By Kirsty Welsh
There are many benefits of exercise for the over 50s that make scheduling regular workouts a priority once you enter this stage of life.
For those aged 50-plus, exercise is the some of the best medication out there. It's no secret that movement is the key to keeping fit and healthy, or that calorie burn is key when it comes to weight management.
That's not to mention that regular workouts can help prevent certain diseases and health issues or negate their effects. Even better, physical activity is also an instant mood booster, making it’s great for mental wellbeing too.
Before we address the benefits of exercise for the over 50s, it's good to have an idea of just how much exercise older adults should be taking.
The US government's Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans state that all adults - including those over 50 - should do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week (a figure backed up by the UK's NHS), along with muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week.
Aerobic activities are those that raise your heart rate, such as walking, running, swimming, cycling, as well as sports such as tennis and basketball, and exercise classes such as HIIT workouts and Zumba.
Muscle-strengthening activities involve resistance training, whether that's a bodyweight workout, or one involving equipment such as the best resistance bands or a set of dumbbells.
However, before you rush to lace up your best workout shoes and book into the next exercise class you can find, do take time to consider the type of exercise you’re going to do. Ensure that any activity you undertake is suitable for your ability and any health conditions you may be experiencing. This is vital in order to prevent injury.
That said, with the help of good instruction and form, you can certainly enjoy these long-term benefits of exercise in your 50s and beyond.
1. Helps maintain a healthy weight
It's an unfortunate fact that the body's metabolism decreases with age. The decline in metabolism typically begins in our 20s. By the time you reach your 50s a combination of reduced muscle mass and typically being less active mean it will have slowed further. This makes it much harder to keep weight off at this age, especially without regular exercise.
At the same time, healthy weight maintenance is essential to reduce the risk of developing a raft of serious diseases and health conditions. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.
Amber Gamble, a fitness trainer and studio manager at F45, recommends weekly HIIT workouts to counter-act a slowing metabolism, saying: ‘Intense exercises like HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts are extremely effective for counteracting the deterioration of your body’s functionality as you get older.'
'HIIT in particular is designed to speed up your metabolism, so that your body is still burning calories even after your workout has ended, helping you stay healthy and manage your weight.'
2. Reduces the risk of certain illnesses
Gamble goes on to explain how beneficial regular exercise can be in relation to serious illness. ‘Exercise can also help to stop or delay, and sometimes improve serious illnesses like heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, arthritis, and osteoporosis, which often worsen as you age.’
3. Helps maintain and improve posture
Our posture naturally changes as we age (it's one of the reasons we often decrease in height over time), but some posture-related problems can lead to issues including breathing difficulties, balance issues and challenges living our day-to-day lives.
If you're looking to improve posture over the age of 50, regular exercise is key - especially strength training that works your core and back.
Poonam Shah, senior osteopath at Medical Home Visit Marylebone, explains: 'Through exercise, a strong core keeps your back safe from injury, helps your body balance and allows you to move with control and efficiency.
'A strong back is also an important part of posture. A common cause of poor posture is weak upper back muscles, which lead to shoulder slumping/rounded shoulders and very tight pectoral (chest muscles).'
Shah recommends trying weightlifting, which can strengthen your upper body muscles, specifically your shoulders and trapezius muscles. In turn, this allows your upper body and neck to be properly supported.'
Consult with a personal trainer to get started, or book an induction at your local gym. Alternatively, invest in a set of home weights to workout at home - we've helpfully selected the best adjustable dumbbells and the best kettlebells for home use.
4. Boosts the immune system
Cellular changes that occur as we age result in a decline in immune function, leaving older adults more susceptible to viruses.
However, regular exercise can help protect and improve the immune system, linked to the fact that it helps support the production of white blood cells. 'The most notable of these are T Cells,' says Shah. 'These can identify viruses and bacteria and bind to them in order to kill them off.
'It's a defence mechanism that works fairly well in keeping the body free from the likes of colds and flu.'
5. Improves circulation
Constant numbness and tingling in your hands and feet? This could be down to poor circulation, which can be caused by health conditions such as diabetes, obesity and peripheral arterial disease, amongst others.
‘Exercise is really good for improving our circulation, meaning white blood cells are able to move more easily around the body,' Shah says. 'This means they are better able to reach pathogens and viruses and tackle infection.'
