Being physically active offers many health benefits throughout life. Even in older age, increasing activity levels can improve life expectancy and increase the number of years spent disease and disability free.
Being physically active can:
- increase life expectancy
- help protect against heart disease, stroke, diabetes, some cancers, depression and dementia
- help you to keep a good appetite
- help you to keep mobile
- help with joint stiffness and pain associated with arthritis
- reduce bone loss and strengthen muscle – reducing your risk of falling and fracturing bones
- improve your mood and sense of wellbeing
The recommendation for older people is the same as for younger adults – at least 150 minutes of moderate activity a week in bouts of 10 minutes or more. One way to achieve this is to do 30 minutes of activity five days a week.
For those already doing physical activity, similar benefits can be gained from doing 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity.
People have different capabilities when it comes to being physically active, so it is important to consider what is right for you. Many older adults are already quite active, whereas others may have mobility issues or health conditions that limit the types of activities they can do.
Physical activity does not need to be strenuous to bring health benefits - what's important is to include it as part of your regular routine. Even small changes each day will help – for example you could take the stairs instead of the lift, walk to the shops instead of driving, or go for short walks. In general, the more physically active you are, the greater the benefits. However, if you have not been particularly active in the past, you should start gradually and build up the amount you do to minimise the risk of injury.
You might feel like it is a challenge, but we can all benefit from some regular physical activity, however small.
The benefits of different types of activity
Cardiovascular activities (those that get you at least slightly out of breath) will help to keep your heart, lungs and blood vessels healthy. These include:
- brisk walking (such as walking the dog)
- aerobics, including water aerobics
- washing the car
Muscle-strengthening exercises help to limit the losses in muscle and bone mass that happen as we age, reducing the risk of falling and improve ability to perform daily tasks. Try to do these types of activity twice a week. Incorporating all these types of activity into your routine can help you keep your independence as you get older.
- climbing stairs
- walking uphill
- digging the garden
- resistance exercises or using weights
- carrying, for example shopping, gardening tools or even grandchildren!
Older adults at risk of falls should incorporate physical activity to improve balance and co-ordination on at least two days a week.
Balancing activities include:
- Tai Chi
- bowls (indoor and outdoor)
- stretching exercises
All adults could benefit from spending less time in sedentary activity, so it is a good idea to reduce the amount of time spent watching the TV, take regular short walks around the garden or street and break up long bus or car journeys by walking part of the way.
Here are some examples of how some people got started.
It’s all about confidence…
John suffered a mild heart attack at the age of 71 and was told by his doctor he needed to be more physically active. At first, he was worried that doing anything strenuous might bring on another heart attack, but his GP reassured him that if he started slowly and built up gradually, he’d feel better. John was referred to the local community sports centre where he met an instructor who developed a programme specially for him. He started attending twice a week and his programme included walking and stationary cycling on an exercise bike, as well as some exercises to build his strength and flexibility. He was shown how to monitor his heart rate to make sure he was doing the right level of activity and was reassured, by meeting other people with similar heart problems, that his health would benefit from the effort he put in.
After a couple of months, John was enjoying being more active and felt fitter and less out of breath when he was doing simple tasks around the house or walking. He’d developed confidence in his programme and started to swim and walk regularly as well. He was delighted to find that he had lost a bit of weight and he made some great new friends who he looked forward to seeing at the community centre.
You are never too old…
Margaret used to love swimming but thought she’d grown too old for it. She had stopped visiting her local pool over 10 years ago as she had become increasingly self-conscious about her age and her body shape. At the age of 68 she was diagnosed with mild arthritis and her GP suggested that swimming would be beneficial. She contacted her local pool and discovered that it offered special free sessions for the over 60s, as well as women only sessions. She now attends regularly (at least twice a week) and really enjoys it. It’s helped ease the symptoms of her arthritis, she’s lost some weight and made new friends.
Dental problems are common in later life and can affect the foods we eat. Hard-to-chew foods are often replaced by soft foods, which may restrict the amount of choice and variety in the diet, potentially limiting nutrient intake. Ill-fitting dentures can also make it uncomfortable to eat. If you have any questions about denture care, speak to your dentist.
