Benefits of Staying Fit in Your Later Years

10 mins read time
Better muscle tone, improved circulation and a slowing of the effects of ageing – research shows that even a modest amount of regular exercise can have a profound effect on the body, mind and spirit. Even better, it’s really fun!

Aches, pains and busy lifestyles means that it’s easy – too easy – to become less physically active as we age.

This inertia comes at a cost however. Decreased physical activity can lead to increased body fat, loss of muscle mass and strength, and, over time, can contribute to chronic health problems, including heart disease – the leading cause of death worldwide.

That’s the bad news, but the good news is very good: even modest amounts of regular exercise have powerful anti-aging properties and there is plenty of hard data showing a correlation between active lifestyles and positive health outcomes. The physically active among us maintain their mobility, health and wellbeing, and enjoy improved blood pressure, less incidence of diabetes, improved lipid profiles, and better neurocognitive function.

And that’s just the beginning.

Use it or lose it: Exercise’s role in disease prevention
Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. While exercise won’t cure hereditary or chronic underlying issues, moderate, regular exercise has been shown to significantly improve heart and cardiovascular health in the general population, especially in seniors.

In fact, regular exercise has a mitigating effect on a range of conditions. Exercise has been shown to positively impact the incidences and effects of colon cancer, diabetes, obesity and hypertension, to reduce the incidence of acute respiratory illness, and to boost immune system functioning. It even improves metabolism and improves digestion.

Bone health + fall prevention
As we age, bone density decreases in both males and females. Balance also declines as we age, and this combination of factors can lead to serious injuries resulting from trips and falls – a common cause of injury among seniors.

But bones respond positively to moderate stresses placed upon them. Weight-bearing exercises in particular have been shown to improve bone density and strength and exercise in general is proven to improve osteoarthritis and osteoporosis symptoms.

Weight-bearing exercises aren’t necessarily characterised by barbells and dumbbells. Walking, ball sports, low-impact aerobics and stair walking can all have a positive impact on bone health, balance, posture and general well-being.

Similarly, resistance training – think free weights, weight-training machines, aqua aerobics, resistance band exercises, chair-based exercises and body weight exercises – can increase bone density and increase muscle mass. And a little goes a long way. Modest resistance training three times a week is enough to build greater strength, flexibility, resilience, and to ease symptoms of some chronic conditions.

Better sleep
We’ve all wrestled with sleepless nights at some point. Exercise can help. Many report that the physical fatigue produced by exercise is conducive to a good night’s sleep.

There’s still some debate about what time of the day is best for exercising. While intense physical exertion directly before bedtime may not produce the desired results, exercise earlier in the day will generally promote deeper sleep in the evening and can even help you feel more refreshed upon waking.

Improvements in brain health and mental well-being
Make no mistake: exercise makes us feel good. Want a sure fire way to feel more relaxed and have a greater sense of overall well being? Exercise is the key.

Not only does exercise fight depression and relieve anxiety, there is even some evidence that suggests that exercise slows the progression of certain brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

If that’s not enough, research from Harvard Medical School finds that exercise promotes greater independence in the elderly, longer lifespans and greater mobility.

Run on effects
Exercise has been shown to facilitate other positive behaviours, including improvements in diet, lowered incidences of depression, more energy, increased positive social interactions and stronger social bonds.

Did we mention that exercise – in and of itself – can be very enjoyable? It’s true! Choosing an activity that is interesting and enjoyable to you is one of the keys to maintaining a healthy routine.

What happens at The Sterling
Sharn from Āio Fitness & Wellbeing runs weekly fitness classes for the kaumātua (elders) at The Sterling, Kaiapoi.

Her seniors program provides 30 minute guided classes (usually on Fridays) including strength, flexibility and balance training – with a particular focus on fun.

“The sessions we do at The Sterling are all about having a good time,” says Sharn. “The focus is on doing something positive, having fun, getting together as a group, and really looking to achieve those mental and physical wellbeing benefits, first and foremost. Exercise doesn’t have to be this serious thing.”

Sharn’s 30-minute classes don’t use a great deal of equipment – generally just an exercise band and something to hold on to for stability – and include a warmup, light resistance and cardiovascular training, flexibility exercises and a cool down.

“Even a short, simple routine can play a major part in improving social bonds, reducing incidences of depression, improving self-esteem and just creating that feeling of having accomplished something significant for the day,” says Sharn.

“It’s not about stressing out and being very serious. It’s about having fun together, having a laugh and increasing our energy levels in a positive way.”

Getting started
When commencing any new workout programme, it’s important to be safe and realistic with what you can accomplish. If hill-climbing and squat-thrusts feel out of reach, don’t despair. Gentle, low-impact exercise (especially the kind that results in an elevated heart rate a few times per week) is enough to deliver real benefits.

Just be sure to start slowly and pay attention to your capabilities, advises Sharn*.

“10 minutes a day is a great beginning point,” she says. “Walking is an excellent exercise, as is a stationary bicycle. Just be sure to ease yourself into it and grow your workout time gradually.”

To help yourself stick to your programme, enlist the help of a friend or loved one, advises Sharn.

“One of the best things you can do is exercise with a friend,” she says. “It’s a great way to maintain your motivation and makes things less serious and more fun. Just make sure you go at your own pace.”

*Note: Exercise can produce feelings of light-headedness – especially after a long period of inactivity – so, if possible, hold on to a solid object when exercising to help with balance and stability. If you have any significant health issues, consult your doctor before beginning an exercise schedule.

Sharn’s 20 minute KISS (Keep It Simple, Seniors!) Workout

  • Warm up: 5 minutes walking
  • Calf raises – 5 reps each leg (or as many as possible)
  • Wall push ups – 5 reps (working up to 10)
  • Sit ups in a chair – 10 reps
  • Stair step ups – 10 reps
  • 5 minutes of balancing and stretching exercises (leg lifts, stability ball work, gentle yoga etc).
  • Warm down: 5 minutes of light cardiovascular exercise (choose from low impact options such as walking, stationary cycling, or swimming)