We all know making physical activity a regular habit is important for health and well-being. But health promotion messages are often aimed at children and young people, with less focus on the importance of physical activity for older people. However, older age is a crucial time for being active every day
Studies show physical activity, such as just increasing your daily number of steps, may help you live longer. This is the case even if you only started in older age. It can prevent and help to manage many health conditions including diabetes, some cancers, heart disease, and dementia.
Exercise is as effective as some medications in preventing or managing conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, and for rehabilitation after stroke. Besides the direct benefits, being more physically active can improve sleep, social connection, and overall feelings of happiness and well-being.
How much activity is enough?
Australia's physical activity guidelines recommend people aged 65 years and over be: "active every day in as many ways as possible, doing a range of physical activities that incorporate fitness, strength, balance, and flexibility; and should accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days."
Unfortunately, only 25% of older Australians achieve this amount of activity. As few as 12% regularly undertake strengthening activities (such as lifting weights) and 6% do balance activities (such as lunges or single-leg standing).
Doing something is better than nothing, even if achieving the amount recommended by guidelines is too difficult. Physical activity can include a range of options from exercise classes to active transport (such as cycling or walking), to gardening and home maintenance.
Starting small and building up the amount and intensity of activity, and choosing something enjoyable, are the best ways to start. There are extra benefits from doing more than 30 minutes per day of activity. For those already participating in more vigorous activities, like running or cycling, turning 65 is no reason to stop.
What if I'm unwell?
Research shows that even people with health issues can gain a lot from being more active. For example, people with knee and hip osteoarthritis can benefit, in terms of reduced pain and improved function, from a range of physical activities. These include muscle strengthening, and aerobic and flexibility exercise, performed on land or in the water.
Similarly, people with diabetes can improve their glucose control from aerobic exercise (such as walking or swimming), muscle strengthening or a combination of both.
It's important that frailer older people or people with particular health problems seek professional help to select physical activity options that are most suited to their particular abilities and health conditions. Such people should discuss plans to get more active with their GP, and then seek guidance from a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist.
The new World Health Organisation Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018-30 provides guidance on policy actions for governments and other organisations to make it easier for people to be more active. Safe, pleasant venues and leaders linked with health professionals and welcoming, enjoyable and affordable programs would help overcome barriers reported by older people.