Staying active in later life by doing simple exercise, such as walking, has shown to have a positive impact on people’s physical health, which in turn helps us remain independent and mobile. In addition, it is well-known that exercise can help with mental health – important when we know that older people are as likely to experience depression as any age group. Light exercise such as walking can help with depression and anxiety as well as reduce symptoms of stress. Research has shown that people who remain active report greater life satisfaction and reduced feelings of loneliness – and this is as relevant when we are older as it is at any age. 

How easy is it for older people to remain active? 

Despite the many benefits of remaining active in later life, people can find it difficult to access their local area and services on foot. More often than not, the needs of older people are considered too late when planning and designing buildings and surrounding areas. New bus stops or shopping centres are frequently being built without benches or places to stop and rest. There is no standard width for a pavement, and many already-narrow pavements are cluttered with improperly placed ‘street furniture’, such as bins or lampposts. This can make it difficult for older people, especially if they are walking with another person. Research by Living Streets found more than half of people aged 65 and over said obstructions on the pavement made them feel angry or frustrated when walking outside. 

Many older people find it hard to cross the road as there is insufficient time at signal crossings. Signal crossing times are based on a person walking 1.2 metres a second. Further research has found 85% of women and 76% of men aged 65 and over walk more slowly than this.  

Contributors to our Ageism+ blog series highlighted how accessibility is further complicated for older people with a disability.  Many shops and local services do not provide step-free access for those with mobility issues and few provide hearing loops or large print signs for those with hearing and visual difficulties. By law, shops and services are required to provide reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act, but often the onus is on the individual to request these. 

There's also been a significant decline in public toilets as councils are finding it too costly to maintain them. Over 600 public toilets across the UK are no longer being maintained and accessible toilets are already far and few between.

What is the solution?

Often it's small changes which can have the most impact. Improving the quality of pavements has shown to help increase physical activity of people over 65. More accessible toilets and benches, as well as longer times at crossings, are just some of the examples given by older people on what would help them to get around more easily. 

Recently the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched a Global Network for Age-friendly Cities and Communities. In such spaces age is not a barrier to accessing the community and services. The WHO set out guidelines on how local areas can become age-friendly. So far over 830 cities and communities in 41 countries have committed to improving their physical and social environments so they are better places to grow old.

A UK example of good practice is Nottingham City Council’s “take a seat” campaign. This campaign asks local businesses and services to put a “we are age-friendly” sticker in their window. Those who have signed up are also encouraged to provide their older customers with toilet facilities and a drink with no pressure to make a purchase. 

Why should we invest in these changes?

With an ageing society we need to ensure that our surroundings are changing to fit the population. Remaining active in later life has significant benefits and allows us to have a better quality of life. This in turn can have better outcomes for society. Currently older people contribute between £40-61 billion a year through volunteering, unpaid care and employment. This could continue to grow if we are given greater opportunities to get out and about on foot more easily. 

When such small changes could have such a significant impact, is there any reason not to start now?