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Staying active

There’s no doubt that keeping active makes us feel more energetic. But there are other more specific benefits, including helping to:

  • manage high blood pressure and angina
  • keep you at a healthy weight
  • maintain regular bowel movements
  • stimulate a poor appetite
  • strengthen muscles and bones, reducing the risk of falls and fractures
  • ease discomfort if you have arthritis or Parkinson’s.

Regular exercise also boosts the brain chemicals that lift your mood and make you feel happy – so it can be a good way to deal with stress and anxiety.

The 4 building blocks to being active

Developing and maintaining stamina, strength, flexibility and balance are particularly important as you get older, and can help you carry out everyday tasks more easily, as well as enjoy activities more.

Stamina helps you to walk longer distances, swim and mow the lawn.

Strength helps you to climb stairs, carry shopping, rise from a chair and open a container.

Flexibility helps you to bend, get in and out of a car, wash your hair and get dressed.

Balance helps you to walk and climb steps confidently, stand from a sitting position and respond quickly if you trip.

Any amount of extra activity that’s appropriate for your age group and health makes a difference. If you’re generally fit and have no health conditions that limit your ability to move around, the Government recommends that you build up to doing two-and-a-half hours of moderate activity each week, plus two sessions of muscle-strengthening activity a week.

Moderate activities

Moderate activity may leave you feeling warm and a little breathless. It can include:

  • walking fast
  • cycling on level ground
  • playing a motion sensor game on a computer console like a Wii or Xbox
  • hand washing the car.

Exercises that help strengthen your muscles can include dancing, heavy gardening and yoga. Lifting bags of shopping or weights can help to strengthen the muscles in your arms and wrists.

Age UK has a tabletop flip chart available to order with exercises to help improve your strength and balance, including exercises that you can do while sitting down – call 0800 169 6565 to order.

More vigorous activity

If you’re already active, you can improve your fitness and health by doing 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week. This can include:

  • running
  • cycling fast or up hills
  • climbing stairs
  • playing tennis or football.

Medical note

If you haven’t been very active before, always build up gradually and speak to your GP before increasing your activity levels significantly.

Everyday activities, such as shopping and housework, don’t count towards your two-and-a-half hours of moderate activity as they don’t increase your heart rate enough – but doing any activity is better than none at all.

Which exercise might suit you?

Different activities bring a different range of benefits, so try a variety of things. Finding something you enjoy means you’re more likely to do it regularly.

Activity/excercise Flexibility Strength Stamina Balance
Brisk walking   ü ü ü
Climbing stairs   ü ü  
Swimming ü   ü  
Dancing ü   ü ü
Bowls or golf ü   ü ü
Yoga ü ü   ü
Tai chi ü   ü ü

You don’t have to be moving around to benefit from exercise. Chair-based exercises, which you can do sitting or holding on to the back of a chair, are ideal for improving muscle strength and flexibility. You can watch videos online that demonstrate chair-based exercises.

If you’re physically able, but find yourself sitting in front of the computer or television for hours at a time, try to break it up and build activity into your day.

Why not go for a short, brisk walk around the garden or in the street after writing an email or finishing another task where you’ve been sitting still.

However, if you have a health condition that makes moving about difficult or painful, such as Parkinson’s, arthritis or osteoporosis, always consult your GP for help in choosing the right exercise for you.

They may be able to suggest suitable activities and may know of special exercises or classes for people with these health conditions.

In some areas, your GP may be able to refer you to a structured exercise scheme, where trained instructors introduce you to exercise over a period of 12–20 weeks.

Smoking

Those of us who smoke know how unhealthy it is but, because we enjoy it, we find it difficult to give up. The encouraging news is that older smokers who decide to give up have been shown to be more successful at staying away from smoking than younger people.

