How to be fit after 50

Sitting opposite Dr Peter Herbert in a busy café in the market town of Carmarthen, in west Wales, it’s hard to believe that he is in his seventies. Wearing an unforgiving white T-shirt and jeans, his physique is buff enough to pass for a fit forty-something. I know men decades younger who would trade their car for his biceps. Yet while his appearance suggests training of ironman extremes, we are here to discuss the fact that his approach to exercise is far from the hammer and tongs school favoured by your average middle-aged man in Lycra. It involves no marathons, triathlons or any other last-ditch attempt to hold on to a youthful physique that have become de rigueur among men heading towards 50 and beyond. In fact, his physique is honed on a scientifically determined regimen that is best described as “minimal” — and he says it could work for you.

Herbert is an exercise physiologist and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David. He has a pedigree of helping elite sportsmen achieve their goals in his former roles as strength and conditioning coach to the Wales national rugby team and the Llanelli Scarlets rugby club, as well as fitness adviser to several world and Commonwealth champion boxers. Yet his most impressive subject to date has to be himself. A rugby player in his youth, he had always maintained a high level of fitness. As the years rolled by, he began to feel that he was treading water when it came to keeping his body in shape. By his mid-fifties he realised that the considerable number of weekly, even daily, hours he was devoting to exercise seemed to deliver ever diminishing returns.

It was clear, he says, that something had to change. “I took up competitive indoor rowing and cycling later in life and would spend hours on the bike, preparing for events like the World Masters championships,” Herbert says. “I was probably training harder than I ever had done, yet there was still this fitness plateau. No matter how much harder I tried, my body didn’t respond.” As a scientist, he was aware of the physiological limitations that come with age. “There are so many factors that can negatively influence fitness as you get older,” he says. “Recovery takes longer so you have to allow your body more recuperation time between workouts. Your absolute strength and aerobic capacity also take a downturn.” For many, it’s not so much a slippery slope post-40, but a black ski run with moguls.

A man’s maximum attainable heart rate declines by about one beat per minute, per year, after about age 30 and the heart’s peak capacity to pump blood drifts down by 5 to 10 per cent per decade. An average 90g of muscle is lost each year from the age of 40 (a sharper decline than for women). After 50, these losses are accelerated by a drop in the male hormone testosterone, which falls by about 1 per cent per year so that the male body loses up to 500g of muscle a year. Someone in their 70s who does no exercise typically has a third less muscle than a 25-year-old. If that’s not depressing enough, the visible side effects can seem worse. These factors combine to cause the eruption of the dreaded male paunch, seemingly from nowhere.

Mindful of the age-associated changes occurring to his own body, Herbert set about evaluating how, if at all, they could be stemmed. Initially, he used himself as a case study, varying the frequency and duration of his training load. He was intrigued by studies on high-intensity interval training (or HIIT) that had shown impressive gains in sedentary groups or people with the kind of conditions that plague the middle aged, such as diabetes. Could it be that infrequent shorter, harder workouts were the way forward for the ageing super-fit, too? “Over the past few years there’s been a glut of studies confirming that exercising hard for a very short period, even once a week, is better for you than remaining on the sofa,” Herbert says. “What nobody had investigated is whether the approach of higher intensity, reduced frequency sessions might help fit men in their 40s, 50s and 60s to ramp up their fitness.”

In those first few months, he attacked his own marathon-esque schedule with a sledgehammer. “My hunch was that my body needed greater amounts of recovery and I began to cut out my long-duration workouts to do one weekly interval session on the bike,” he says. Remarkably, his fitness improved. “Within a couple of months, I performed better in cycling races and I felt stronger.” It proved the trigger for several ground-breaking studies, such as investigating how downsizing workouts could prove key to offsetting the adverse effects of ageing in older athletes. Herbert has since worked with subjects from a range of sports to come up with a format that has huge potential for anyone wanting to maintain a high level of fitness and avoid the niggles that plague the later years.

