Fitness in later life

Fitness in later life

Many of us can look forward to a longer life than any previous generation. In this context, it helps to debunk the myth of ageing as a process of inevitable ill health and decrepitude. We all have the chance to improve our quality of life in old age by taking care of our physical fitness.

Our country's population is ageing. By 2025, it is estimated that more than a third of the population will be over the age of 55. The number of people over the age of 60 will have surpassed the number of people under the age of 25 for the first time. A reason for pessimism? Hardly. We can expect a healthier old age than ever before, and increasing medical and psychological research into the normal ageing process can help us to make the most of those years.

Note the use of the phrase “the normal ageing process.” Until fairly recently, doctors and scientists tended to focus on pathological processes of ageing, contributing to a general image of old age as a time of illness and decrepitude. These days, however, we can draw upon an ever-growing body of evidence that later life can be a healthy, enjoyable time. That isn't a default outcome, however – you need to take care of your body and your mind in order to age well.

So what can you do to optimise the ageing process? Well, a good start would be to take a good look at your physical fitness. Being physically fit and active has all sorts of benefits for your physical, mental and emotional health that will help you to age well.

Ageing and the physical effects of exercise

Regular exercise should help you to improve cardiovascular stamina, muscle strength and flexibility, and keep your weight t a healthy level. Done correctly, it directly counteracts some of the wear and tear that is generally thought of as an inevitable consequence of ageing, such as muscle wastage, joint stiffness, mobility problems and all sorts of pain. It might help to re-think such ailments and consider them not as automatic consequences of reaching your 70th, 80th or even 90th birthday but as indicators that you are not taking care of your body properly. The analogy of a vintage car is useful here: Some very old models run beautifully these days because they have been lovingly maintained.

Not only will exercise improve your physical fitness per se, it will also protect you against disease. There is increasing evidence of an association between physical fitness and reduced rates of various cancers, heart disease and diabetes, for example. Taking care of your fitness levels can, quite literally, add years to your life.

It is encouraging, too, that it is never too late to take up exercise. Of course the ideal is to make exercise a part of your everyday life from childhood onwards. But if that hasn't happened, for whatever reason, don't despair. With the correct support and supervision, pretty much anyone can become more physically active at any point in their lives, and see results.

Ageing and the cognitive effects of exercise

Ask people to think about ageing and being old, and they often come up with ideas of dementia – various forms of memory loss, slowed thinking processes and a generally less “sharp” mind. In this context, it is reassuring to know that exercise appears to have a protective effect against dementia. If you're physically fit, you are less likely to suffer from forms of dementia such as Alzheimer's Disease. In fact, as recent trials of exercise as a form of intervention for dementia have shown, exercise can even have a beneficial effect on the thinking skills of people who are already suffering from cognitive decline.

Dementia is not, however, an inevitable cause of ageing; it is the exception rather than the rule. In this context, it is good to know that physical exercise has beneficial effects on cognitive functioning  even in the absence of any disease or decline. It has been shown that, in later life, people who lead an active lifestyle are likely to perform better on tasks measuring such cognitive processes as attention, memory and processing speed, proving that ageing does not need to mean automatic cognitive decline.

Ageing and the emotional benefits of exercise

Exercise has been shown to have a positive influence on emotional functioning. It tends to be associated with people reporting a higher quality of life and a generally more optimistic mood, and it can guard against and even alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. These are important effects to consider in the context of the ageing process. Being physically active will help you to do the emotional processing necessary to deal with ordinary life circumstances. Furthermore, later life can be a time of bereavement and social isolation, and exercise can be an excellent coping strategy for these difficulties.

Practical implications

The practical implications of all this are simple: If you want to enjoy health and a high quality of life in old age, get active. If you already have an excellent track record of maintaining your fitness levels, great – here's another reason to keep it up. If you're a lifelong couch potato, don't despair – it's never too late to start feeling the beneficial effects of exercise, but do get some guidance on how to do it gently and safely.

On my 5th birthday, a family friend, aged 75 at the time, invited me to a skipping-rope competition. She won, and I still remember her raucous cackle. She is my inspiration for staying active into old age.

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