Getting fit and staying fit after 50
The latest figures tell us that life expectancy at birth in the UK stands at 79 years for men and 82.9 years for women1. And those figures are likely to rise, with many of those born today expected to live to 90 or more. While that may be positive news, it does also raise many questions, one of which is: how do you stay fit, active and healthy the longer you live?
As we get older, there is a tendency to slow down and see retirement as a chance to kick back and take life at a more relaxed pace. That’s a fine aspiration up to a point, but as you age, your metabolism also slows down (making it easier to put on weight), you lose muscle mass and your cardiovascular fitness declines.
These changes can have knock-on effects on your health. Just over half of people aged 65-74 live with at least one long term health condition, like diabetes, heart disease and dementia, and this increases to nearly two thirds of those aged 85 and over2. The good news is that taking a little extra care of yourself and increasing your activity levels can have a truly positive impact on your health and help slow down the ageing process.
There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that making certain lifestyle changes in mid-life and beyond can help maintain your health in body and mind. These changes can lower the chance of you losing independence as you grow older. And you’re never too old to get started. Remember, staying fit as you age is not just about adding years to your life, but adding life to those years.
Cutting back on unhealthy behaviours
The first step to improving your fitness is to look at whether you can reduce any unhealthy habits.
Smoking – it’s believed you can lose up to two months of life expectancy for every year you keep smoking3, so it’s never too late to stop.
Drinking too much – not that you should stop altogether, but take note of the maximum number of units recommended, and try to stick within them.
Improving diet and keeping to a healthy weight – as your metabolism slows, you may find it much easier to put on weight. And keeping track of calories can do a lot towards reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
What are the benefits of exercise for the over-50s?
Losing weight, or staying at a healthy weight – regular exercise will help you burn off calories and increase muscle mass.
Reduces the threat of illness and disease – exercise can increase the effectiveness of your immune system - especially during winter, reduce high blood pressure, protect your hearing for longer and increase the density of your bones, all of which can make you much less prone to illness.
Improves mobility, flexibility and balance – building the strength and flexibility of muscles can improve your posture, alleviate some symptoms of conditions like arthritis and can help to cope with menopause symptoms.
Gains in mental health – from sleeping better to feeling more alert and full of self-confidence, there are even suggestions it slows the progression of problems like dementia4.
What should you include in your exercise plan?
This uses your bigger muscles in repetitive movements for a period of time, to get you out of breath and your heart rate up. Cycling, rowing, running, walking and climbing stairs are all cardio workouts. Regular cardio workouts can improve your stamina, and help you do much more without feeling tired of getting short of breath.
Builds muscle through using free weights (dumbbells and barbells), body weight (press-ups, for example), weight machines and elastic exercise bands. It will also increase bone strength, making you less liable to breaks and fractures, and give you the ability to open the most stubborn jam jar. Take care to avoid injuring yourself – start off with light weights and build up, and focus on correct form to keep from straining your back and joints.
Flexibility and balance
Stretching and testing the range of motion of your whole body, through disciplines like dance, yoga and tai chi can improve your posture and make you more limber.
Getting started on exercise for the over-50s
Before you start any kind of exercise programme, you should consult your GP, especially if you know of any existing conditions.
If it’s been a while since you last exercised or it’s not something you’ve ever really done, you should work your way up to a more strenuous work-outs slowly and steadily. There’s no such thing as doing too little – in fact, if you’ve been inactive for a long time you have the most to gain. Even starting to be moderately active could result in big health benefits.
It might be worth asking a trainer at your local gym for help in setting up a workable daily routine for you.
Finally, pay attention to your body. If you’re in pain, start to feel dizzy or feel in any way uncomfortable as you exercise, stop and seek medical help if necessary. But also take note the positive changes in your body, your increased stamina and how you feel in yourself.
Sticking with it
Once you’ve got started, the challenge is to keep going and stay motivated. There are ways to maintain that focus:
Set yourself challenges – then you’ll always have a new goal to aim for. Keep them short-term and achievable, so you’re always winning, and ready to move on to the next one.
Reward yourself – something to look forward to after your workout, even if it’s just a coffee in a favourite café.
Exercise with a friend – working out with someone else can help keep you motivated, whether it’s because you have someone to compete against, or whether it’s just more fun having someone to chat to as you go.
With luck and determination, over time you should grow in confidence and notice how things that might once have seemed daunting tasks now come much more easily to you. You might even find other people remarking on the difference in you.
Look after your loved ones, too, with over 50s life insurance
Keeping yourself healthy and active can help you maintain your independence throughout your life, and that can save your loved ones a lot of worry. You can help look out for them in another way, too – our Over 50s Fixed Life Insurance could allow you to leave them a fixed cash sum when you pass away, which could be used to help towards your funeral costs or be left as a gift.
Find out more about Over 50s Fixed Life Insurance
2Figure from Age UK - State of Health and Care of Older People FINAL (ageuk.org.uk)
4University of Cambridge: One in three cases of Alzheimer’s worldwide potentially preventable, new estimate suggests – https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/one-in-three-cases-of-alzheimers-worldwide-potentially-preventable-new-estimate-suggests