It’s an unfortunate fact that increasing age leads to a decrease in muscle mass, strength and the capacity for exercise. But, don’t despair, all is not lost! Age is no barrier to physical activity and the rate of decline can be slowed significantly through exercise.
“Physical activity can help maintain aerobic capacity, muscle mass, mobility and stability, making both exercise and daily life easier and more enjoyable,” says Professor Greg Whyte OBE, from Liverpool John Moores University. Unfortunately, over the past 20-30 years there has been a decrease in physical activity as part of our daily lives, with fewer manual jobs, less physically active elements of housework and a greater reliance on cars. Yet physical activity is such a fundamental human behaviour that it is able to influence most major body systems. In fact, increased levels of activity and fitness are linked to a reduction in the development of over 20 chronic diseases including:
- Cardiovascular disease
Why is exercise harder now I’m older?
“As we get older, our co-ordination, flexibility, strength, speed and endurance decline,” explains Professor Whyte. “Our maximum aerobic capacity – how fit we are – declines at a rate of 8-10% per decade once we hit our thirties. This is a result of reduced output from body systems – including the heart – and also reduced muscle mass (a condition termed ‘sarcopenia’, which appear to accelerate rapidly after the age of 50)’
What about joint pain?
Amongst the chronic disease to which we are all susceptible, arthritis is the most common. “Arthritis often leads to a reduction in physical activity because of the associated pain that comes with movement,” adds Professor Whyte. “However, reduced levels of physical activity accelerate its progression. While joint pain is increased when the affected joint is used, maintaining activity is important in protecting it, reducing pain and maintaining mobility.”
To keep moving and minimise pain, opt for low impact activities that don’t stress the joints (so no skipping, jogging or bungee-jumping please!). Even if it’s a bit painful to start with, targeted exercise can reduce joint stiffness, pain and the inflammation associated with arthritic conditions. Walking and swimming or other water-based exercises (like aqua aerobics) are perfect. Taking breaks from long-periods of sitting so that joints don’t become stiff and painful is important. “And consider taking a regular glucosamine supplement which may help reduce stiffness and pain in your joints,” says Head of Nutrition for Healthspan, Robert Hobson.
What exercises should you do?
There is growing evidence about the benefits of shorter bouts of physical activity spread throughout the day. “For example, rather than trying to achieve the recommended 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a day, you can split this up into six, five-minute or three ten-minute bouts spread throughout the day,” says Professor Whyte.
Professor Whyte recommends varied activities. “This could take many forms, ranging from housework and gardening to running and swimming. A programme which includes a combination stability, flexibility, strength and aerobic activity will have the greatest impact.”