The Midlife Tuneup

Our health needs change with every passing decade, but the good news is that it’s never too late to start taking better care of yourself. Whether you are in your 30s, 40s, 50s or beyond, the Well Midlife Tuneup will put you on a healthier path to improving your body, mind and relationships. You are only as old as you feel, and completing our tuneup will definitely help you feel young at heart. Let’s get started.

Eat

Healthful eating is not the only way to improve your overall well being, but it’s often the first place many of us start.

KIM MURTON

Food is not the enemy; it’s just the bad habits that need to go. As you embark on tuning up your eating habits, don’t think about going on a diet or losing weight. Instead, make a promise to yourself that you’re going to focus on healthful eating habits that will make you feel well today and every day. If you do that, you’ll have more energy and chances are you will also lose weight. Here are a few guidelines to get you started.

NO MORE PACKAGED FOODS

Midlife is a great time to stop eating packaged processed foods. We eat a lot of these foods for convenience when we are rushing kids out the door to school or when we’re working late. Whether you still have kids at home or an empty nest, resolve to stop eating packaged foods. (Help your kids kick the habit now!) Here are some tips for eliminating packaged food from your daily diet.

  • Only buy single-ingredient items from the grocery store. Some foods — like milk, yogurt and almonds — have to come in a package, but you will know it’s OK to eat them because the container label shows only one or two ingredients. Processed foods (think chips, cookies, frozen dinners) have multiple ingredients, additives and added sugar. Don’t eat them. Cooking at home doesn’t have to be complicated. Keep it simple. Make a simple avocado taco (you can buy the salsa if you don’t have time for homemade), roast a really big beet or make a more-vegetable-than-egg frittata.
  • Don’t be fooled by “healthy” foods. Granola bars, sports drinks and vegetable chips sound like they’d be good for you, but they are loaded with added sugars, extra calories, food coloring, preservatives and other things you don’t need. Grab some nuts or an apple instead.
  • Find homemade alternatives. If you love breakfast cereal, make your own blueberry oatmeal or steel-cut oatmeal with fruit, make your own granola or a yogurt parfait.Love french fries? Cut up some sweet potatoes and bake fries at home. Mac-n-cheese from a box? Our Cooking team has 11 great ways to make it yourself. 

SKIP THE SUGAR

The nutrition community has spent much of the past few decades talking about the perils of fatty foods and eating too many calories. But increasingly, research is showing that sugar is what ails us. Not only is there evidence that it makes you gain weight, but it appears that the body metabolizes sugar in a way that is, quite literally, toxic. Sugar appears to play a role in insulin resistance, which leads to diabetes, heart disease and other problems. When the body can’t manage the amount of sugar in the blood, the sugar begins to damage artery walls, increasing the risk for heart attack and stroke. Some research has suggested a link between sugar and cancer. 

None of this is to say you can’t enjoy a sweet bite of chocolate or the occasional dessert. In fact, the best advice is to savor every bite of that birthday cake, holiday chocolate or other dessert. But use your midlife tuneup to mindfully stop eating so much added, hidden sugars in your diet. 

JUST ADD NUTS

One of the simplest ways to stop eating packaged junk food and unhealthy snacks is to keep nuts close at hand. At first, you may over do it, so be careful as you nosh on that pack of salted almonds. But over time, you will learn that just eating seven or eight nuts can do the trick when you need an afternoon pick me up. 

Why are nuts good for you? Nuts have been shown to lower the risk for heart disease as well as diabetes. A review of nearly two dozen studies of nuts and health found that people who ate, on average, about one ounce of nuts a day (that’s about two dozen almonds or 15 pecan halves) had lower risk for heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, diabetes and infectious diseases compared with those who rarely ate nuts.

It’s not entirely clear why nuts are so good for you, but we know they contain healthful unsaturated fats; omega-3 fatty acids (good for the heart); fiber (which can lower cholesterol and diabetes and increase satiety); vitamin E (good for heart health); and L-arginine (good for healthy artery walls.)

One provocative study suggests that eating walnuts — and perhaps any type of nut – may influence satiety sensors in the brain. The study was tiny — just nine people and it was paid for by the California Walnut Commission, so obviously more research is needed. But the research does offer a hypothesis about why nuts can help curb our appetite.

STOP DRINKING YOUR FLAVORS

Most cultures around the world are grateful for healthy, clean water. But in a growing number of countries, we’ve taken to wanting our water flavored. We can thank the beverage marketers for treating us to the joys of flavored beverages. While flavored drinks tickle our taste buds, they also fill our bodies with empty calories and added sugars. Even diet sodas have been implicated — the artificial sweeteners may change our gut bacteria, causing glucose intolerance, or it may be that fake sweeteners increase your cravings for actual sweets

We don’t have all the answers, but we do know for sure that water — simple, plain, water — is good for you. As you are tuning up your body for your second act, consider your commitment to water. And if you still are craving fruity, flavored drinks, consider cutting up some fruit and infusing your water at home to give you a touch of flavor without all the bad stuff. And you can use all the money you were spending on sweet drinks to buy yourself a nice water filter pitcher.

