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Keep fit on holiday: An exercise guide for over-50s

Supercharge your travels with an energetic walk through new surroundings or some simple yet effective stretches to perform in your hotel room.

We chat to two over-50s personal trainers on working out abroad.
We chat to two over-50s personal trainers on working out abroad.

In between sampling delicious cuisines, filling yourself with high-quality vinos and experiencing all a country has to offer, you'd be forgiven for not finding the time to exercise during your holiday.

However, maintaining fitness - even while abroad - can be essential to mental wellbeing, physical health and keeping up with any progress made back home.

So, we have brought in the big guns. We spoke with two UK-based personal trainers who specialise in over-50s training, 52-year-old Christina Howells of That Girl London and 62-year-old Chris Zaremba of Fitness Over Fifty, about the simple ways you can squeeze in a workout during your travels.

What are some simple exercises to perform on holiday?

With limited space, equipment and facilities on the road, you might like to keep your fitness regime simple. Here are Christina's tips.

Christina says:


Fortunately for you, walking is one thing you'll be doing on a holiday.
Fortunately for you, walking is one thing you'll be doing on a holiday.

Walking is my top choice for travelling as it’s a great way to get about and see more while improving your health. Walking is probably one of the simplest and most effective forms of preventive medicine there is, in my opinion.

Walking can reduce depression, lower the risk of diabetes, improve cardiovascular function and heart health, lower body fat, and improve muscle tone and function. It's also a form of impact to help protect against bone loss.

Aim for 30-60 minutes a day or more if you're a keen walker.

Cat stretch

The cat stretch is one of my favourite mobility exercises for helping alleviate back pain while improving motion and control through each spinal segment.

Move onto all fours with your shoulders, elbows, and wrists in one straight line. Your knees are hip-width apart and stacked under your hips. The spine is neutral.

Draw your abdominals inwards to prepare, and on an exhale tilt the tail bone downwards. From here, your focus is to sequentially articulate through your spine coming into flexion, so that your upper back is rounded. Inhale at the top focusing on expanding the end of the rib cage while keeping the abdominals engaged. Keep your head and shoulders relaxed.

On an exhale, tilt the tail bone towards the ceiling as you sequentially articulate through your spine into a slight extension. Think of your abdominals sinking to the floor. Try to focus your awareness on each vertebra as you move and take your time.

Repeat 8-10 times.

'The Bug'

Your core muscular structure creates a stable base from which you can perform movements. It aids in the transfer of force, helping you to achieve activities such as a weighted squat or carrying shopping. These muscles also help you sit upright and maintain your posture.

If you’re not sure how to engage these muscles, then I would most certainly focus on developing core awareness with specific core exercises to help you deal with the daily demands put upon your body.

One of the best places to start is learning how to activate your anterior core (AC) to provide lumbar-pelvic stability. Think about the squat, the more the spine moves then, the less the AC is switched on, resulting in your back doing some of the work. A good starting point to train your AC is a simple but highly effective exercise frequently referred to as 'The Bug'.

In this exercise, we are creating lumbar pelvic dissociation, which simply means moving the limbs while stabilising the spine. In other words, the aim is to avoid arching your lower back while moving your extremities.

Lie supine with your knees bent at 90 degrees in line with your hips. Arms in the air, hands in line with shoulders. Pull your ribs in and down. Your lower back is flush to the floor.

On an exhale, slowly lower the opposite arm and leg away from each other towards the floor while maintaining a stable pelvis and neutral spine. Remember to avoid arching the back. Work alternate sides, slowly and with control.

Repeat 16-20 times.

What are some challenges over-50s might face when it comes to fitness?

There are physical and mental barriers over-50s face when it comes to exercise. It's important to note that everybody's set of circumstances is entirely different, so it's best not to approach fitness with a one size fits all mindset.

Christina says:

Hormonal changes

Probably one of the biggest challenges post-50 is age-related hormonal changes, which for women results primarily in decreased oestrogen and progesterone and for men can affect testosterone levels. This can impact energy, mood, memory, and muscular strength, making daily life a little more challenging.

Women during the menopause years may struggle with an array of symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats, sleep disturbances, and urinary symptoms, which could impact one's enthusiasm for physical activity.

Even though exercise may be the furthest from one's mind, once you start, you will soon realise being more active can help you cope better and feel better. Moreover, exercise plays a significant role in reducing the risk of age-related health issues such as heart disease, sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass and strength), and osteoporosis.

