Benefits of staying active

Physical activity is good for your mental and physical health. It can lower your risk of developing - or help you manage - many health conditions. These include 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.

Being physically active can make a big difference to your quality of life. It can:

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

Staying active will help you do simple things more easily, such as getting washed and dressed, playing with grandchildren or walking to the shops. 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 can help you to stay independent and healthy, and enjoy life more. Physical activity is anything that gets your body moving – things like gardening, walking, doing housework or taking the stairs instead of the lift.

Exercise is more structured and repetitive. It includes activities like tai chi, yoga, chair aerobics and cycling. As you get older, it’s especially important to do exercises that improve muscle strength, balance and flexibility.

How to get started

Start small and try to build exercise into your normal activities. For example, you could do some light stretching while you watch TV or get off the bus one stop earlier and walk 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. 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 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.

How much should you do?

Government guidelines set out how much you should do. You can find the physical activity guidelines for older adults on the NHS website.

Aim to do something every day and ideally 2 ½ hours (150 minutes) of moderate activity over a week. But anything is better than nothing. Start small and build up gradually.

Light activity

This means moving instead of sitting or lying down. For example, getting up to make a cup of tea, doing some light housework or going for a gentle walk.

Moderate activity 

This includes things like brisk walking, cycling, ballroom dancing and swimming. You should get warmer, breathe harder and your heart will beat faster. You should still be able to carry on a normal conversation.

Vigorous activity

If you’re already active, you should do 75 minutes of vigorous activity over a week. Or a combination of vigorous and moderate activity. Vigorous activity will cause you to get warmer, breathe much harder and your heart will beat rapidly. It should be difficult to carry on a normal conversation. Examples include climbing stairs, playing sport or 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. You can break this up into shorter 10-minute sessions. You could try 10 Today, a set of exercise routines designed by and for older people.

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

Exercise for strength, balance and flexibility

If possible, you should also do exercises that improve strength, balance and flexibility. Before you start, it’s important to warm up. Wear loose, comfortable clothing, drink plenty of water and cool down afterwards.

Muscle strengthening exercises

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

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

If you can, 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

These can give you more confidence and reduce your risk of having falls. They help to improve your posture and the quality of your walking. Examples include:

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

Improving your flexibility 

This 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, or tying your shoelaces. Activities to improve your flexibility include:

  • stretching
  • yoga
  • Pilates
  • bowls.

You can find more information on the NHS website, including a series of fitness guides for older people.

What are the risks?

Many people fear that exercise will do more harm than good. But the risks of doing exercise - if introduced gradually and done correctly - are low. Our bodies are designed to move and not doing any exercise carries far more risk. Too much time spent sitting, watching TV, reading or travelling by car, bus or train can lead to a loss of physical and mental function.

If you haven’t been active 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. Stop if you experience any of the following while exercising:

  • 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 make your condition worse. Limited mobility doesn’t mean you can’t exercise and exercises can be adapted. For example, you could 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.

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. You may be able to refer yourself directly by using the postcode search on the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists website. Self-referral isn't available in all areas.

If you’re disabled, you can find information about getting active on the Activity Alliance website and 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 that condition, such as:

Next steps

You can find out more about getting fit for free on the NHS website

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

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