Is it too late to start exercising?

Is it too late to start exercising?

You’re never too old to start exercising according to a new study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

A growing body of evidence shows the incredible health benefits of keeping up exercise in later life. Reduced risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure and improved cognitive functioning are just some of the benefits of getting more active. And recent research shows that even if you start later in life, the benefits are still there.

The study, involving 3,500 healthy people who were around the age of retirement, found that those who exercised were three times more likely to stay healthy than their non-active peers over the next eight years. Over 60s taking moderate to vigorous exercise at least once a week increased their chance of healthy ageing by 7 times (healthy ageing meaning absence of disease, lack of physical disability, high cognitive functioning and good mental health).

The report says that by taking up sports and exercise in our 60s will still help to keep illnesses at bay. It shows that exercise at any time of life is really beneficial.

For some people the thought of exercising conjures up images of sprinting around athletic tracks or five-a-side football, but exercise can be less intense and still hold a host of benefits to health and wellbeing.

Exercise can be not only a way to keep physically fit, but a way to meet new friends and learn new activities. For older people it’s a great way to stave off loneliness and to keep mentally healthy as well as getting your body in shape. 

Even those completely new to fitness, with a previous sedentary lifestyle, were able to increase their chances of healthy ageing by three times. Just one session of regular physical activity a week for four years was needed to reap the benefits. Newcomers over 50 will still need to take things slowly, increasing their exercise duration by no more than 10 per cent each week. But never think it’s too late to start.

While many over-60s are content simply with keeping healthy, others see retirement as a chance to take on new challenges. We’ve all heard stories of 60 year olds who are starting to lift weights, 70 year olds who run marathons and 80 year olds who walk up Ben Nevis. There are even fitness instructors over 60 years old, with a 93 year old great grandmother instructor recently featuring in the news! But while these stories are inspiring, they best serve to highlight the fact that we should never discount ourselves as ‘too old’.  

So don’t listen to anyone who tells you to slow down and take it easy just because you’ve reached a certain age. Far from slowing down as we get older, Britons seem to be getting considerably more active. No longer are the domain of the young, exercise and gyms a solid part of many over 50’s lifestyle.

So what are the best exercises for your age? The recommendation of 150 minutes physical activity a week applies to all ages, but exercises need to be adapted as you get older. Here’s the latest guidelines:

Over 50s: Protect your heart, strengthen bones. Many people take up exercise in their 50s and are able to develop and fine-tune their bodies to a higher level. This is because your 50s are still good growth years for muscles. However, after 50 muscle mass is starting to deteriorate, testosterone is declining, energy is lower and recovery takes longer. Concentrate on weight bearing exercises and strengthening your core muscles. There is no reason to think that people 50+ years can’t still workout with fairly high intensity, as long as you build up slowly. Signing up for charitable runs is quite popular at this age, and a great way to motivate yourself.

Over 60s: Prevent deterioration. Don’t worry about having big muscles anymore. At 60+ muscle and bone loss occurs more quickly and energy levels dip even more. Lung and artery elasticity are declining at this age so cardio will give more health benefits than weights. Choose an activity which gets you breathing harder without high impact on your joints such as press ups on the knees and hill walking. Signing up for exercise classes such as circuit training, Zumba and water fitness will also benefit you. Aim for three 30 minute sessions each week where you get out of puff.

Over 70s: Maintain strength and flexibility. The main thing now is to improve your quality of life, and length of life, with exercise. Again, cardio and low-intensity weight bearing exercise is the best option here. Therefore a 30 minute circuit training routine 2-3 times a week is ideal, but at a lower intensity.  Concentrate on higher reps and lower weights because you don’t need to gain muscle. Between your workouts you could go swimming, do yoga, cycle and have plenty of brisk walks.

Over 80s: Stay active. Low impact cardio and simply keeping moving is the key here. At this age the body has extreme muscle loss, vulnerable joints and low bone density. Using gentle weights can slow muscle waste and lower the risk of developing an injury.  Gym classes like tai chi and yoga are ideal.

It doesn’t all have to be intense workouts either – here are some more relaxing ways to exercise:

Walking: Known as one of the best forms of exercising, you can walk practically anywhere, at any speed. For the best results you want to bring your heart-rate up about its normal speed and try and go for longer than half an hour. The best thing about walking is that is a very social activity. There are plenty of ramblers groups and walking clubs where you get to meet new people who will ensure you are walking at a pace that suits you, without overdoing it. As an exercise it is a great cardio workout, and it doesn’t impact too greatly on joints providing you wear suitable footwear. It can be done out of doors, which is always good for general wellbeing and overall there is a lot to be said for walking!

Swimming: Swimming has the bonus of making you feel weightless. As it’s not weight-bearing, if you have joint problems then this could be the exercise for you. Swimming works all aspects of your body and it’s great for gaining better mobility and strength, while not pushing your body too hard. Swimming can also be really relaxing, so it’s a great way to get out and enjoy some you time, as well as a good time to meet up with friends at the local pool or gym.

Stretching: Older people may automatically shun the idea of joining a gym – but there are some great reasons why it’s a brilliant idea. The gym is not just a place for rowing machines and steppers, but also a place where you can join classes for all abilities. Pilates and yoga are two of the really popular classes amongst older people as you can go as slow and gently as you like without damaging yourself. Pilates is all about breathing and lengthening the muscles. You concentrate on your breath so you become very in tune with your body. Stretches are very slow and concentrated, but help to strengthen muscles and create better posture and flexibility. Yoga can be a bit more strength based and is often a bit faster paced, so if you feel you want more of a challenge then this might be a better option for you. 

Racket sports: Having a competitive edge can be a good thing, and racket sports have the benefit of giving you that sense of competition, while being able to play with a team or against someone as an individual. Racket sports differ in pace depending on your level of fitness, so you might want to start with badminton for a slower game, leading up to tennis and then squash for those who like a really good run about the court. There is quite a culture surrounding tennis which adds to its social draw, there are lots of tournaments and social occasions that tend to go with it, so you meet plenty of new people. Ask at your local gym for details of clubs and courts that you are able to use.

Cycling: Plenty of people cycle to the shops now, and it can be that simple act of pedaling that can make you feel really invigorated. You don’t have to take part in the Tour de France for cycling to have a beneficial effect on your life, just stick on a basket and do the shopping on it. Make sure you are safe when cycling however – remember lights, protective headgear and high visibility clothing when cycling in the dark.

Exercising doesn’t even have to be as hard as taking up a new sport. Sometimes it’s just about altering your daily routine to make better choices. Ditch the car and walk to the shop. Don’t sit down on the sofa, instead enjoy some time in the garden, and get out a bit more. Exercising when we’re older could make all the difference to our future health, so there’s no excuse not to start right now!

The best attitude to have is be like a child again, but with the wisdom of an adult! Be interested, curious, playful and willing to have fun. Trust yourself, listen to your body and feel proud of your efforts.

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