Is Your Workout Actually Aging You? Here's How to Tell

Updated 05/16/17

We know that exercise is one of the best possible things you can do for your health, but it turns out it can also work wonders when it comes to aging. In fact, research shows that specific workout routines, such as HIIT can slow the physical aging process. The benefits extend beyond physical changes, too. Research suggests sweating it out has mental benefits and that skipping the gym altogether can actually be bad for your brain health.

But when it comes to slowing down the aging process, not all exercise is created equal. According to experts, even if you’re working out regularly, there are a few common habits that might wreak havoc on your joints, expose your skin to damage, or cause over-exertion that could lead to injury later in life. Take note: Here are the elements of your sweat sessions that doctors and fitness pros say are actually working against you—plus, how to fix them.

This Time Tomorrow

Mistake 1: Skipping Sun Protection

We know that we're supposed to wear sunscreen anytime we venture outside, but how many of us actually do it? Lots of women get their daily SPF in their makeup, which means when they head out for a run, they’re not remembering to wear regular sunscreen sans pigment. 

Unfortunately, even if you do put it on before heading out to log those miles, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re covered. “Unprotected exposure to the sun is a key offender all year round,” says Monica Tadros, MD, a board-certified facial plastic surgeon and reconstructive surgeon. “This is especially critical when we sweat off sunscreen that is not water-resistant during the hot summer months.”

Of course, cold weather can make an impact, too. “In the winter, harsh winds can be drying to facial skin and nosebleeds are not uncommon from the lack of humidity. Abrupt temperature changes in the air we breathe from indoor heat and outdoor cold are another factor,” she adds.

The Fix: Layer and Repeat

There’s no reason to skip out on outdoor exercise completely, says Tadros. Instead, just be smart about protection. “Exercise outside has many anti-aging benefits. Sun exposure helps us get a healthy dose of vitamin D, clear our minds, and relax.” At the same time, applying water-resistant sunscreen each time you head out is a must—even if it’s not sunny and it’s cold out. On brisk days, make sure you use moisturizer to compensate for dry air. 

Mistake 2: Focusing on Cardio

Don’t get us wrong: Cardio is great, but strength training is a must, too. “Only doing high-intensity or cardio-based workouts can wreak havoc on your muscles and joints because you are not allowing for balance with any strength training,” explains Will Cole, DC, a renowned functional medicine practitioner. You are consistently losing muscle mass as you get older, so without building it back up with strength training, you are just continuing to break it down with cardio, he says.

The Fix: Strength Training

The best way to introduce weights into your routine is slowly but surely. “For people who want to mix in strength training, they should do it at least twice a week and eventually three days,” says Robert Herbst, personal trainer and Hall of Fame powerlifter. Herbst recommends getting started with a personal trainer if you’ve never done strength training before, as proper form is really important to avoid injury. 

Another thing to remember? “People have a limited energy pool, and cardio and strength training are not mutually exclusive,” he says. That means both of these activities cut into the body’s ability to recover, meaning that when you add in strength training, you’ll need to cut back on your cardio. “A good session would be 30 minutes of weight training followed by 20 minutes of high-intensity interval training. Then, you would rest the next day or go for a light run or walk.” After your first few weeks of strength training twice a week, you can up yourself to three days.

Mistake 3: Forgetting to Rest

You would think that more exercise is better, but unfortunately, that’s not always the case. “High-intensity exercise without rest days for most women will over time have side effects such as muscle overuse, injuries, stress fractures, menstrual cycle dysregulation, and changes in normal eating behaviors,” explains Monali Y. Desai, MD, a board-certified cardiologist. One telltale sign you’re working out too much? Monali says that on days when you do high-intensity exercise, you should feel hungrier. If you don’t, it might be a sign that you’re exercising too frequently and your body can’t keep up.

The Fix: Rest and Recover

“There are no official guidelines regarding the number of rest days between workouts,” says Desali. “My personal recommendation is to switch from high- or moderate-intensity exercises (including light cardio and Pilates) at least one day a week to low-intensity exercises like normal temperature yoga or walking.” Generally, at least one full day of rest per week—as in no exercise except for walking and stretching—is advisable.

Mistake 4: Not Knowing Your Limits

There are a few reasons you shouldn’t only do high-intensity exercise. First, when you’re tired, going hard can lead to injury. “Overstressing your body can cause wear and tear on the precious cartilage supports in your joints,” explains Tadros. What’s more, exercising hard without enough fuel can “divert nutrients to critical life functions and decrease the body's own rejuvenation potential, causing skin to age prematurely,” she says. In other words, by always pushing your hardest, you may be inadvertently aging your joints and your skin.

The Fix: Slow Down

In addition to taking rest days, it’s a good idea to incorporate lower-intensity exercise, like walking or light jogging, into your routine. When balanced correctly, sweating can be great for your skin and health. “Routine exercise is one of the best anti-aging remedies,” Tadros says. “Cardiovascular stimulation and sweating are natural ways to clean our system of toxins and decrease inflammation. Gentle stress on our bodies during exercise causes the body to release signals to repair damaged cells with anti-aging benefits.” So while HIIT definitely has its place, mix it up with some gentle workouts, too.

Mistake 5: Not Doing Mobility Work

“Keeping your body mobile is one of the most important parts of overall fitness,” explains Dani Muckley, director of fitness at Studio Three in Chicago. “As people age, moving around can get increasingly more difficult.” Mobility work, like using a foam roller and stretching can help prevent tightness as well as injury, she says. Having a better quality of movement now means that as you get older, you’ll be ahead of the game.

The Fix: Loosen Up

Do this daily, if possible, recommends Muckley. “Incorporate mobility and stretching into a routine for a few minutes first thing in the morning or in your nightly pre- bedtime routine,” she recommends. Plus, anytime you have a particularly tough sweat session, make an extra effort to get that stretching time in. “It is always important to do recovery mobility after a tough workout,” she adds.

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