Age and Exercise: Over 60

Many people aged 60 and over simply do not exercise. The stereotype of an elderly person dozing in an armchair illustrates the general expectation that older people inevitably lead sedentary lives. However, exercise can be crucial in helping people maintain mobility and independence as they grow older. Men in their 70s can increase muscle bulk and strength by as much as 20 per cent. Studies have shown that even people in their 80s and 90s can get fitter and stronger.

Minimizing bone loss continues to be a concern, so aerobic exercise is important, although high-impact exercise can cause problems with the joints, which start stiffening up as cartilage wears thin. A major priority in later life is maintaining flexibility. Exercise is also helpful as a means of combating the mood swings and depression that may occur as people get older.

At this stage of life, it may be healthier to be a few pounds overweight than underweight, but that does not mean cutting back on aerobic exercise.

Designing an age and exercise or fitness programme for the over 60s

By the age of 70 the maximum heart rate is down to 150 and lung capacity is almost halved as the lungs lose elasticity and the chest cavity decreases in size. Intensity will therefore be reduced during aerobic work. This loss should ideally be compensated for by a further increase in time spent exercising, with plenty of weight-bearing activity to minimize bone loss. Activities that involve controlled breathing, such as singing, can also be helpful at this age.

Reducing intensity means changing from running to jogging or from jogging to brisk walking or any rhythmic activity that can be sustained for up to 50 minutes three to five times a week. These changes protect the joints. For many older people, walking becomes the mainstay of an exercise programme. Fast swimming is excellent aerobic exercise and does not jar the joints; aquaerobics is also popular with people in this age range. As swimming is not weight-bearing, however, aerobic exercise should not be limited to this activity alone. Dancing with a partner is a very sociable form of aerobic exercise, but sufficient intensity should be maintained.

It is not necessary to exercise in one single session during the day. Short periods (5-10 minutes) of moderate activity can contribute towards a daily total. Everyday activities such as walking up stairs, gardening and carrying out household tasks, such as cleaning or making beds, count as moderate exercise and can be included in the total. Of course, if an individual has maintained a good level of fitness over the years and is capable of more vigorous exercise, then there is no reason why she should not keep this up. For weight loss, long periods of lower-intensity exercise are more effective at burning fat than short bursts of higher-intensity exercise. A heart rate monitor can help people to keep within their correct training zone.

Up to 30 per cent of muscle may have been lost by the age of 70 and what is left may start to atrophy (waste away). This can have a negative impact not only on strength and stamina, but also on self-confidence.

Muscular training to build strength therefore becomes more important with each decade that passes, and should be included in an individual’s exercise regime at least twice a week.

Flexibility also becomes increasingly important with the passing years. At this age, feeling stiff after a night’s sleep is not uncommon, and it may be best not to exercise until later in the day. Stretching, before and after exercise, is vital to protect against injury. Yoga is excellent for improving and maintaining all-round strength and suppleness. Some Yoga classes are run specifically for older people.