Aging is inevitable, but ‘Active Aging’ is a choice. It is the choice to remain physically active and attentive to your health, even as the years progress. This is extremely significant for leading a fulfilling, rewarding life throughout your later years, as it works to tackle the feelings of isolation, idleness, and decline that often occur as a result of withdrawing from work and other aspects of life as people get older. Staying physically active can have a positive influence on all aspects of your wellbeing; not only will it reduce the risk of chronic physical health issues that can occur later in life, but it also has enormous benefits for mental wellbeing, and helps you to keep a active social life by becoming part of supportive and empowering fitness communities. We will further explore the wide-ranging benefits of active ageing, how to overcome barriers to access these benefits, and our best tips for getting started.
Benefits of Staying Active as you Age
Let’s start with the obvious; the physical benefits of staying physically active. Lower rates of heart disease, hypertension, and mortality have all been found among older people who remain physically active as well as reduced risk of other chronic diseases. What diseases you do get, you are likely to recover more quickly from. Other physical benefits include improved bone health, body composition and weight, and a reduced likelihood and severity of functional impairments.
However, the mental benefits of active ageing are perhaps just as significant and broad as the physical ones. Keeping physically active can help to slow the cognitive decline that occurs with old age and has been proven to be a significant mood booster for many older people. This improved mood will mean that you are less likely to want to disengage from social life and activities, which will further improve your mental wellbeing. As well as this, physical activity can also help to improve your sleep quality, which will help you to feel more energetic and proactive and, in turn, make exercise easier. In other words, it’s a positive feedback loop.
Then, there’s the social benefits. Many clubs and communities are specifically tailored for older people who are keen to stay active. By taking part in fitness groups, you’re opening the door to making new friends and engaging as part of a supportive community. As many older people find their social circle becoming smaller, this can be a great way to create new bonds and foster a healthy, sociable lifestyle.
Exercise Routines for Active Aging
According to the NHS, seniors should aim for around 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, and this should be split into both cardiovascular and strength-oriented forms of exercise. For those that are unfamiliar with the different intensity levels, moderate-intensity exercise should warm you up, raise your heart rate, and leave you breathing heavier, but not gasping for air.
Examples of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise include:
- Brisk walking/light jogging
- Cycling at ten miles an hour or less
- Water aerobics
The 150-minute goal starts to seem a little less daunting, as much of your cardiovascular exercise can be fit into everyday life.
A trap some people can fall into is believing that, to properly exercise the muscles, you must buy the right equipment, but this isn’t true. In fact, for many useful beginner exercises, the most you’ll need is a sturdy chair. Some easily accessible exercises include:
Mini squats – Using the back of a chair for stability, bend your knees as far as comfortable while keeping them facing forward and your back straight.
Sit-to-stand – Perch on the edge of a chair and move slowly from sitting to standing upright, only using your arms for guidance while your legs do the work.
Calf raises – standing either without support or at the back of a chair, slowly lift your heels as far as is comfortable and lower them again.
Backwards leg raises – Holding onto the back of a chair for stability, raise one leg behind you as far as comfortable, keeping the leg and your back straight. Alternate legs with each repetition.
Wall push-ups – Standing at arm’s length from a wall, place your hands flat upon it and slowly bend your arms, with your elbows by your side and your back straight. Close the difference between yourself and the wall as much as you can before pushing yourself back up into the starting position. These should ideally be done in three sets of 5-10 repetitions.
It is a good idea to combine all of these exercises into one short routine, aiming for 5-10 repetitions of each exercise and practising the routine twice a day, a few days a week.
Combining both cardiovascular and strength exercises we have looked at into a weekly routine, here’s what it could look like:
Monday – 15-minute brisk walk/cycling, 2 x 15-minute strength exercise
Tuesday – Rest day
Wednesday – 2 x 15-minute strength exercise
Thursday – 15-minute brisk walk/cycling, 2 x 15-minute strength exercise
Friday – Rest day
Saturday – 15-minute brisk walk/cycling
Sunday – 15-minute brisk walk/cycling
This just goes to show how easily 150 minutes can be broken up throughout your week, and that even for those just starting to get involved with regular exercise, it is an achievable goal.