Lack of mobility

Lack of mobility is frequently observed amongst the 50-plus usually as a result of the consistent daily habit of sitting, which often results in poor posture, pain, and limited range of motion.

Incorporating mobility exercises into your daily routine can help you to move better and help keep your injury and pain-free over the next decades. It's also an essential factor alongside strength for leading a full and capable life.

Not knowing where to begin

If you have not exercised for a while, don't be put off. Be mindful of where you're at right now. It's necessary to move more, but it's essential to move better.

Jumping around with little body awareness may feel like a good workout, but if you're not watching your form you could end up with an increased risk of injury. My advice is to slow things down, learn the basics, work on your technique, and put form first over function.

We need to remember recovery is critical. As we age, our bodies take a little more time to recover between exercise sessions, so you need to factor in rest days and vary your exercise intensities. Feeling constantly sore and exhausted is not going to get results. It's about working out smarter, quality over quantity, feeling better, and enjoying what you are doing.

Are there exercises to avoid when you're over 50?

Christina has covered some of her favourite exercises to perform while travelling, as well as barriers to exercising, and Chris has a few tips on which exercises you might like to avoid.

Chris says:

Some exercises are more liable to cause injury than others – especially for the over-50s. In terms of the gym, I like to start new clients on resistance machines rather than free weights, so that if they drop or let go then there is a loud noise, but no harm done. This is also where clients can learn that injury risk is reduced (and exercise benefit enhanced) by moving things slowly. Any resistance exercise performed quickly has an increased risk of soft tissue injury or worse.

Once a client moves to free weights, there are still some exercises that I like to avoid for this age group. The biggest ones to avoid are those that potentially put the back at risk, such as squats or deadlifts. I usually favour a leg-press machine, which has similar benefits for the legs but without putting additional weight down the backbone and into the lumbar spine.

Form is particularly important, which in essence means only moving the body parts that are meant to move for each exercise. All personal trainers used to over-50 clients know that their clients, in general, have reduced flexibility and are more susceptible to injury. The body is a little less forgiving as the years progress.

If new to exercise and you have any concern about your suitability for increasing or implementing any exercise plan, have a word with your GP first. Then, chat to a personal trainer, coach or class leader in the subject.

Which exercises are the most beneficial for the over-50s?

Chris says:

For someone looking at cardio in the gym, then the cross-trainer is usually a good place to start. It is much lower impact than running, something that the 50-year-old knees will welcome.

The motion of this machine, with the feet supported throughout and assistance possible from the arms, is a good halfway to running. Someone can then move to running, on a treadmill inside or in the fresh air, when ready.

Running might be too hard on the joints, so opt for the cross-trainer.
Running might be too hard on the joints, so opt for the cross-trainer.

Most over-50s who use the gym for strength training would benefit from a programme of compound exercises. These are the exercises that work multiple muscle groups – such as chest press, shoulder press, leg press and back pulldown.

The other type – isolation exercises, which work only one muscle group – are something to progress to if desired. Typically, isolation exercises are for the trainee specialising in body shape rather than overall fitness, and most of my new clients find that a range of compound exercises are right to add into the mix alongside the cardio and mobility/flexibility.

Talking of mobility and flexibility, these are joint components of what is usually the most neglected part of an exercise programme. It’s particularly important for the over-50s not to miss these out, as range-of-motion, balance and coordination can easily be lost without this type of exercise.

As with everything I’m discussing, start easily and progress incrementally in this. A beginners’ yoga class is usually a great place to start, with the class leader being able to point out specific movements of value to each newcomer.

How can you look after your body to aid recovery?

Chris says:

Recovery from an exercise session is a vital part of a well-designed exercise programme. It is after the exercise has finished that the muscles get repaired and rebuilt, and the increased heart rate and oxygen consumption after cardio activity continues the calorie use and fat burn after completion of the cardio activity.

No one can complete an exercise session effectively or enthusiastically if they are fatigued before it has even started, and risk of injury is increased if joints, muscles and soft tissues are not adequately rested.

So, my first recommendation is time. Don’t work the same muscle group on adjoining days – for someone new, have an interval of at least two days. And leave a good gap if doing different types of exercise on the same day.

I usually recommend cardio activity to my clients first thing in the morning, before breakfast, as that’s the most effective time to have that activity as a fat-burner. Then do no other exercise for at least six hours. Youngsters can manage with less of a gap between sessions, us over-50s need to be more prudent in this.

In summary, recovery and recuperation sessions should be planned as part of the overall scheduling of any exercise programme. A good personal trainer will help you in this area.

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