Somebody once said that youth is wasted on the young, well they were right and that’s because they have nothing to compare it against.

As a person who has kept fit all my life, the prospect of retirement was something I regarded as being bit of a mystery tour, but not in a good way. I don’t see myself as being old and I couldn’t see any good reason why I should stop doing any of the things I’ve done in the past. So, as I moved more towards the idea of part-time work, I thought it would be a great opportunity to set aside more time for keeping fit.

However, there seemed to be a lot of stuff out there telling me that I needed to be careful and that exercising at my age might even be dangerous!

Benefits of staying fit

Society certainly seems to reflect this thinking; recent stats show approximately 38% of people aged 55 are classified as inactive, that is failing to achieve 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each week. Moreover, 48% of those aged 75-84 are inactive and 71% of those over 85 are classified as inactive.

Despite this, research suggests the benefits of staying fit even into your 70s, 80s and beyond include:

  • Fights heart disease
  • Reduces the risk for type 2 diabetes
  • Weight reduction
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Relieves depression
  • Improves memory
  • Reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s
  • Provides an opportunity for social interaction

For me the answer was simple: qualify as a fitness professional at 64 and help get this message across and to dispel some of the myths that have grown up around exercise for older people. 

However, I had lots of questions that need to be answered first, such as what exactly is ageing, what does it do to our bodies, how is this best tackled in terms of exercise and what stops lots of older people focusing on their fitness?

In terms of ageing, science agrees that at a cellular level we start to decline as early as our 30s, when nature thinks our reproduction function has pretty much been met. This decline means that the process of replacing our cells starts to become impaired and mistakes creep into the replication process, which can compromise our health in the long term.

At this point, other things also start to kick in, which affect our bodies:

Muscle mass – This starts to decline by 1% to 2% per year and this can accelerate as we get older.

Lung function – A male at 35 can inhale two pints of oxygen; by 70 that can have declined by 50%.

Heart – Reduced elasticity in our blood vessels makes it harder to pump blood around our body.

Hormones – The reduction of oestrogen in women after the menopause can make bones less dense and therefore more likely to break. In men, the reduction in testosterone (25% lower at 45 than 20!) can reduce performance in a number of areas!

Flexibility – Over time, sitting at a desk or otherwise can weaken and tighten muscles restricting our movement.

Balance – From around our 30s our sense of balance starts to deteriorate increasing the potential for falls.

Digestive system – The ability to get the goodness from our food also starts to decline as our metabolic rate slows by 1 to 2% per decade, after the age of 20.

Cognitive decline – Experts believe that this process can start from as early as 45, with being sedentary an extra risk.

Other – Organs such as our kidneys, skin and eyes also follow a similar downward trajectory.

The good news

Despite all this negativity, the good news is that many of these issues can be slowed down or improved, even where there are degenerative illnesses at work. Firstly, by cutting out or down on some key things, such as smoking or alcohol. Secondly, understanding the importance of nutrition as we age and what really is good for us and where certain vitamins can be found. Thirdly, getting our activity levels up to at least a basic level and understanding that movement is a positive not a negative, whatever age you are.

“Many of the problems experienced by older people are not caused by ageing, but rather by a loss of fitness – especially among people who also have long-term conditions – and as such they can be prevented, delayed and most importantly treated by being active” – Muir Grey, former Chief Knowledge Officer of the NHS.

“Exercise has a proven role in preventing cognitive decline. It can keep our brain’s cognitive abilities alive as we age, and research even suggests it can cut the incidence of Alzheimer’s by 50%. Indeed, exercise has been shown to push back cognitive decline by as much as 10 to 15 years.” – Dr John Ratey, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School.

It is therefore recognised that any fitness regime for older people should contain three key components to counteract these processes: Cardio, Resistance and Stretching.

Cardio is very much about getting your heart and breathing rate up and strengthening your heart and lungs by getting your heart pumping. While many older people concentrate on this by walking or cycling, this on its own it is not enough.

What is less accepted is that resistance exercise in the form of body weight exercises focusing on arms, legs and core in equal measure or weightlifting is also required as part of your fitness regime to ensure that our muscle mass is maintained, with all the benefits that can bring.

Finally, as our joints become stiffer and less flexible, we need to use stretching to keep these moving. Pilates or Yoga are both great for older people.

So, exercise for the older person should be a no brainer, but how do we get them to participate? For me, I am clear that our goals are similar to younger people, but with some marked differences. Firstly, while ageing is inevitable, we want to keep looking good longer. We also want to feel good and stay strong while keeping our energy levels high.

Secondly, we don’t want to be treated as a 25-year-old, so ease back on the shouting and the club music! Don’t patronise us, just recognise we have slightly different challenges caused by some of the changes above.

A few of us are even looking for something more taxing than elastic bands and chair exercises.

Thirdly, we want to socialise, have a laugh and be part of the group. Our opportunities can be limited, so we want to make the most of the ones we get. Gyms can be a bit foreign to us, so other places such as home or local halls or even outside can be seen as attractive alternatives.

Charles O’Donnell (pictured)


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