How to Create a Lifelong Physical Training Program

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Active-duty service members, veterans and their families run the streets of San Diego during a Team Red, White and Blue-hosted run. (Dudley Reynolds/U.S. Navy photo)

What if you want to keep training and maintain your fitness not just after retirement, but through your later years? Here's a question from a retired Army officer who is not only still getting after it, but wants to continue a high level of activity into his 80s and 90s.

Stew, I am former military, been retired for over 20 years now and still very active. I want to improve my functional fitness, avoid injury and make this a habit into my 80s. How would you build your own training program if you had to fast-forward 20 years?

Many retirees lose much of their physical ability when they realize they no longer have to exercise daily and pass regular fitness tests. Like you, though still in my 50s, I am very active and do much of what I used to do in my teens and 20s, just differently. I still run, lift, do calisthenics, swim and do manual labor around the house and yard -- but with one major rule to follow: 80% is the new 100%.

Regardless of the exercise, my rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is 8/10 on days I really want to work hard. This goes for running speed, distance, frequency per week, lifting and calisthenics repetitions. If you do a history check of your own previous injuries, you may find that you injured yourself when you ran too fast, too far, too often, lifted too heavy and did too many repetitions of calisthenics. Other than traumatic or contact-type injuries and accidents, most of us can attribute the above list to previous aches and pains.

I know my limits and prefer not to go too high above my bodyweight and strive to keep my personal repetitions in the five- to 10-repetition range.

Not running several days a week is also a recommendation. Add in non-impact cardio activity between days of running, or make 80% of your cardio non-impact options and 20% a variety of running. If you are not a heavier person, you can change the frequency of running, especially if you enjoy it and do not see the typical pains a person weighing more than 200 pounds would see.

Going heavy for a one-repetition maximum effort lift is starting to be avoided more frequently now, and though I may only do 1-2 repetitions at a heavier weight, I still likely have 1-2 more reps that I leave in the tank. I just prefer not to do them if there is a chance I am going to fail with the next repetition.

Same goes for calisthenics. Instead of pushing to that point of failure and not getting that last half-repetition, pull back and leave a few undone. You will find your recovery for future sets will improve and the likelihood of pulling something is decreased as well.

The addition of yoga-based stretching programs each day has been worthwhile, too. As I age in the next 20-30 years, I hope to continue to do the above methods of exercise, keep experimenting with new ones (i.e., paddle boarding), but likely will replace running with walking and do higher-intensity cardio activity either in the pool or on stationary equipment (bike, elliptical, rower).

To make this more functional for you, continue to do movements in calisthenics or yoga-based forms as well as various resistance training that will include barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and suspension trainers. If you need to isolate a muscle group, add in machine-weighted exercises at the gym to help as a safer alternative, add variety or even work around an injury.

Get on a system that offers something different each day and changes in type of training every few months. I use a tactical or functional fitness seasonal periodization model, where I do more resistance exercises and more non-impact cardio options in the fall and winter and more calisthenics and run, walk, swim workouts in the spring and summer. The transitions and mobility days keep it interesting, and no muscle group or energy system get overused.

One more personal note: I can see my 70s, 80s and beyond in the swimming pool and on the yoga mat several days a week for a majority of my training with some supplemental weights, calisthenics and suspension training (TRX). Eventually, your annual check-up with your doctor will become a new way to hit personal records in health and wellness.

Max out that blood test for optimal health.

Related Links and More Ideas:

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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