Gentle exercise is what is often recommended for older people. I shall soon be 70 and it has been said to me. Of course, it is well meant – it’s a concern that we might ‘overdo it’, but it is not actually true.
Exercise is essential in keeping older people healthy and independent. Older people who exercise need to visit the doctor less often than those who do not. Furthermore, they recover faster when they are ill or following an operation.
Obviously, we have to be careful and exercise properly. If we have a long-standing illness, we need to have expert advice about how to exercise. But all of the scientific evidence shows that the more older people exercise, the better it is for us. And that is not just about how long we exercise for but also about how hard we exercise.
So what can we do and what do we have to be careful about?
The first thing is that we need to keep active. Walking rather than taking the car or the bus (I work in London one or two days most weeks and I get off the tube one station away from the one I want), using stairs rather than lifts or escalators and not sitting down for too long.
However, it is vital that we look after our hearts by doing something that is harder work than just walking gently. We need to do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. Moderate exercise means being out of breath but still being able to talk in sentences. Better still is to do at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise – that is getting out of breath but not being able to complete sentences. I have worked with many older people who regularly do 75 to 100 minutes of vigorous exercise each week.
Of course, if we are not used to being active like this it is important to build up to it gradually over several weeks. And it is best to avoid high-impact exercise such as running on hard surfaces as this can damage the ankles, knees and hips. Cycling, rowing machines and cross trainers are ideal alternatives.
But what about using weights – surely not?
On the contrary, it is absolutely necessary to use weights. It is important because as we get older we lose our muscle strength – can you get up out of a chair without using your arms? If we want to keep our independence we must keep our muscle strength.
However, weight training doesn’t have to involve dumbbells, as resistance bands also do the job. A good guide is to do exercises which work all our main muscles. Two sets of 15 repetitions twice a week is what is required. This can be quite intensive too. Once you can complete the two sets of 15, then increase the weight or use a harder resistance band.
Resistance training can be quite daunting and, if done incorrectly, can cause injury. It is therefore well worth spending some sessions with a fitness instructor and learning how to do them safely and effectively.
What else do we need to do as we get older?
Balance and agility are also important. There is a lot we can do for ourselves, such as learning to stand on one leg for a minute and getting out of the car quickly and bouncing up on to our feet rather than ‘uncurling’ ourselves. But again, a fitness instructor can be very helpful in teaching us to do more complicated balance exercises. If our balance is good, we are much less likely to fall over and break our hip or wrist.
We know that we are not going to be able to exercise as vigorously as somebody in their 30s or 40s. But, by building up to it gradually and with some expert help, it is amazing what we can achieve. Then we can be fitter, healthier and more energetic throughout all of our older years.
Dr John Searle is the first chief medical officer of the Fitness Industry Association. For more information on health-related exercise and exercise prescription, please visit fia.org.uk
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Fitness Professionals Ltd or Virtual Magazine. Consult a qualified health or fitness professional before making changes to your diet or exercise.