Why exercise is no longer optional for older people
It might surprise you to know that just one in ten Australians aged over 50 does any regular exercise. Why? Most people blame being sick, out-of-shape, tired, busy or just too old for their lack of exercise. However, physical inactivity, especially as you get older, can have enormous negative consequences. Without regular physical activity, people aged over 50 years can expect a range of health problems, including:
• Reduced cardiovascular and respiratory function
• Increased body fat levels
• Reduced coordination, mobility, balance and joint flexibility
• Increased blood pressure
• Increased risk of various diseases
• Reduced bone and muscle strength
Why older people should exercise
Perhaps more than any other age group, older people need sufficient physical activity levels to help them reduce their risk of disease, recover from illness and maintain their independence for as long as possible.
- Help you maintain your independence and your way of life for as long as possible
- Help prevent many diseases and chronic conditions, such as diabetes, cancer, stroke, osteoporosis and heart disease
- Boost memory and help prevent diseases such as dementia or Alzheimer’s
- Improve healing and make recovering from illness or injury easier
- Improve balance, mobility and stability
- Improve quality of life
- Increase life expectancy
- Give you a healthier heart and stronger bones
- Improve your mood and make you feel happier, as well as alleviating symptoms of depression
- Help you think and improve your memory and cognitive function
- Increase your social engagement
- Decrease your risk of falls
It’s clear that exercise is a wonder drug for older people. The benefits of participating in exercise are so great, and the consequences of avoiding exercise are so severe that it’s really not optional any more for people over 50.
Exercise is the best antidepressant – click here to see how it works.
So, what type of exercise is best for older people?
Strength training involves the use of weights or resistance to build muscle and prevent loss of bone mass. It’s great for older people, as increasing strength will help make your day-to-day activities easier and allow you to remain more independent.
Aerobic exercise – or cardio – is the type of exercise that increases your heart rate and often makes you short of breath. Walking, jogging, stair climbing, cycling, swimming, water aerobics, tennis or dancing are all good choices for older people, as they will improve your heart function and endurance.
Balance, flexibility and mobility exercise
This type of exercise is extremely useful as you get older, as it will improve your balance, posture and ease of moving around, as well as reducing your risk of falling. Yoga and Tai Chi are good choices for helping you gain confidence with your balance and mobility, as well as improving your range of motion.
Incidental physical activity
Incidental activity occurs throughout the day when you’re carrying out activities involved with daily living. Activities such as walking from one place to another, housework, gardening etc. can all add up to improve your health outcomes. And because they’re activities you do regularly, you get the benefits from them often.
The upshot? Any type of exercise is excellent for older people. It doesn’t matter what you do – as long as you do something.
How much exercise should older people do?
The Australian Department of Health states that, “Older people should do some form of physical activity, no matter what their age, weight, health problems or abilities. Older people should be active every day in as many ways as possible, doing a range of physical activities that incorporate fitness, strength, balance and flexibility.”
The Department’s guidelines for older Australians (aged 65 years and older) recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days. You can read the full guidelines here.
While this may seem like a lot at first, remember that you don’t have to do it all at once. You can break the exercise up into 10-minute chunks if you prefer, and build up to the 30 minutes that way rather than doing it all at once.
For some great tips on how to find your 30 minutes of exercise a day, have a read of this article.
Is exercise risky for older people?
It’s a fairly common myth that exercise is not as safe for older people. People worry about the risk of falls due to a loss of balance and mobility as you get older. And the risk of sustaining an injury can be off-putting.
However, many of the symptoms that we associate with ageing (for example, loss of balance, weakness and getting out of breath quickly) are actually symptoms of inactivity – not of old age itself. Recent studies have shown that around half of the physical decline associated with old age could in fact be due to a lack of physical activity.
In fact, many chronic health problems, such as heart disease, arthritis or diabetes will be improved by undertaking some exercise. Having a health issue (unless you really can’t get out of bed) is not an excuse for not exercising – rather, it’s a good reason to start. Exercise can often provide just as many benefits as all the medications you may be taking. And it doesn’t matter how old you are when you start to exercise. Starting physical activity, even when you’re older, can still significantly reduce the risk of further health problems and improve symptoms you currently have. It really is never too late to start. No matter how old you are, your body will respond to exercise and you’ll soon start to reap the many health benefits.
There’s no reason older people can’t be out there running marathons or lifting weights – and plenty of them are. Being sedentary is actually far more dangerous than being physically active.
Exercise modifications to keep older people safe
Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program, particularly if you have a medical condition or haven’t had a medical check-up in a long time.
If you’re new to exercise or have a physically limiting disability, it’s best to get professional help. Consult a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist to help you learn how you can best exercise safely, and to design a program for you.
Always listen to your body, and stop exercising if you develop chest pain, feel dizzy or extremely short of breath, or experience a lot of pain.
How to get started
If you haven’t exercised for a long time, it’s best not to rush the process and try and do too much too soon. That will only lead to burn-out and potential injury. It’s much better to start at a low level and gradually build up your activity until you reach the recommended levels.
Finding something that you’re likely to enjoy will also help you get started. If you hate the very idea of going to the gym, you’re not going to find that prospect motivating or inspiring – and you probably wouldn’t stick at it for long. Instead, try and find an activity that interests you and that you’ll look forward to doing. Perhaps you’d prefer to go for walks through a scenic area, or play a social game such as tennis. The more you enjoy it, the more likely you are to keep it up. You might need to experiment with a few different types of exercise before you find something you really would like to do.
Another trick to help you get started is to find a partner in crime. It’s much more fun when you’re exercising with other people, plus it’s more motivating.
And sometimes you just have to make the decision to do it because it’s going to be beneficial for you. Make a decision and commit to it. The key is to find a type of exercise that you’ll enjoy doing and start slow so that you can maintain your progress.
Exercise is no longer optional when you get older – your health and wellbeing – and thus your life – literally depends on it.