Research suggests that HIIT training could actually boost the production of white blood cells more than moderate level of continuous aerobic workouts.
6. Decreases the risk of falls
As we age, the more at-risk we are of falling due to poor balance caused by muscle weakness - which can lead to serious health consequences.
‘Regular exercise can help to improve strength and flexibility, which has a positive impact on balance and coordination, subsequently reducing the risk of falls,' explains Gamble.
Indeed, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans specifically state that older adults should incorporate balance training into their workout regime. These exercises - such as single leg raises, tightrope walks (which don't actually involve a tightrope!) or moves involving a wobble board) - improve stability and help avoid falls.
Exercises that strengthen the core also contribute to improved balance, such as yoga and Pilates. 'These classes focus on unilateral movements which work on one side of the body at a time, and this helps improve and maintain balance and coordination,' explains Katie Anderson, Head of Training at FLY LDN.
She also recommends compound exercises, which work more than one muscle group at a time and help connect the mind, body and movement, further boosting coordination. So try rolling out your best yoga mat for a spot of yoga or Pilates, or else take a look at our list of the best workouts for abs.
7. Improves muscle mass
Muscle mass - simply the amount of muscle in your body - is another physical factor that declines as we age. According to a scientific review of muscle tissue changes associated with ageing, muscle mass decreases approximately 3–8% per decade from the age of 30 onwards, and this rate of decline is even higher after the age of 60.
Muscles aren't just important for fitness - they also play a key role in everyday life, allowing us to move freely and perform day-to-day tasks such as carrying shopping bags.
What's more, a 2018 medical review looking at low-muscle mass in relation to patients in clinical settings noted: "Low muscle mass is associated with outcomes such as higher surgical and post-operative complications, longer length of hospital stay, lower physical function, poorer quality of life and shorter survival."
Handily, regular exercise can help you build and even regain muscle strength in later life. ‘Weight-bearing exercises like resistance training, walking or jogging can help to increase muscle strength and reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis and fracturing bones if you do happen to injure yourself,’ says Gamble.
8. Keeps the heart healthy
You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘keep your heart healthy’ and this becomes more fact than fiction when you consider that regular exercise helps prevent heart disease.
Good heart health becomes increasingly important as we age, in order to maintain low cholesterol levels and avoid serious health issues - and exercise plays a key role in this.
‘When we exercise the heart, it pumps more blood per beat, in turn keeping our heart rate down and helping towards lower blood pressure,' explains Anderson.
'Overall, this helps prevent high cholesterol and blood clots, and helps keep weight under control. Most importantly, a healthy heart has less chance of having a heart attack or stroke.’
9. Keeps bones strong
According to John Hopkins Medicine, over the age of 50 bone breakdown outpaces bone formation, which leads to a deterioration in bone density. This results in those aged 50+ being more prone to fractures and breaks, which occur in one in two women and one in five men over 50. It's more of an issue for women due to the effects of menopause.
‘To keep our bones strong we have to add load, which means doing weight-bearing exercise,' says Anderson. 'The thought might be daunting but rest assured, lifting weights is low impact and completely safe for all ages.
'In addition, simple walking, cycling and an aerobics classes will fall under weight bearing exercises and can help to build and maintain muscle strength.'
10. Improves sleep patterns
It's a fact of life that the older we get, the worse we sleep - a fact backed up by a 2018 medical review, which presented evidence that ageing impacts the quality and quantity of sleep.
Poor sleep can in turn have various negative impacts, including decreased concentration and reduced immunity, as well as making you more prone to weight gain and at risk of conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
However, studies have linked increased physical activity to better sleep. Anderson concurs: ‘Exercising regularly throughout the week will help you to get to sleep and stay asleep. My biggest advice would be to pick what suits your body, age and enjoyment. Small bouts of regular, efficient exercise will leave you sleeping like a baby.’
11. Maintains social interaction
‘Whether it be a group fitness class or a walking group, exercise can be made into a fun and social event,' says Gamble.
'These social ties are extremely important as you get older, as it gives you a sense of purpose and avoids feelings of loneliness and isolation.’
Indeed, in a report on 'active ageing', the World Health Organization highlighted how loneliness and social isolation (amongst other factors) greatly increase older people’s risks for disabilities and early death.
What's more, a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine found that group-based exercise significantly reduced mental health issues such as anxiety when in comparison to home-based exercise.
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