Exercise for Older Adults – Active Ageing

Regardless of how active we are, most of us are aware that there are guidelines as to how much physical activity we SHOULD be doing to support our optimum health, wellbeing and healthy weight maintenance. What we may not be aware of, however, is that guidelines change at different ages and stages of life. As young people, we are often educated at school on how to keep healthy and are required to take part in regular PE lessons and exercise. As adults we may have become more interested in certain sports and have found what we enjoy or we may exercise to protect ourselves from certain health conditions and weight gain. What happens to our physical activity levels as we enter our later years though? Many people find that their bodies can’t quite do the things they used to, or at least not with such ease. It’s true that there are certain physical and cognitive changes linked with the ageing process and that exercise can help to manage these, so what SHOULD we be doing to support healthy, active ageing?

According to government guidelines, adults aged 65 and over should be aiming for the same 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75 minutes or vigorous intensity activity (or a combination of both) as adults aged 19-64. Moderate activity includes things like ballroom dancing or fast walking that raise the heart rate and make us feel a little warm and breathless, but still able to hold a conversation. Vigorous activity makes us more breathless and even warmer and should make it difficult to hold a conversation and may include running and climbing stairs. It’s important to find the right level of exercise for each individual as what feels moderate to one person may feel vigorous to another and vice versa. Someone who has led an active and healthy lifestyle for many years may tolerate vigorous exercise well, whilst deconditioned individuals should start with light to moderate intensity exercise. Regular cardiovascular activity helps to maintain a healthy heart and lungs, can improve mood and cognitive function and helps with healthy weight maintenance.

Brisk walking is a great form of cardiovascular exercise

Older adults should do light activity on most days and reduce time spent sedentary whenever possible. Long periods spent sat or lying down can cause muscles and joints to stiffen as well as having negative circulatory effects which are often associated with age anyway so keeping active is key to managing these. Some top tips to reduce sedentary time include:

  •  Doing some light exercise or getting up and walking around the house in TV advert breaks
  • Getting off the bus a stop earlier if possible and walking part of a journey or parking further from your destination
  • Planning your day so that sedentary and active tasks are alternated wherever possible to avoid, for example, cleaning all morning and then reading all afternoon. This can also help to prevent energy highs and slumps.

Another key guideline for older adults is to do activities that improve strength, balance and flexibility on at least 2 days a week. This is due to physical changes in older adults which include loss of muscle mass, loss of bone mass and stiffening of joints and muscles. Strength work can help to maintain muscle mass and strength, making our muscles more efficient at carrying out daily activities which often seem to take more effort and energy than they used to. Older adults may still be able to do certain activities such as walking to the shop or cleaning the house but may feel much more tired afterwards and have to use much more effort than they used to. Balance work is also key as falls are a risk factor with age. Combined with loss of strength and bone mass, this can result in fractures or even being unable to get up after a fall. Strength and balance work in combination can help to reduce the risk of falls and to reduce negative effects if falls do occur.

Strength exercises help to maintain muscle mass and strength

For someone who has fallen or is worried about falling, exercise can feel very scary and risky and so even if they know that it can help, it can be difficult to overcome anxieties and get started. It is vital in this case to get the correct support and guidance on what exercises are best and how to perform them safely. This is something that older adults should speak to their GP about as many areas have local exercise referral and/or falls prevention schemes that they can be referred into. Guidance on keeping active and preventing falls can also be found through charities such as Age UK (www.ageuk.org.uk) and NHS services (try searching NHS Active Ageing on Google).

It is also worth noting that by the time we reach ‘older adulthood’, many of us may have a multitude of health issues or concerns on top of those mentioned as part of the natural ageing process. Some of these conditions will affect what exercise is best for us or suggest that we avoid certain types of exercise and so again in these cases, the correct support and knowledge is crucial. Some medications can also have implications for physical activity and so exercise referral schemes will take all of this information into account before advising on a personalised exercise programme. You may also be referred to specialists such as physiotherapists, pulmonary specialists or cardiac rehabilitation for exercise if relevant.

Some older adults may have additional health conditions that require specialist support

If you don’t know where to start with increasing physical activity as an older adult and don’t require further advice or support, you could try:

  • Carrying your shopping bags from the car/ front door one at a time to increase distance covered
  • Chair based aerobics/yoga/pilates (online or in person)
  • Line dancing or ballroom dancing groups
  • Tai chi classes
  • Guided walks/walking groups
  • Body weight exercises such as squats, wall press ups and sit-to-stands
  • Spending more time/ putting more energy into gardening or cleaning tasks at home

If you do want more advice check out the resources mentioned in this blog or speak to your GP about local falls services or exercise referral schemes. If you have any questions feel free to contact Mike at hamers360fitness or myself on Instagram @bevs_life.