Try to keep sugar containing foods and drinks to mealtimes. Chewing sugar-free gum can help to protect teeth and, of course, brush them regularly with a fluoride toothpaste and visit the dentist for regular check-ups.
As we age, we become more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. We are also more likely to react more slowly and lose our sense of balance which can make us more unsteady and likely to fall. So even if we drink the same amount of alcohol, it is likely to affect an older person more than a younger person.
There are no specific recommendations for the older person. The Department of Health and Social Care recommends that men and women should not regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week. If you do drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread this evenly over three days or more.
Alcoholic drinks can be enjoyed and are unlikely to be harmful for most people within these limits. There is even some evidence that moderate drinking may be protective against heart disease.
But very little research has been done, and there are some particular problems for the older person. For example, health problems in older age can make us more susceptible to alcohol and can interfere with the effectiveness of many medicines. Check with your doctor about whether it is safe for you to drink with your particular health problem or medication.
Drinking too much alcohol can damage many parts of the body and increase the risk of health problems including:
- damage of the stomach lining and gastrointestinal tract bleeding (the gastrointestinal tract is the passage that extends all the way from the mouth to the anus)
- cirrhosis of the liver
- mouth, stomach and liver
- malnutrition - alcohol has calories but cannot provide the essential nutrients a balanced varied diet provides to keep us healthy
- mental health including anxiety, depression, confusion and dementia
If you think you may be drinking too much, talk to a health professional. There is support available.
Smoking is one of the biggest causes of death and illness in the UK.
Smoking speeds up the biological ageing process, increasing the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, cataracts and other age-related diseases. It also causes premature skin ageing and increases risk of eye damage and poor gum health. Stopping smoking improves health at any age.
Smoking may affect the way the body absorbs nutrients. For example, smoking affects the absorption of vitamin C from foods and vitamin C is used up in the body more quickly in those who smoke.
- Being underweight or overweight can be bad for your health.
- Being underweight can make it difficult for your body to fight infections or illness and puts you at risk of fracturing bones if you fall. For more information about being underweight go to our malnutrition section.
- Carrying around excess weight, particularly around the waist, may increase your risk of developing heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.
What is a healthy weight?
Weight alone does not consider a person’s height. In view of this, weight is usually converted to body mass index or BMI (weight (kg)/height (m2)).
- As we get older our energy needs can decrease so it can be easier to gain weight.
- Our body composition changes, and we tend to lose muscle and gain fat. As fat requires less energy than muscle to function our energy needs to drop.
- Many people also become less physically active as they age.
- If you're using fewer calories and you haven't changed your diet, this will lead to weight gain.
- Hormonal changes as we get older also mean we become more likely to lay fat around the middle.
- So keep an eye on your weight as you get older – it’s easy for it to creep up gradually without noticing.
Getting enough good quality sleep can become more difficult as we get older as sleeping problems are common. But getting a good night’s rest is essential for our health and wellbeing.
Most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night. Aiming for a regular bedtime routine can help you to wind down and relax. Try to keep to regular times for when you go to bed and wake up. There are also several things you can do to help prepare for a relaxing night's sleep, including:
- Have a regular bedtime routine, such as relaxing with a book, listening to the radio or having a bath.
- Make sure that your bed and bedding are comfortable.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol in the evening.
- Do not eat a heavy meal late at night.
- Keep your bedroom cool and dark – ideally between 18°C and 24°C.
- Avoid using your mobile phone, tablet or watching TV for an hour or so before going to bed, as the light from the screen can have a negative effect on your sleep.
- Try to avoid napping during the day. If you do enjoy a daytime nap, try to keep this to roughly the same time each day.
Some research suggests that keeping active physically, mentally and socially is important for good cognitive health (the ability to think, learn, and remember). Simple things like games, puzzles, reading or even taking a new route to the shops will keep your mind active and engaged.
Information reviewed June 2014. Revised February 2016.
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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any personal advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.