How to Create a Lifelong Physical Training Program

What if you want to keep training and maintain your fitness not just after retirement, but through your much 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 eighties and nineties.

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 eighties. 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 fifties, I am very active and do much of what I used to do in my teens and twenties, 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 want to really 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 prior aches and pains.

For instance, when running, my speed does not go above that 8/10 exertion level as I find if I do a full out sprint some injuries of old may reappear in the hamstrings, Achilles tendons, or hips.

Same thing goes for lifting weights. I know my limits and prefer not to go too high above my bodyweight and strive to keep my personal repetitions in the 5-10 repetition range.

Not running several days a week is also a recommendation. Add in non-impact cardio activity in between days of running, or, once again, 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 bigger person over 200 lbs. would see.

Going heavy for a 1-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.

This is how I apply my new rule to all the activities I do, but the addition of yoga based stretching programs each day has been a worthwhile time investment. As I age in the next 20 to 30 years, I hope to continue to do all of the above methods of exercise, keep experimenting with new ones (ie. paddle boarding), but will likely replace running with walking and do harder 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 oryoga-based forms as well as a variety of 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 personally 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 helping with staying injury free.

One more personal note: I can see my seventies, eighties 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 by controlling bodyweight, blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and other typical blood testing elements.

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 stew@stewsmith.com.

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