pain rather than causing it, check in frequently on your client’s pain levels throughout the workout to confirm that pain isn’t increasing with any exercise or cumulatively during the session. Resist the idea of “pushing through.” For clients who have previously led an active lifestyle, there may be some internal comparison; for example, their self-talk might sound like this: “I used to be able to do 20 of these, I’m not stopping now.” Understanding your client’s motivating factors is key in these moments, as you can offer them a gentle reminder that not completing a set won’t upend their goals, but pushing to an injury will.

To ensure a client feels better at the end of a workout, keep the intensity of each session at a level that remains fun and moderately challenging, and focus on mobility exercises and multi-dimensional movement. Consider decreasing the number of sets of an individual exercise in favor of multiple exercises with the same purpose. Table 1 presents alternatives to common exercise sets. The variety of movement patterns shown here can help decrease the likelihood of overtraining an already fatigued area, while including the same volume of sets and reps per muscle group.

Table 1

Instead of these nine sets
Try these nine sets


Weighted squats 3x10


Squat/med ball overhead press 1x10


Seated Rows 3x10


Standing cable row w/ rotation 1x10


Push-ups 3x10


Standing cable press w/ rotation 1x10



Lateral speed skaters 1x30 sec



Lat pull down 1x10



Walking lunges 1x10



Seated Rows 1x10



Lateral lunges 1x10



Reverse woodchop 1x10


Mindset and Motivation

Undoubtedly, the most important aspect of coaching is understanding an individual’s current mindset and intrinsic motivation. The physiological changes that come with age may take a toll on motivation or, conversely, it may be a catalyst for embracing a healthy lifestyle.

While it’s true that the effect of physiological aging can be frustrating to some, others take a different perspective. “I’m of the age that I’m watching my parents in their later years and how they are struggling with physical tasks,” says McCall. “It keeps me motivated to get to the gym and stay strong.”

The forties and fifties are often referred to as the “sandwich years” because people at this age are often caretakers for both their children and their aging parents. “It’s important for trainers to remember that the life of their 50-year-old client doesn’t look like the life of a 25-year-old,” says McCall. As a health and exercise professional, you need to ask questions to understand what level of physical activity is important to your clients today, and what might motivate them for the future.

Empathy is a key component to health coaching. Take the time to understand what drives your client’s choices and what motivates their desire to pursue an active lifestyle. And, importantly, remind them to practice a little self-compassion when they look at you and say, “I’m just getting old.” Connecting with your clients who are reaching middle age means that you empathize with the fact that they are going through changes. Equally important is to resist the urge to minimize the impact of those changes on both their bodies and their psyche. Your clients will feel validated when you acknowledge the reality that aging has an impact on physiology and that exercise can minimize the negative impacts of aging. Help them understand that they aren’t doing anything “wrong” if they don’t feel as though they are “in the best shape of their life.” As a matter of fact, simply by showing up they are doing everything right.

In this video, the author offers three essential tips for creating effective exercise programs for clients who are middle-aged or older, and explains how to use the ACE ABC ApproachTM to connect with clients and reassure them that sometimes just showing up is worth celebrating.

Expand Your Knowledge

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