Muscle toning exercises: the midlife benefits and how to get started

Liz Running, Image credit: Hoda Davaine for Asquith
Liz Running, Image credit: Hoda Davaine for Asquith

As well as creating a more toned, youthful-looking figure, muscle toning exercises can significantly improve our long-term health. Far from hanging up our trainers, midlife is the time when we need to look upon muscle toning exercise with an even stronger focus. We know that muscle toning exercise — be it specific gym/sport sessions or manual labour such as physical chores or gardening — is good for overall health, but studies increasingly show it can also slow ageing. So is it time to step things up for strength and stamina instead of scaling back to spare our joints? Read on to discover the benefits of weight-bearing exercise in midlife, as well as our favourite muscle toning exercises to get started with today…

How long should we aim to exercise for?

For longevity, weight loss and better brain health, muscle toning exercises need to be intense but need only be carried out for short bursts of time. Interestingly, we don’t have to work out for very long to benefit (no marathons required) but it does have to be regular – and hard. Research shows that the best exercise is taken in spurts – think of it as exercise ‘snacking’. Just as we might graze the fruit bowl (or biscuit tin), we can also sneak short bursts of intensive exercise into daily life without it taking up too much time. Unlike calorific snacking, grabbing a sneaky bit of strength or speed work can significantly improve our body. Leading personal trainer Michael Garry says there are many simple tricks we can use to make each day a workout. “Take the stairs at speed, two at a time, do vigorous push-ups against the countertop while you wait for the kettle to boil, place weight in your backpack to wear while you walk, or invest in a specially weighted jacket, with adjustable weight pockets, for everyday wear to build strength and endurance the easy way.” Incorporating easy muscle toning exercises into your daily routine is much like a bank — we can make deposits and exercise to save up for times when we’re less active. The same goes for stretching.

What are the benefits of muscle toning exercise?

Improving muscle tone as we age speeds up metabolism so we burn fat more effectively. The more muscle mass we have, the faster we burn off fat, thus shifting middle-age spread, reversing obesity and lowering our risk of type 2 diabetes. As we age, our bodies lose muscle through a process called sarcopenia. This actually starts in our mid-thirties and can lead to us losing up to a third of muscle mass over a lifetime. Losing muscle mass leaves us weaker and less mobile, so we then tend to take less exercise, as we find it too tiring. This leads to a cycle of weight gain and loss of vitality. It doesn’t take much time to regain muscle strength though, and exercising intensely for short periods of time is one of the best ways to build muscle. 

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) improves age-related muscle decline by boosting mitochondrial activity. HIIT involves bursts of intensive activity followed by a lower-intensity recovery period. Lifting heavy weights quickly and the killer burpee (floor-based jumps) are both good examples.

The key is the timing of the exercises. Take it in turns to perform each exercise, starting with 10 repetitions and building to 20 to 30 of each depending on fitness level, for a maximum of eight to ten minutes in total. Followed by a recovery period, allowing for chemical changes in the body that make cells operate in a way they did when we were younger.

Can muscle toning exercises help us live longer?

Images of Wendy Ida (age 65) and Ernestine Shepherd (age 83)
Images: @wendyidafitness, @shepherdernestine

Short periods of intense muscle toning exercise is good for cellular ageing as it lengthens our telomeres, which cap the end of our chromosomes. The longer our telomeres, the better our cells resist the ageing processes of stress and inflammation. Intensive spurts of exercise also release the muscle-building and fat-burning human growth hormone (HGH), which boosts metabolism. HIIT advocate and author of The High Fat Diet, Zana Morris advocates switching to a high-fat, low-carb diet for best results, as this improves insulin resistance, which allows for greater growth hormone release and in turn builds muscle faster. 

Think it’s too late to start? Not a bit of it. For inspiration, just google Wendy Ida (age 65)  and Ernestine Shepherd (age 83), who only started working out in their forties and fifties respectively – and are truly inspirational. Just ten minutes of easy muscle-toning exercise two or three times a week makes a significant difference. 

Not sure where to start? Download my bestselling e-book, A Stronger, Slimmer You, to discover more of our favourite easy muscle-toning exercises — no equipment required!

By Liz Earle