Britain is ageing at an unprecedented rate. In 1900, less than 5% of the population were over 65 years of age but now that figure is approaching 20%. It is estimated that by 2020, 25% of the nation will be over-65. The statistics are even more remarkable for the oldest group of people, namely those over 85, who are the most rapidly growing section of our society. We have been warned by experts on many occasions about the increasing costs of providing health and social care for the elderly.
However, it’s not all bad news. Recent research shows that a healthy lifestyle can have a major impact on the ageing process. Ageing does not have to be something negative that happens when we get older. In fact we can do much to influence how our bodies age and one of the most powerful lifestyle interventions is regular physical activity. Indeed, a recent World Health Organisation Report concluded that physical activity is the single most effective means for individuals to positively influence their own health and functional abilities and thus maintain a high quality of life in old age.
So, what might some of these benefits be? Well, for example, even a single bout of exercise, such as a brisk walk or swim can improve sleep, help lower blood pressure and regulate blood glucose levels. Regular participation improves cardiovascular functioning, increases muscle strength and enhances balance and flexibility. The physiological benefits of exercise apply equally to men and women of all ages. In addition, there are significant psychological benefits for elderly persons. The feeling of having more energy and vitality, being better able to relax and having not only more self-confidence but also more ‘body-confidence’ are key factors. The social benefits of joining a walking group, a swimming club or one of the many other senior citizen organisations that promote healthy lifestyles provide wonderful opportunities for seniors to widen their social networks, form new friendships and acquire new positive roles during their retirement.
However, although the benefits of exercise for the elderly are well established, it is reported than a huge percentage of our population over 50 takes very little leisure-time exercise at all! Indeed, the number of inactive older adults increases as age increases and in some groups, especially older women, the percentage may be as high as 60-70%!
So why? What’s the problem?
One of the main reasons is that reliable information about these health benefits has yet to reach many older people. The messages are often muddled, and there are too many myths and misconceptions, such as:
Many people really believe this. However, exercise has been shown to benefits people of all ages, including those in their 90s and even 100s!
Becoming more physically active will improve quality of life for the vast majority of older people. Indeed, it may be most effective in people with chronic conditions and diseases. In our own laboratories here in Chester we are undertaking research, together with surgeons from the local hospital, on elderly patients suffering from a disabling condition affecting the lower limbs called peripheral artery disease. Most patients were unable to walk more than a couple of minutes on our treadmill at a very slow speed before having to stop with chronic leg pains. They were all on a waiting list for surgery. However, after 3 months of a gently progressive walking programme, together with changes in smoking and eating habits where appropriate, the results were startling. One 75-yr old lady who walked for less than ONE minute initially, was able to walk for a full THIRTY minutes at a fairly brisk pace – what’s more, she was taken off the waiting list. So, how’s that for improvement in quality of life – she was a totally different person – full of life and full of confidence!
Perhaps surprisingly, many elderly people feel that they are not fit enough to join an exercise class. One common misconception is that those who go to such classes are fit – and that they would be embarrassed. In fact, classes such as Rosemary’s are tailor-made for unfit elderly people and they would be with others similarly out-of-shape. Those individuals would get expert advice on how to improve their fitness gradually and effectively.
Myth 4: You need special clothing and equipment:
Safe and effective exercise can be performed in loose-fitting everyday clothes and comfortable shoes. Even strength training can be done at home with inexpensive equipment, with household items or just using your body weight.
Many older adults learned about exercise when it was believed that it had to hurt to be of any benefit. We now know better – and if it hurts, you’re probably doing too much of the wrong type of exercise.
Keeping on the move with a wide variety of physical activities is a great way for elderly people to stay in shape. If you have elderly relatives – pass on the message: ‘regular exercise promotes healthy ageing’.