Here are the undisputed truths that we face as we get older: we need more than ever to move frequently but actually move less frequently due to sedentary jobs, long commutes, fatigue, aches and pains, and demands on our time. We need strength training to improve health and counteract loss of muscle mass but often don’t know what to do and don’t want to join a gym and use intimidating equipment. We need to lose excess body fat and avoid adding it but eating healthy and avoiding frequent snacking and unhealthy foods is difficult and confusing. Our mobility and flexibility decrease as we age and such decreases can lead to injury, but we don’t have the time or knowledge to make simple improvements in those areas. The list goes on, but the bottom line is that the need for these things continues to increase as we age, and our ability to actually do them decreases due to a number of factors that seem to multiply with each passing year.
If you take a look at the available information on these topics, you will be quickly overwhelmed: Crossfit, keto diet, yoga, intermittent fasting, animal flow, powerlifting, plant based diet, pilates, weight training, If It Fits Your Macros, MoveNat, paleo, pescetarianism, isometrics, treadmills, OMAD… Oh My! Just do those things, ok? Ok.
For the most part trends in health and fitness tend to use apparent novelty as a way to attract people, build tribes, and sell things. But embedded in a lot of these trends are kernels of wisdom and value with historical and scientific backing. But it’s very difficult to sift through the trends and to ignore the hype and extract the real value. Fortunately at the age of 56 I’ve been able to cut through the distracting noise and boil down an approach that simplifies the ideas and puts them into a manageable set of daily guidelines. I call it The Rule of Twos. Here it is in a nutshell: two flexibility/mobility moves a day, two strength micro-workouts a day with two exercises in each workout and two sets in each exercise, two meals of real food a day and no snacks, two easy movement sessions a day (one after each meal), and two drinks a day (optional). As a happy coincidence, I also drink two cups of black coffee a day, but this one is not as important (which would not be the case if I put calories in my coffee.)
Mobility and Flexibility
Joints ache, knees are stiff, the lower back hurts. Getting up off the floor is no longer a trivial matter. I don’t have time for or interest in taking a yoga class or learning the moves or hiring a trainer. What should I do? How many minutes a day? I have it boiled down to two moves that I practice as often as I can: the dead hang and the low squat and hold.
The Dead Hang – Use an overhead pull-up bar or tree limb. You can even use the top of a door. Grasp the bar and then hang with as much as your body-weight as you are comfortable with. Hold as long as you can. This move stretches your entire upper body and spinal muscles, opens your shoulders, and improves your grip strength, an important factor in longevity.
The Low Squat and Hold – The deep squat is almighty. If I had to pick only one exercise to practice, this would be it. If necessary, stabilize yourself by holding an object such as the back of the couch or a door frame. Squat down as low as you can go without pain. Try to keep your back straight. To stretch your ankles, pull yourself forward a bit. Try to work towards not using something to stabilize yourself. Hold as long as you can. You may also shift your weight a bit from side-to-side and or front-to-back in order to increase the stretch.
This one’s a doozy. By now everyone knows that muscle mass declines with age and it’s a major factor in un-wellness. But if you’re not experienced with strength training and want to start, what immediately comes to mind? Gym memberships, heavy weights, intimidating and confusing machines, barbells, and having absolutely no idea what to do, how to do it, and how often. And spandex. Oh, the spandex!
I believe body-weight calisthenics performed in regular clothing is superior, particularly for older people. It requires no gyms and very little equipment, there is almost no barrier to entry, and moving one’s body through space not only helps build strength, but it naturally improves mobility and flexibility. I also believe that shorter, more frequent and refreshing workouts are better than long, grueling ones. Enter The Rule of Twos: two small micro-workouts a day (10-15 minutes each), two exercises per workout, two sets per exercise. The exercises cover the push movement pattern, the pull movement pattern, and leg and core strength. Doing two smaller workouts per day rather than one larger one helps with time and fatigue management and promotes frequent movement.
Push: choose one the many hundreds of different push-up variations and execute two sets with good form, taking the set to the point where you almost could not do another repetition. Elbows should be tucked and not flared, core and glutes tight. Rest as long as you need a do one more set. Try to match your performance in the first set.
Pull: this one is the most technically challenging as it requires a bit of equipment and some knowledge of the different pulling moves. If you are able to do at least one pull-up, then use a resistance band to assist you so that you can get at least eight repetitions per set. If pull-ups are too difficult you will need to do rows, which will require a bar, two chairs with straight backs, or a suspension trainer such as gymnastics rings set to about waist height.
Squat: the squat is the easiest exercise to perform for high reps but also the most technically demanding because of the flexibility and mobility required of the hips, knees and ankles. Start by assisting yourself and go down as far as you can without pain. Try to work up to two unassisted high rep sets. Your conditioning will improve along with your strength.
Core: the core is engaged in the other three movements discussed here and is vital for good performance and strength. Choose your favorite core exercise, such as sit-ups, knee raises, planks, flutter kicks, or ab wheel rollouts to name a few. Perform two sets of as many reps as you can.
This one’s an even bigger doozy. There is so much passion and polarity around eating. The important considerations are what to eat, how often, and how much. I have found after much tinkering that I do not last long trying to watch the clock for when to eat, restricting food groups or macro-nutrient categories (such as carbs) or measuring and logging food and calories. I believe it is best to eat real food as close to its natural state as possible, to eat a wide variety of such foods, and to eat as little and as infrequently as possible without causing yourself too much discomfort and strain and still getting the proper nutrition to support your activity.
In terms of food choices, I try to stick to the rule that if my great-grandmother would recognize it as food, it’s probably ok. I’ve tried compressed eating windows but become obsessed with the clock. So what works for me is two meals of real food a day and no snacking. I don’t worry about the timing (but it usually ends up with meal 1 around 11:00 to noon and meal 2 around 5:00 to 6:00). Eat until you are full and then don’t eat again until the next meal, even if you are hungry.
Here are some examples of actual meals that I prepared and consumed.
Frequent Movement – absolutely fundamental to health as we age, pick your favorite low-intensity activity such as walking or casual biking, and do it after each of your two meals. I don’t care how far or for how long. Count steps if you must but you don’t have to. Just make sure you do it, preferably outside, after each meal.
Alcohol: (Optional) I include this here for a couple of reasons. The main reason would be that beer represents my only liquid source of calories and the only indulgence I allow myself. I am fortunate not to care too much for sweets or other empty calories, and eating real food comes naturally to me. But I do enjoy beer. And I COULD drink like I did in college. I COULD. But if I DID, all of the above would fly out the window. So if you enjoy a drink, keep it to two a day (or less) for men, one for women.
This plan is very easy for me to follow and does incorporate the best of a lot of valuable health advice around today without pushing the limits of your tolerance too far. Try the Rule of Twos and let me know how it goes. Comment here or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.