Benefits of staying active

Physical activity can lower your risk of developing - or help you manage - many chronic health conditions, including coronary heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, obesity and arthritis. It can also reduce the risk of depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Exercise is also good for your mental wellbeing. It can:

  • improve your mood
  • increase self-esteem
  • give a sense of achievement
  • help you relax
  • relieve stress.

Being physically active can make a big difference to your quality of life. It can give you more energy and means being able to do simple things more easily, such as getting washed and dressed, playing with grandchildren, walking to the shops, and staying socially connected. Taking part in a sport or exercise class can also be a good way to meet people and have fun.

What kind of activity?

Both physical activity and exercise will help you enjoy life more and stay independent and healthy. Physical activity means adding more movement to your life. There are many ways to be more physically active, such as gardening, walking or simply taking the stairs instead of the lift.

Exercise is more structured and repetitive and includes things like tai chi, yoga, chair aerobics and cycling.

It’s especially important to do exercises that improve muscle strength, balance and flexibility as you get older. These exercises can help you stay fit, mobile and independent and they can also reduce your risk of falls and fractures.

How much should you do?

Government guidelines describe the amount of activity needed to achieve health benefits, but anything is better than nothing.

Aim to do something every day and ideally 2 ½ hours (150 minutes) of moderate activity over a week. Moderate activity means you should get warmer, breathe harder and your heart will beat faster but you should still be able to carry on a normal conversation. Examples include:

  • brisk walking
  • cycling
  • ballroom dancing
  • swimming.

If you’re already active, you should do 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity or a combination of vigorous and moderate activity over a week. Vigorous activity will cause you to get warmer, breathe much harder and your heart will beat rapidly, making it difficult to carry on a normal conversation. Examples include:

  • climbing stairs
  • playing sport
  • using cardiovascular gym equipment such as a treadmill or cross trainer.

One approach is to do 30 minutes on at least five days a week and you can break this up into shorter 10 minute sessions. You can find the physical activity guidelines for older adults on the NHS website.

Your local council should have information about exercise groups in your area. You could also contact Extend or your local Age UK may offer exercise classes, including exercise at home.

Exercise for strength, balance and flexibility

If possible, you should do exercises that improve strength, balance and flexibility in addition to the 150 minutes of recommended exercise and physical activity. Before you start, it’s important to warm up. You should also wear loose, comfortable clothing, drink plenty of water and cool down afterwards.

Muscle strengthening exercises help to make everyday activities much easier, such as opening jars, getting up from chairs or lifting objects. They are also important for:

  • all daily movement
  • building and maintaining strong bones
  • regulating blood sugar and blood pressure
  • maintaining a healthy weight.

You should try to do muscle-strengthening activities twice a week, such as:

  • carrying heavy shopping
  • heavy gardening
  • working with resistance bands
  • using free weights  (soup cans that fit into your hands will do)
  • activities that involve stepping and jumping, such as dancing
  • chair aerobics.

Exercises that improve your balance and coordination can give you more confidence and reduce your risk of having falls. They also help to improve your posture and the quality of your walking.

Activities that help to improve balance include:

  • tai chi
  • yoga
  • pilates
  • dance
  • bowls
  • posture exercises.

Improving your flexibility can help your body to stay supple and increase your range of movement. That will help you carry on doing things like washing your hair, getting dressed, tying your shoelaces or playing with grandchildren.

The kind of activities that will improve your flexibility include:

  • stretching
  • yoga
  • pilates
  • bowls.

If you haven’t exercised for a while, you should check with your GP first and build up slowly.

You can find more information on the NHS website, including a step-by-step guide to exercise for older people.

If your mobility is limited, you can still lift weights, stretch or do chair aerobics. Water-based activities, such as water aerobics, are also good because they reduce the stress and strain on your body’s joints. Many swimming pools offer access to wheelchair users.

What are the risks?

Many people are afraid of doing exercise because they fear it will do more harm than good but the risks of doing exercise - if introduced gradually - are low. Your body is designed to move and not doing any exercise carries far more risk. Too much time spent watching TV, reading or travelling by car, bus or train can lead to a loss of physical and mental function.

If you’ve been inactive for a while, you should increase the amount and intensity of your activity in stages. Talk to your GP if you have any concerns or want advice about getting started.

It’s important to listen to your body. If you experience any of the following while exercising, you should stop:

  • chest pains
  • dizziness or feeling faint
  • shortage of breath
  • nausea
  • pain or discomfort.

Exercise if you have health or mobility problems

If you have a health condition or mobility problems, it’s important to stay active. Long periods of sitting can lead to further loss of function. Limited mobility doesn’t mean you can’t exercise and exercises can be adapted.

Talk to your GP about how much and what sort of exercise you can do, as well as what to avoid. Your GP may refer you to a physiotherapist who can work out a fitness plan for you.

The English Federation of Disability Sport has a number of useful resources about accessible sport and you can also find information about getting involved in sport in the Disability Rights UK publication Doing Sport Differently.

If you’re living with a long-term condition you may be able to get fitness advice from a charity or organisation that deals with your specific condition, such as Arthritis Research UK, Parkinson's UK and the Alzheimer's Society.

How to get started

Start small and try to build exercise into your normal activities, for example by doing some light stretching when watching TV or getting off the bus one stop earlier and walking the rest of the way.

You don’t have to buy expensive equipment or join a gym. There are many other activities you can do, such as playing bowls or dancing. Walking is one of the best ways to improve your fitness and it’s cheap and accessible. Contact Walking for Health for ways to get started.

Tips for maintaining a healthy habit:

  • set realistic goals
  • do something you enjoy
  • do it regularly
  • focus on the benefits
  • listen to music while you exercise
  • use a DVD or computer exercise game to practise
  • get support by exercising with a friend or joining a class - many gyms and leisure centres offer exercise classes specifically designed for older people.
  • stick with it – it takes about a month to create a habit – and don’t be too hard on yourself if you skip a few sessions. Just start over and build up the habit again.

Next steps

You can find out more about exercise and fitness on the NHS website

The BBC Get Inspired website has an activity finder and guides to many different fitness activities

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