There’s no ‘one size fits all’ for our diet and lifestyle, and this is especially true as we age. The principles of healthy eating stay the same over a lifetime, but our hormones, metabolism and lifestyle undergo big changes.
Our bodies require different foods and nutrients to adapt. It makes sense that if we want to have lots of energy, to enjoy a strong and healthy body and to maintain our weight, we need to adjust the way we eat and exercise according to our age.
No matter where you are in your journey, you can take steps to enjoy being healthier and fitter for longer.
How to eat and exercise in your 20s
Your twenties are all about having fun and trying new things. Many of us will still be enjoying youthful energy, busy working out what career is for us, trying new hobbies and making new friends. “Fortunately, our bodies are quite forgiving at this time and can cope with the stresses that this lifestyle throws their way,” says nutritionist Maria Bez.
“We can handle a few late nights, a moderate amount of drinking, and eating on-the-go food.” But it’s important to be aware that, over time, this lifestyle can start to cause health problems.
Sarah, now 33, is an account manager. “I went straight into work after university, and thought that I could continue the late nights and socialising,” she remembers. “But as I got older, I realised that it was taking its toll. I had painful periods and bloating. Alcohol was my go-to tranquilliser, but I was drinking way over recommended levels.”
Maria advises reducing alcohol consumption as you go through your twenties. “Alcohol can cause increased inflammation and a change in good bacteria of the gut, which makes other symptoms that your body may be experiencing more painful,” she explains. Sarah now only has a drink on Fridays and Saturdays, and has noticed a drastic improvement in her overall health. “I hardly notice my periods now – no more pain!” she says.
It’s also a great idea to channel those higher energy levels into exercise. “Your twenties are the perfect time to find out what kind of exercise is right for you,” says fitness instructor Kate Bennett.
“It’s a period of your life when you can focus on yourself, devoting time to trying lots of different classes and activities. You’re much more likely to stay active through life if you can find a sport that you’re passionate about, and it’s a great way to meet new people and socialise.”
As our metabolisms are still quite high during our twenties, it’s less about what you do – more that you find a way to consistently fit it into your routine. But Kate does recommend spending at least some time in the gym learning the basics of strength training.
“Resistance training (think dumbbells and barbells) is one of the best kinds of exercise we can do, whatever our age,” she explains. “Learning how to safely and effectively complete weight-lifting exercises when we are younger will help us to reap the benefits of this kind of training later in life.”
How to eat and exercise in your 30s
Things get a bit busier in your thirties. Work can get more stressful as you climb the career ladder, mortgages might need paying and you may thinking about having children.
“Being super-stressed can disrupt hormones, causing inflammation and worsening PMT and fatigue,” says Maria. She suggests adjusting your diet to moderate the effects that a busy work-life can cause. “Include protein in every meal to even out energy levels throughout the day, along with plenty of oily fish such as sardines and salmon for their Omega-3 anti-inflammatory fat,” advises Maria.
She continues: “You also want to make sure that 50% of your food intake is from plant-based sources, providing fibre for good bacteria to keep your gut happy and healthy.”
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Tackling stress head-on can also help you to stay well. Account manager Sarah has been using a mindfulness app before she goes to bed. “Just 10 minutes of mindfulness a day changes my whole week,” says Sarah. “I’m clearer-headed and more motivated, and it helps me to make the right food choices to support my body.”
Exercise, too, can help when things get tough. “Fitting in workouts seems hard when you’re busy,” says Kate, “but having that break from your desk can give you much-needed headspace and help you to be more efficient when you get back.”
Finding a regular exercise routine is important during your thirties, as your metabolism will start to slow and you can lose muscle. “By now, you should be incorporating both cardio and resistance training in your workouts,” advises Kate. “This will help you to maintain muscle, your weight and strength, and also slow down the effects that ageing has on our joints.”
If children are on your radar, strength training is paramount. “It will prepare your body for the journey that it will go through during pregnancy and childbirth,” says Kate. But before you enter into any kind of fitness plan, either pre- or post-natal, always consult your doctor and take advice from a qualified personal trainer.
How to eat and exercise in your 40s
Life is still fast-paced in our forties, but unfortunately, our metabolisms don’t keep up with our busy schedules. It’s also the time when cases of chronic stress are more prevalent, as busy family life means that we rarely get time for ourselves. This combination can lead to a change in body composition, leaving us feeling unhealthy and unhappy.
Carol, now 53, is a book keeper. She knows only too well the effects of feeling forty “I started putting on weight at 45,” she says. “I joined slimming clubs and did more exercise but the things that worked when I was younger just didn’t work any more. I’d lost my waist, which upset me. And then my stress levels went through the roof when I got divorced.”
