The importance of exercise as you get older

Physical activity and exercise can help you stay healthy, energetic and independent as you get older.

Adults aged 65 and over spend on average 10 hours or more each day sitting or lying down. This makes them the most sedentary age group.

They're paying a high price for their inactivity, with higher rates of falls, obesity, heart disease and early death compared with the general population.

As you get older, it's even more important that you remain active if you want to stay healthy and maintain your independence.

If you stop moving, all the things you’ve always enjoyed doing and taken for granted start to become that little bit harder.

You may struggle to pursue simple pleasures, such as playing with the grandchildren, walking to the shops, leisure activities and meeting up with friends.

You might start to get aches and pains that you never had before, and have less energy to go out. You may also be more vulnerable to falling. 

This can all lead to being less able to look after yourself and do the things you enjoy.

Strong evidence

There's strong scientific evidence that people who are active have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, depression and dementia.

If you want to stay pain-free, reduce your risk of mental illness, and be able to go out and stay independent well into old age, you need to keep moving.

It’s that simple. There are lots of ways you can get active, and it’s not just about exercising.

“As people get older and their bodies decline in function, physical activity helps to slow that decline,” says Dr Nick Cavill, a health promotion consultant. “It’s important they remain active or even increase their activity as they get older.”

Most people as they get older want to keep in touch with society – their community, friends and neighbours – and being active is a way to ensure that they can keep doing that.

What is physical activity?

Physical activity is anything that gets your body moving. It can include anything from walking to recreational sport.

The first thing to bear in mind as you get older is to keep moving. On a basic level, that means making sure you don’t spend hours on end sitting down during the day.

This means avoiding long periods of TV viewing, computer use, driving, and sitting to read, talk or listen to music. 

While some activity is better than none at all, to get the maximum health benefit, you should aim to do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week.

Aim to do something every day, preferably in bouts of 10 minutes of activity or more. The more you do, the greater the health gains.

One way of achieving your weekly physical activity target is to do 30 minutes on at least five days a week.

On at least two days a week, activities should include those that strengthen muscles and bones, such as weight training, carrying heavy loads and heavy gardening.

Examples of moderate-intensity aerobic activities include:

  • walking fast
  • doing water aerobics
  • riding a bike on level ground or with few hills
  • playing doubles tennis
  • pushing a lawn mower

Daily chores such as shopping, cooking or housework don't count towards your 150 minutes because the effort isn’t hard enough to raise your heart rate.

Find out more about how much activity older adults need to do to keep healthy.

Getting started

What you do will depend on your own circumstances, but as a guiding principle you should always do activities that you enjoy.

If you're already active, you may find it useful to know that you can reap the same health benefits from 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, such as running or singles tennis.

As a rule of thumb, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity can give similar health benefits as 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity.

Research shows that it’s never too late to adopt and reap the health benefits from a more active lifestyle. For example, older adults who are active will reduce their risk of heart disease and stroke to a similar level as younger people who are active.

If you've been inactive for a while, you don't have to rush into exercising. It's important to build up activity gradually to reach recommended levels.

You will still be improving your health in the process, and you'll reduce your risk of falls and other ailments.

“The biggest benefits come to those who start from scratch,” says Dr Cavill. “It’s moving from a sedentary lifestyle to a moderately active one that makes the biggest difference to your health. The more you do, the greater the health benefits.”

Click on the links below for more ideas on raising your activity levels:


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