LOVE YOUR VEGETABLES

Midlife is not the time to starve yourself or embark on a restricted eating plan. Has that strategy ever worked for you? The good news: You can eat delicious food and still be healthy and lose weight. The best way to do that is to focus on the vegetables in your life. Spice them up. Sear them in a pan. Roast them in the oven. Enjoy them with quality olive oil, aioli or a dollop of butter. Shop for the freshest vegetables at a local farmer’s market. Eat them for dessert. Be decadent with your vegetables. Eating more of them will push less healthful foods of your plate.

Move

It’s never too late to start exercising and reap the benefits. 

KIM MURTON

THE BEST WORKOUT FOR MIDDLE-AGED BODIES

Research shows that becoming fit in middle age will stave off chronic illness and give you more years of good health. But most middle-aged and older adults in Western countries don’t exercise. (About one in four adults in the United States over 50 are essentially sedentary, moving only for essential daily activities.) While exercise in midlife and beyond requires a little extra care and planning, it doesn’t have to be hard. In fact, the latest science shows the most effective exercise for a middle aged body is also much easier and faster than the hour-long jogs or bike treks we thought we were supposed to be doing.

The scientists call it high-intensity interval training or HIIT. But I think that scary-sounding name keeps many of us from trying it. Consider it fun, fast interval training (FFIT!) and don’t be intimidated. Here’s how to get started with a simple 3 min x 3 min interval workout. (Make sure you check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.) Treat it like a competition against yourself and have fun!

  • Step 1: Get a heart rate monitor

To get started, buy a simple heart rate monitor with a wrist watch and a chest strap. They are easy to set up and the most accurate way to determine your target heart rate. 

  • Step 2: Warm up

Get on a bike, treadmill, stair climber or rowing machine and do an easy warm up for three minutes.

  • Step 3: Push yourself for just three minutes

Now go! Three minutes of hard work is not that long. Pick up the pace and push yourself to a discomfort zone. How do you know if you’re doing it right? If you can sing, you’re not doing enough. If you can talk but can’t sing, that’s a moderate pace. Save that for your recovery. Now push yourself so that you (gasp) can still talk (gasp) but need to take (gasp) a breath every few (gasp) words. That’s your high-intensity zone. 

  • Step 4: Check your heart rate 

It’s time for a break! After three minutes, slow down to a moderate pace and check your heart rate. Enjoy the three-minute recovery interval.

  • Step 5: Repeat and try to beat your heart rate

O.K. This is a competition now. Once your three-minute recovery is over, push hard again for just three minutes. This time, try to better the heart rate number you posted in the first sprint. Make it a game! After all, three minutes goes by fast. You can do it!

  • Step 6: Complete four sets of sprint and recovery

Each time you start a new three-minute sprint, try to best your heart rate. You will probably plateau on the third and fourth set, but that’s O.K. Your low number and high number will become your target heart rate zones for future workouts. (My target heart range was 145 to 165 — but yours will be different depending on your age and overall fitness) Finish with a three-minute easy cool down.

And that’s it! You’ve just completed a HIIT workout. It was fun, and it was fast — 30 minutes total with just 12 minutes of hard exercise that did more for your body than any hour-long slog on the treadmill. 

Depending on your level of fitness, feel free to improvise. My colleague Gretchen Reynolds enjoys one-minute sprints and one-minute recovery intervals on the treadmill until she hits two miles. I really like knowing I’ve got a full three minutes to recover, so I’m sticking with the 3×3 interval workout. Most experts think that’s the sweet spot for interval training. Once you go above three minutes, it’s tough to push yourself and it isn’t as much fun.

A 7-MINUTE WORKOUT FOR REAL PEOPLE

We’ve all heard about the 7-Minute Workout. The key is to do a series of 30-second-long simple exercises followed by five seconds of rest for just seven minutes. While it sounds easy, it can be really, really hard for some of us to complete. With aging knees, elbows and wrists, a pushup can be impossible and even a jumping jack might be a challenge. Here’s how to design a 7-Minute Workout you can actually do.

Step 1: Pick one exercise from each muscle group

Cardio: Jumping jacks, high knees, jump rope skip (pretend you have a rope), march in place, stand and box (like a boxer)

Lower Body:  Chair-assisted split squat, (holding on to the back of a chair as you move up and down from a near-sitting position), chair assisted squat, lunge, side lunge, wall sit

Upper Body: Kneeling push-up, push-up, triceps dip, chair-assisted push-up, wall push-up

Core: Abdominal crunch, kneeling side plank, plank, Superman, kneeling plank

Step 2: Create Your Exercise Sequence

In a seven minute workout, you work out four muscle groups — cardio, lower body, upper body and core — in that order, so that each muscle group has nearly two minutes to rest before being challenged again. 

Sample sequence: Jumping jacks (cardio), lunge (lower body), kneeling push-up (upper body), kneeling plank (core)

Step 3: Do the Workout

Now do each exercise for 30 seconds, with a five second rest in between. Repeat the sequences of four exercises three times. You’ve just done at 7-Minute Workout! Feel free to change the exercise for variety. Instead of doing jumping jacks three times, you could do jumping jacks first, then stand and box and then march in place. Just pick the exercises from each group that you can do. For more options, go to the Johnson & Johnson 7-Minute Workout App for 22 different versions of the workout.