Even after many years of smoking, it’s still worth giving up. Older people can expect a range of benefits if they stop smoking, and many of these benefits can be seen quite quickly. You are likely to:

  • be able to breathe easier
  • feel better overall
  • find that any existing heart and lung problems that you have are less likely to become serious
  • be less likely to have a stroke or heart and lung problems
  • recover more quickly after an operation
  • live longer.

The first step is to convince yourself that you would like to be a non-smoker. Why would being a non-smoker be right for you? Ask your GP practice about local one-to-one or group support to help you. Medication to stop smoking is available on prescription.

Healthy bones

Your bone health is largely influenced by your genes, but your lifestyle affects it too.

You can strengthen your bones by doing regular weightbearing activity(this means exercise where your legs and feet support your weight, such as walking, jogging and tennis) and by eating a healthy diet with plenty of calcium-rich foods, such as reduced-fat dairy products.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is also important for strong bones. Most of us get the vitamin D we need from regular exposure to summer sunshine rather than from food. Try to go outside every day from May to September without sunscreen for around ten minutes. Don’t let your skin redden or burn. Try to do this once or twice a day.

The Government recommends that certain groups of people take a vitamin D supplement of 10 µg daily, including people aged 65 and over. If you think you could be at risk of not getting enough vitamin D, particularly if you’re housebound or cover your skin for cultural reasons, raise this with your GP. Always speak to your GP before starting to take a vitamin D supplement or over-the-counter medicine on a daily basis.

Osteoporosis

Bone tends to become weaker as we age and everyone has some degree of bone loss as they get older. Osteoporosis is the term used when bone loss makes bones significantly more fragile. It commonly affects bones in the spine, wrists and hips and means that you are more likely to break a bone if you fall, or experience chronic pain if bones in your spine collapse.

You are more at risk of osteoporosis if you:

  • are female and had an early menopause or hysterectomy
  • have a parent who broke a hip, particularly after only a minor fall
  • have taken corticosteroid medication for a long time
  • are underweight or have suffered from an eating disorder
  • are/have been a smoker or heavy drinker
  • have a condition such as Crohn’s or coeliac disease
  • have a medical condition that means you are immobile for a long time.

Complete the healthy bones questionnaire on the National Osteoporosis Society’s website to discover which factors could affect your bone health. If you’re worried about osteoporosis, you can print out a factsheet based on your answers which you could take to your GP.

Mental wellbeing

Feeling well is not just about being physically fit and healthy – it’s equally important to your overall health that you feel good mentally.

Although the two can be linked, there are 4 key areas of your life that you should keep an eye on to make sure you keep a sense of mental wellbeing.

Social contact

Meeting friends, enjoying hobbies and getting involved in the local community, perhaps by volunteering, makes life fulfilling and helps us to feel good about ourselves and life in general. If you find that you’re not able to do the things that you used to, you may want to find new things you enjoy.

Spending time with other people can prevent you from feeling lonely or anxious and give you a chance to share experiences, thoughts and worries.

Stay in touch

If you have family and friends nearby, try to meet up with them regularly or ask them to call round. Otherwise, regular phone calls can help you to stay close.

The internet has opened up more opportunities to stay in contact, such as exchanging emails and using Skype to make video phone calls. Feeling that people care about you can make a big difference to your outlook.

If you aren’t confident using the internet, contact your local library for help - many offer training sessions and advice on getting online for older people.

Make plans

People can have mixed feelings about retirement, and you may feel your life lacks purpose without work. However, you may find that you have more time to do all the things that you never had time to do when you were working.

Setting yourself goals, however small, can give you a sense of achievement and motivation. Your goal could be anything from finishing a crossword puzzle or making a phone call to a friend, to doing some gardening or reading a chapter of a book.

Planning days out or arranging activities for the week or month ahead will give you something to look forward to and keep you feeling positive.

Take a break

Whether you work or not, it’s important for your mental and physical wellbeing to take breaks from your routine. If you’re on your own or your usual travel partner isn’t available, why not see whether your local older people's group or another local club organises group holidays?

For more information: Call Age NI Advice: 0808 808 7575

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