Fitness over 50

When I was growing up, my grandparents would no more have considered going to the gym than going to the moon. For them, exercise consisted of a walk to the shops or a bit of light weeding in the garden.

Looking back, I realise they were only in their late 50s, but to me they seemed ancient. Thirty years ago, that was the norm; for many people, turning 50 marked the beginning of an inevitable decline in health and fitness.

And, while it’s true inactivity will result in physical deterioration, there are dozens of scientific studies that show regular physical activity can prevent the onset – or delay the progress – of many chronic conditions associated with the ageing process.

Britain’s population, like that of most developed countries, is ageing rapidly due to increased life expectancy and lower fertility rates. According to projections, 23 per cent of the population will be aged 65 and over.

Without some kind of intervention, the government will face a massive increase in its healthcare bill as it struggles to cope with age-related conditions such as type 2 diabetes, arthritis and coronary heart disease. Rather than waiting to deal with the health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle, encouraging older adults to exercise is a more effective and relatively inexpensive strategy.

Some estimates suggest that as much as half of the physical decline associated with old age may be due to a lack of activity.

The effects of ageing

As we grow older, our health and fitness levels decline. We lose as much as 1kg of muscle each year after the age of 50, reducing our ability to perform everyday activities and decreasing our metabolic rate. This, in turn, leads to weight gain which can exacerbate chronic conditions.

Bone mass also decreases as part of the ageing process. Although osteoporosis is more common in women, it also affects men. An estimated one in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 will suffer a bone fracture due to osteoporosis.

Sarcopenia, or muscle wasting, affects about 20 per cent of the population aged between 50 and 70, with the figure rising to 50 per cent of those over 80. Unchecked, it leads to a reduction in muscle strength and functionality, and can ultimately result in the sufferer becoming house-bound.

In addition, the cardiovascular and respiratory systems suffer age-related decline. The arteries stiffen, forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood around the body and leading to high blood pressure and reduced cardio function. Lung capacity also declines.

Balance and co-ordination, which we take for granted, can become impaired as we age. Falls are common among the elderly and can result in serious injury or death.

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Benefits of exercise

Exercise has traditionally been regarded as an activity for the young but older adults can reap many benefits from both cardiovascular and resistance training. Fitness can be improved at any age regardless of whether you are a regular exerciser or novice.

Research has shown, for example, that even those in their 80s can make significant gains in muscle strength while marathon runners in their 60s, 70s or even 80s are becoming an increasingly common sight.

Regular exercise can help stave off the gradual decline associated with ageing, helping us to lead longer, healthier and happier lives.

Check out the picture above of Joseph Pilates. At 80 he was stronger and more supple than most people half his age.

The benefits of regular exercise include:

  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and stroke
  • Reduced risk of type II diabetes and obesity Improved bone strength
  • Greater mobility
  • Better balance
  • Improved posture
  • More energy
  • Improved sleep patterns
  • Reduction in stress and depression

Finding the right programme

You are never too old to begin an exercise programme. Your workouts should include both cardiovascular exercise and resistance (weight) training. If you have never exercised before, then start gradually with low intensity cardio activities such as walking, swimming and cycling. Even a brisk 30-minute walk three times a week will have significant benefits on heart and lung function.

Resistance training can be carried out with weights, resistance bands or your own bodyweight. Regular resistance training will increase muscular strength and fitness. By increasing the amount of lean muscle tissue in your body, you will boost your metabolic rate and burn more calories. Resistance training will also increase bone density.

Pilates can be extremely beneficial for older people. Last weekend I spent a very useful couple of days at Body Control Pilates on a Pilates for the Older Person Course. In addition to the standard matwork repertoire there are dozens of exercises that can help with specific issues such as arthritis, knee and hip replacements, balance problems, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s Disease.

Exercise for the over 50s at Kinesis

Fit Forever is a gentle exercise class designed specifically for the over-50s and those with chronic disease. It incorporates gentle aerobic activity, weight-bearing or resistance exercise and stretching, all of which help to improve cardiovascular health, build strength and improve balance.

Classes take place at the Kinesis Studio in Goldsithney on Mondays at 11am, Tuesdays at 9.30am and Wednesdays at 10am.

Look out for new Pilates classes specially for older clients in the New Year.

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