In one of his most recent studies, published last year in the journal of the American Gerontology Society, Herbert and his team persuaded almost 20 hardcore veteran athletes, from their mid-fifties to mid-seventies, who were preparing for competitive cycling, rowing, squash and triathlon events, to ditch their normal training programmes for six weeks in order to follow his plan. For most, this meant a drastic reduction in weekly exercise, cutting their training load from a minimum three hard weekly sessions to one workout every five days involving 30-second sprints on an indoor bike. In between, their activity was limited to gentle aerobic exercise, such as jogging or steady cycling, for no more than 30 minutes a day. “It wasn’t easy to convince them it would work, but they stuck to it rigidly,” Herbert says.

The results were astounding. There were significant increases in the maximal oxygen capacity (or VO2 max) of all the older athletes when they reduced their training to the five-day cycle of HIIT sprints. Their body fat dropped and muscle strength improved. There were significant increases in leg power, which improved by an average 15 per cent, a factor that Herbert says has more physiological importance than cardiovascular fitness as you get older. “A lot of studies confirm that the strength of your legs has a direct influence on many aspects of your health as you age,” he says. In November last year, scientists from King’s College London discovered a “striking protective relationship” between strong legs and a fit brain that resists the effects of ageing. Their findings showed that leg power was more closely linked to age-related changes in mental function than any other lifestyle factor tested.

In a study awaiting publication, Herbert shows how his “fit-HIIT” programme boosted levels of testosterone in the men who took part. “Higher levels of this dwindling male hormone in older men are associated with reduced loss of lean muscle mass,” he explains. His trials have also looked at the effects of the intermittent five-day programme on a group of subjects, each of whom had been sedentary for more than 30 years. For six weeks, the former couch potatoes followed a preliminary plan that gradually increased the amount of exercise they were doing until they met the 150 weekly minutes of moderate activity advocated in NHS guidelines. They then progressed on to the routine of six 30-second sprints every five days with daily walking in between. Like the athletes, their leg power and aerobic capacity soared on the HIIT plan, and their body fat dropped.

Herbert says that, despite being highly sceptical before taking part in his laboratory studies, some of the athletes are now sold on the concept of minimising their training. He is one of them. “I do this approach by the book,” Herbert says. “Every five days, I work to 90 per cent of my maximum capacity and then tick over, burning calories with gentle exercise the rest of the time. I recently won a bronze medal at the World Masters Track Cycling Championships and, despite training far less, I am undoubtedly fitter than I have ever been.”

How to minimise your training

Dr Peter Herbert’s programme for men aged 45-plus.

Pre-conditioning schedule:
This is essential if you haven’t exercised in a while.
■Week 1: 8-10 minutes a day of walking
■Week 2: 10-12 minutes a day of walking or cycling
■Week 3: 15 minutes a day of walking or cycling
■Week 4: 20 minutes a day of walking or cycling
■Week 5: On alternate days do: Day 1 (am) — 3 minutes of steady walking or cycling, 4 minutes of faster walking, 3 minutes of steady walking; (pm) — 10 minutes of steady activity. Day 2 — 20 minutes of steady walking
■Week 6: On alternate days do: Day 1 (am) — 3 minutes of steady jogging, swimming or cycling, then alternate minutes of the same activity, faster and slower, for 5 minutes, then 2 minutes of slow activity; (pm) 10 minutes of steady jogging, walking, cycling or swimming; Day 2 — 20 minutes of steady walking

This is a five-day schedule that can be repeated with the specific HIIT activity varied to suit. If you wear a heart rate monitor, you should push to 90 per cent of your maximum heart rate. If not, work hard enough that you are puffing and unable to speak during the “efforts”. Make sure you allow five days’ recovery between each interval session.
■Day 1: 20-30 minute swim, jog or cycle
■Day 2: 30-40 minutes of walking
■Day 3: 20-30 minute swim, jog or cycle
■Day 4: 25 minutes of walking and some stretching
■Day 5: Either 6 x 30-second sprints on a bike (with 3 minutes of gentle cycling recovery between each burst); or 6 x 20-second sprints of uphill running or on a rowing machine (30 seconds of gentle recovery); or 6 x 30-seconds of swimming or treadmill running (3 minutes of gentle recovery).