“An American study has shown a connection between high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and an increase in abdominal fat,” explains Maria. “When our cortisol levels are raised, due to difficult life circumstances or on-going stress, we have higher blood sugar levels, which causes our bodies to store more visceral fat around the organs in the abdomen. And if that wasn’t enough, higher cortisol levels also influence our appetite and increase food cravings, meaning that we may be eating more calories than we need.”
A good food and exercise regime can prevent some of these negative effects. A diet rich in Omega-3, from oily fish or walnuts for example, is a good place to start – research has shown that these healthy fats reduce cortisol levels.
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It may be tempting to hit the gym to work out some of that stress, but high intensity training can actually lead to increased production of cortisol. “Swap your more intense workout sessions for a restorative or yin yoga class,” advises Kate.
“Not only will this help the body to reduce levels of cortisol, but the meditative state of these types of yoga classes can be hugely beneficial for calming stressed minds as well.” Incorporating more low-intensity steady state (LISS) cardio, such as walking, will also help to promote a sense of calm, while still burning calories to help keep weight under control.
How to eat and exercise in your 50s
Oh hello, hormones! In the UK, 51 is the average age for women to reach the menopause, but changes in hormone levels can affect our bodies for up to five years leading up to it. On the upside, you no longer need to deal with periods (and the PMT that can come with them), but on the downside, it can lead to hot flushes, sleepless nights, stubborn weight gain and osteoporosis.
For 53-year-old Carol, the menopause took its toll on her sleep. “I used to get night sweats and restless legs that would keep me awake, meaning that I felt exhausted all the time,” she says.
“My GP recommended HRT, but I wanted to investigate other options before taking medication.” Maria agrees that you can take lifestyle steps to combat these kinds of symptoms.
“I recommended that Carol adjusted her diet to include a high proportion of plant-based foods, such as nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables and flaxseed,” she explains. “These are all rich in magnesium and calcium, which will help to balance hormones and alleviate restless legs.”
Daily exercise can also help when hormonal changes hit hard. “Now is the time to slow down your exercise, but to do it more frequently,” says Kate. “Ideally, you will be doing low- intensity activities, such as walking or yoga, at least five times a week.
This will not only help you to avoid the abdominal fat that reduced levels of oestrogen can cause, but also help to calm symptoms such as restless legs and difficulty sleeping.” Yoga postures are also weight-bearing, which means that they will help to strengthen your joints and bones as you get older. Pilates, too, is a great option for this.
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Carol found that by incorporating these changes, she could control the impact that hormonal changes had on her wellbeing. “It took a little effort to do, but the programme worked and I now feel so much better,” she says.
How to eat and exercise in your 60s and beyond
As retirement approaches, most of us have more time to spend on ourselves, so our sixties are the perfect time to focus on keeping our bodies happy and healthy for our golden years.
“I’ve always been lucky with my health,” says Norma, 67, a retired headteacher. “But in the last few years, I’ve noticed a few aches and pains in my joints.” Kate says that this is entirely normal. “As we get older, joints become less mobile, causing discomfort as we move them, and we can develop arthritis,” she explains. The good news is that exercise can be greatly beneficial for managing the symptoms of these issues.
“It’s best to seek advice from a personal trainer to work out a plan that will suit you, but generally you will need to do low-intensity cardio, weight-bearing activities to support joint and bone health, and mobility and flexibility exercises to make sure that you keep a good range of movement in your day-to-day life.” Risk of falling, too, can increase as we get older – Kate suggests balance training to help with stability.
The key is incorporating this into your routine. “I now start my day with some stretches,” says Norma, “I also do some squats when I clean my teeth! My joints feel so much better, and it’s made a huge difference to my flexibility.”
Norma was also worried about her digestive health. “I often felt uncomfortable and bloated after food,” she says. Maria explains: “Our digestive capacity weakens as we age, meaning that we may lose our appetite, or suffer from discomfort after eating.”
She recommends a simple switch: eating a main meal at lunchtime, then enjoying something lighter, such as soup or salad, in the evening. She also suggests having a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with meals, to reduce bloating and soreness in the joints.
Norma says that these small changes have had a bit impact. “My bloating has nearly gone, and I honestly feel like a new person.”
Photos by Bruce Mars, Brooke Cagle, Jacob Postuma, Brooke Lark, Court Prather, Mike Bourman, Dan Gold, Mariana Medvedeva, Arielle Suleiman and Edward Cisneros on Unsplash.