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Active ageing – exercise as medicine!

Happy older couple with hula hoops on the beach

Staying active may add years to your life – or life to your years. If you are able to stay active and maintain good fitness, you will feel the effects of aging less than if you are inactive. The more you do, the more you’ll be able to do. Keeping your muscles strong and your cardiovascular system healthy will allow you to have better quality of life and may help you to live longer.

The aches and pains that come with ageing, as well as injury or disease, can be a very real barrier to maintaining good levels of activity. It can sometimes seem like the best and easiest option to just say ‘no’ to exercise.  Unfortunately, this is a vicious cycle – the less exercise you do, the more your body will deteriorate and the less easy it becomes to do any exercise at all. Resting may be the right thing short-term, especially if you have an injury – however, it can in fact be the worst thing for your body and mind long term.

About half of the physical decline associated with old age may be due to a lack of physical activity. People over the age of 65, more than any other group, require adequate fitness levels to help them maintain independence, recover from illness and reduce their risk of disease.

Use it or lose it! The risks of inactivity

Low activity levels are directly related to an increased risk of mortality in those over 65 years of age. Around 3.2 million deaths each year are attributed to a lack of physical activity.

Many older people give up on physical activity because they think that it is no longer the right thing for them, and could even have a negative effect. There are common misconceptions that seniors are fragile and exercise will lead to breaks and injuries, or that older adults do not need physical activity like they once did.

Over-exercise could certainly cause some problems but a regular and common-sense approach to physical activity is the best thing to maintain your functional independence and overall wellness. An absence and lack of exercise most definitely leads to poor health outcomes.

Inactivity is a leading cause of the following:

  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased body fat
  • Decreased bone density/bone strength
  • Wasted muscles/reduced muscle mass
  • Inflexibility from weakened, immobile joints
  • Reduced respiratory and cardiovascular function
  • Increased risk of stroke and heart attack
  • Decline in cognitive performance
  • Reduced coordination and balance

The less active we let ourselves get, the more our body starts to lose its ability to move and sustain exercise – and the harder it becomes to get active again. Muscles weaken and the joints they used to protect become exposed and sore, bone density diminishes compromising our ability to weight bear and increasing our risk of breaks.

Benefits of staying active

Maintaining your ability to continue to be active not only increases your longevity but helps to ensure that you keep your functional independence for longer. This is such an important aspect of living well! Once independence is lost, life can become very difficult indeed as you start to rely more and more on others for simple daily tasks.

Older adults who are physically active experience the following benefits:

  • Lower mortality rates
  • Lower rates of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and some types of cancer
  • Higher level of cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness
  • Healthier body mass composition, lower levels of body fat
  • Lower rates of depression
  • Higher cognitive performance
  • Stronger bones and more flexible joints
  • Better coordination, balance and a lower risk of falls

Activity is not only beneficial to physical health but is incredibly important for mental wellness too. Regular exercise keeps your mind healthy, improving self-belief and staving off depression, cognitive decline and dementia. It can also help you to maintain or create new social connections and gets you out of the house.

How much exercise should I be doing?

Given the misconceptions about exercise for older adults, it may come as a surprise to learn that if you’re over 65, your exercise recommendations are pretty much the same as those for people aged 18-64.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that older adults follow the below guidelines to improve physical health and reduce the risk of disease and cognitive decline.

  1. At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week. Each of these exercise sessions should last more than 10 minutes
  2. For further benefits, the above recommendations should be increased to 300 minutes of moderate activity or 150 minutes of vigorous activity per week
  3. Balance activities should be undertaken on 3 or more days per week in order to improve mobility and reduce the risk of falls
  4. Strength or weight-bearing activities should be performed 2 days per week to prevent muscle weakening

Unfortunately, very few older adults actually meet these guidelines and it is no coincidence that the rate of cardiovascular disease, dementia, diabetes and other conditions is increasing. Only 20% of men and 17% of women between 65-74 achieved the above recommendations. Over the age of 75 was even worse, with 9% of men and just 6% of women meeting the recommended activity levels. *These statistics were gathered in England, but it can be assumed that Australian numbers are similar.

Where do I start?

If you’re anything like me, the thought of entering a gym or an exercise class for the first time is a little daunting!  Plus, many exercise programs and sports are aimed at young people and as an older adult you may feel unwelcome or excluded. More and more though, gyms and local communities are providing exercise options tailored to older adults.

There are LOTS of things you can do to start to develop some confidence with physical activity. If you have a Home Care Package, you can use your funding for assistance with physical activity – a physiotherapist or an exercise therapist can write you your own tailored program and run you through the activities. If you like, all of the activities can be completed in your own home. Then, when you’ve developed some confidence and feel ready, you can start exploring group exercise classes in your community.

Your Home Care Package can even be used to purchase a gym membership! If you find that you are sore after exercise, you can also use your funding for services such as massage or hydrotherapy.

Make it a habit

Things are often hard to begin with but get easy as they become habit and routine. Make the choice to start today and put a plan in place. Use your Home Care Package to solidify your routine by organising regular sessions with your provider that are focused on helping you get more active!

If you don’t yet have a Home Care Package, or you are with a provider who does not offer these services, speak to one of our Care Advisers on 1300 036 028. We’ll help you get on track to a healthier and happier later life.

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