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Exercise for older people

Being active is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for people of all ages. But as you get older, your muscles get weaker, you tend to get more aches and pains, and you become more prone to falls and injuries. This may mean you feel less inclined to exercise but it’s important to stay active to maintain your health and independence as you get older.

This article looks at the health benefits of regular exercise for people over 65, different types of fitness and tips on exercising safely.

Why exercise?

Studies show that older adults who do physical activity are healthier and less likely to develop serious long-term conditions than those who don’t. Provided you go about it sensibly, exercising has very few risks, and certainly fewer than result from not doing physical activity. Starting an exercise programme is also a great way to improve your quality of life and make new friends.

There are many health benefits of an active lifestyle. Regular exercise can reduce your risk of developing:

Exercise can also improve your muscle strength and tone, which may mean you’re less likely to have an accident or a fall that could lead to an injury. As well as these benefits, regular exercise can improve your:

  • ability to continue with everyday activities
  • cognitive abilities, such as memory and reasoning skills
  • sense of wellbeing and self-esteem

Making a start

As with any age group, the level of fitness of adults over 65 varies from person to person. Some people run marathons, whereas others find it difficult to get out of a chair without help. If you haven't exercised for some time, you may find the idea of taking it up a bit daunting but the good news is that even a little physical activity is better than none. Try getting started with something you enjoy, focus on the health benefits and ease yourself into your new routine gently.

If you haven't exercised for some time, see your doctor for advice before you start. If you have previously had any health complaints, it’s important to tailor your exercise programme to take these into account. Your doctor may refer you to a nurse or other health professional to help you with this.

How much exercise should I do?

You can do physical activity at different intensities. If you exercise at a moderate level, your heart and lungs are being stimulated so your breathing is faster, your heart rate is increased and you feel warmer. Vigorous intensity activity means that your breathing will be much stronger and your heart rate will increase rapidly. You may find it difficult to hold a conversation. Exercising at these levels of activity will help you to get fitter.

Aim to do some physical activity every day. The recommended healthy level of physical activity for adults is 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate intensity exercise over a week in bouts of 10 minutes or more. It may sound like a lot but it’s important to remember that you don't need to join a gym or an aerobics class to achieve this – activities that are already part of your daily routine, such as walking, housework and gardening, are also great ways to keep fit.

If this amount of exercise sounds achievable for you, aim to do 30 minutes on at least five days each week. Alternatively, if you’re already moderately active, you can do 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity over the week.

Try to include at least two weekly activities to build up muscle strength. This sort of exercise involves working against a resistance, such as your own weight. Lifting and carrying bags of shopping is one example of this type of exercise. If you’re at risk of falls, try to also include physical activity that will improve your balance and co-ordination, such as yoga, on at least two days a week.

The important point to remember, especially if you’re just getting started and building up how much exercise you do, is to spend as little time as possible being inactive.

What if my health is poor?

Speak to your doctor before you start to exercise if you have a health condition or are recovering from an illness that may affect how much you can do. However, don't assume this will stop you from being active. It may be more important than ever that you exercise as this can help you to get better.

If you get any pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, your heartbeat becomes very strong (palpitations) or you have prolonged discomfort while you’re exercising, it’s important that you stop straight away and seek medical advice. This is particularly important if the symptoms don’t go away when you stop exercising.

Aspects of fitness

Having both good muscle strength and aerobic fitness is important in helping you to stay independent and able to get around as you get older.

Aerobic fitness

Aerobic fitness is related to the health of your heart and lungs. If you’re aerobically fit, these organs will be able to deliver oxygen around your body more efficiently, so your heart is under less strain. As you get older, your aerobic fitness tends to decrease naturally. You can keep fit by doing any activity that raises your heart rate and makes you slightly breathless – walking, cycling and swimming are all great ways to keep your heart, lungs and circulation healthy.

Strength

Muscle strength declines with age. However, it’s possible to turn this around and you can build up your muscles with strengthening exercises.

Keeping your muscles as strong as possible will make it easier to carry out daily activities and reduce your risk of falls. It will also mean you’re more likely to be able to carry on living independently for longer. Exercise that helps to build and maintain muscle includes everyday activities such as carrying the shopping or doing some gardening. If you’re really keen and belong to a gym, you could try using light weights to increase your muscle strength – an instructor can advise you on what exercises to do. Some strengthening exercises can also help to maintain and improve your balance – yoga and Pilates are particularly beneficial for this.

Action points

  • Speak to your doctor for help in designing an exercise plan.
  • Start slowly and build up how much physical activity you do – doing a little is better than nothing but aim to reach the recommended 150 minutes in a week.
  • Keep motivated – if you exercise with a group, you can all encourage each other.
  • Exercise safely – if you feel discomfort, stop and rest, and speak to your doctor if necessary.

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See our videos related to this topic.

 

Produced by Polly Kerr, Bupa Health Information Team, October 2012.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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