Increasing numbers of ‘older’ people are performing regular physical activity including walking, swimming, lawn bowls, golf, Pilates and cycling. This is great news from a health and social perspective, leading in an improved overall quality of life.
But how do we define ‘older’? It has become more difficult to define by chronology due to the variability in health and functional status among those of similar age. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) define the ‘older’ person as over 65, or between 50 and 64 with clinically significant chronic conditions and/or functional limitations. We must remember there can be a large discrepancy between how old you are and how old you feel and function.
Physical activity and exercise have an important role in successful ageing. Successful ageing involves longevity and survival free of chronic disease, impaired physical and cognitive functioning as well as incident related disability (e.g. following a fall).
Midlife physical activity has been shown to have an inverse effect on survival and overall health status into old age and it benefits all body organs as well as the mind and soul. Therefore, it is vitally important to exercise, which is “any activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness”.
Exercise improves how well oxygen can be used by the body. It also improves the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles and coronary blood flow to the heart - making us feel better, more vitalised and more alive.
Exercise also raises levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, lowers levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, reduces the risk obesity (when combined with a good diet) and decreases the risk of developing ischaemic heart disease which can lead to heart attacks.
The lungs provide oxygen to the body and exhale carbon dioxide. During exercise, your lungs need to work harder to perform this task. This extra work gets air to the bottom of the lungs. Filling the lungs regularly is important to maintain lung function and it also reduces the risk of lung illness and disease.
Exercise and dietary modification (less sugar, bread, pasta, potatoes etc) reduces the risk of developing obesity which may lead to type 2 diabetes. It also improves blood sugar control in people with diabetes by decreasing insulin resistance and it reduces the need for medication in those with type 2 diabetes.
Exercise has also shown to be beneficial for osteoarthritis, which is the ‘wear and tear’ of the larger weight bearing joints such as the low back, hips and knees. It can help to improve joint mobility, increase muscle strength to support the joints and reduce pain through movement.
Weight bearing activities and resistance training help to maintain bone mass which reduces the risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis. This is important for elderly people who are at a higher risk of falls and subsequent fractures. Also, balance training combined with resistance training can help to reduce falls.
Psychologically, exercise provides a number of benefits. People who exercise regularly are happier, think better and sleep more soundly. Other positive effects of exercise include weight loss, muscle control and improved confidence, reduced fear of activity and reduced anxiety and depression.
There are however, some risks associated with exercise such as falls, fractures and significant cardiac events. This should not be a deterrent to exercise, simply a reminder to first consult your GP before starting a new exercise programme. Also if you are currently on any medication, it is vitally important to consult your GP before starting an exercise programme.
It is then recommended that you undergo a physical examination with a Chartered Physiotherapist who will then put together an exercise prescription tailored for your needs and ability. There is also the option of attending for supervised exercise on a one to one basis or in small groups.
Please also see below for some useful web links:
This article was co-authored by Tricia Murphy and Graham Widger.