Maintaining balance as you age is an often overlooked, but highly important preventative measure, as it significantly reduces the chance of falls and injuries, which are more likely among older people. Thankfully, it is easier than you may think to maintain balance, and by practising these simple exercises little and often, you can keep yourself safe from the threat of falls.
The single-limb stance – Lift one foot and try to balance on the other. Hold on to something stable like the back of a chair as you lift the foot, but then try to maintain that pose without holding it. Keep the pose for as long as you can, aiming for over a minute. Once you’re done on one leg, switch to the other.
Side-leg raises – This is another exercise where all you’ll need is a chair. While holding on to the back of it, lift either leg to the side while keeping a straight posture, then slowly lower it back down and do the same for the other leg. Try to do this 15 times per leg.
Marching in place – While standing still, lift one knee as high as you can manage, lower it back down, and do the same for the other. Doing this 15-20 times for each leg will help to improve your balance. While this exercise doesn’t necessarily require a chair, it is recommended that you stick close to something you can hold onto in case you need it.
Balancing wand – It’s easy to assume that improving balance would require you to stand up, but not with this exercise! However, you will need some form of stick or cane. While sitting, place the stick vertically on the flat of your palm. Try to keep the stick upright for as long as possible, and swap hands to train your balance skills on both sides of your body.
While these activities are all useful for improving balance, simply keeping active and mobile is another great way to maintain balance as you age. Walking often, and for more than a few minutes at a time, will do wonders for reducing the risk of accidents when trying to walk later down the line.
Mobility can become a serious issue in later years, and what’s especially concerning is that it can often become something of a spiral, with impaired mobility leading to longer periods of inactivity, further damaging mobility as a result.
To prevent this spiral, ‘little and often’ is the best policy to take. If you already have difficulties with moving about, then you must listen to your body and work within your limits. If you can break up periods of inactivity with just a bit of movement, even if only for a few minutes, then that is already doing yourself a massive favour. This policy is the same for those without any issues – long spells of little to no movement that should be avoided.
Maintaining a healthy weight also goes a long way in helping your mobility. And this can be achieved not just through exercise, but also diet. Making sure you’re attentive to what you eat and keeping a balanced, healthy diet will not only help to maintain an optimal weight but also boost various other aspects of your life, both physically and mentally.
Overcoming the Barriers to Active Aging
We all wish it was as easy as just going out and exercising, but unfortunately, numerous barriers can stop us from being as healthy as we wish we were, and for older people especially, the odds can often be stacked against them. Whether this be due to health concerns, mobility issues, or simply difficulty with finding the motivation, many people experience at least some struggle with staying active.
As far as health and mobility issues are concerned, because of how varied these can be, it is best to seek the advice of a doctor before trying to build an exercise routine. The priority, as said previously, is that you listen to your own body; it will know when enough is enough. Start small, and slowly try to increase the amount of exercise you are doing, at a pace that best suits you.
And the idea of starting small goes for motivation issues, as well. Instead of trying to strongarm yourself into an exercise routine straight away, begin with small choices that blend seamlessly into your everyday life. Whether this be taking the stairs instead of the lift, taking a short walk around the block, or doing some gardening, these will all help to increase both your capacity and motivation for more direct forms of exercise. As said previously, keeping active is a positive feedback loop – staying active will boost your mood and mental clarity, making you more optimistic and willing to do more exercise. So, while taking the stairs may seem inconsequential on its own, you could be doing yourself a big favour in the long term!
The long-lasting benefits of making some small changes to your everyday life truly are astounding. By practising some simple exercises regularly, choosing to walk instead of driving where appropriate, and getting in touch with other people doing the same, you are already doing a lot to ensure you will remain happy and healthy as the years progress. You will continue to surprise yourself with how much you are capable of and find that, contrary to the image of the reclusive older person society often perpetuates, you’ll feel motivated to gain experiences and find your circle growing rather than shrinking. Age may be inevitable, but how you age is in your hands.