But as the body gets creakier and more dawdling, what exactly is deemed as safe practice? Should we really be aspiring to run marathons or pump up the pecs in our senior years?
Gray insists that we should. “It’s good to challenge yourself at any age. Post-pandemic, many older people lost their confidence around mixing with others and exercising. Closed local leisure facilities and isolation meant their routines were hijacked and good habits declined. Plus, there can be a default tendency to say: ‘I’m not fit enough, or I’m too old to do that’. One in four people in England live with a long-term health condition and are often twice as likely to be inactive – but research shows that exercise can actually reduce symptoms and relieve pain”.
But fear is part of the picture for some people. Sarah Lambert, a physiotherapist who specializes in elderly care, says: “They think they are going to immediately hurt themselves, and anxiety often arises around falling over. The secret is to build up slowly and listen to your body. Injuries happen when people go from nothing to full pelt.”
Runner, Tim Bale, 71, was forced to rethink his exercise routine as he aged. “I got into running in the 1980s,” he says, “but by 60 my knee joints forced me to quit. I didn’t want to stop moving so I started doing tai chi, yoga and aqua classes. There’s a bit of a perception that these classes are for ladies but I’ve found the aqua gives me an aerobic workout and the yoga and tai chi are great for my strength and balance. Plus my joints don’t trouble me any more.”
It’s crucial to listen to your body at any time, but especially as we age. Anthony Crockett, 82 from Essex started having back problems in his late 30s. Much of this was due to sitting at a desk for hours on end. “I saw a physio and they gave me a set of Pilates exercises,” he says. “I’ve done these exercises every day since and I don’t have back trouble ever. It’s all about having a good routine. The more you get into it the better you feel.”
Dawn Skelton is professor of aging and health at Glasgow Caledonian University. In 2018, she collaborated with the chief medical officers of the four nations across the UK to update the government guidelines for physical activity and health. The guidelines were for children, adults and older adults. As we age, the weekly recommendation is to build up to at least 150 minutes doing something that gets you slightly warmer and out of breath. That can break down into 10 minutes three times a day, or a whole 30 minutes a day. Skelton goes on to add: “Little and often is a good start, and anything is better than nothing, but the more you can do the better. The guidelines have clear objectives. We want people to spend less time sitting or lying down as there is a lot of evidence to prove that just sitting for prolonged periods causes loss of muscle function – and potentially a whole lot worse. The more hours you sit, the more exercise you should be doing to compensate for being sedentary.
“It’s also extremely important to do something that improves our strength at least twice a week. That means an action which targets specific muscles, like energetic Nordic walking, heavy gardening, cycling, Pilates, yoga, tai chi, tennis or using weights. Or you could do something as basic as repeatedly going up and down the stairs, or repetitive sit-to-stand movement at home while you are watching TV. Muscle strength is so crucial as we age. It helps us lift things, ourselves, maneuver around, have better balance, plus muscles give us padding – useful if you fall over – and muscle size correlates with a strong immune system to help us fight off infection.”
Dawn sticks her neck right out and states: “Physical activity is the equivalent of a miracle pill.” She also believes there is no medical condition that doesn’t benefit from some form of activity. “If you’ve got osteoporosis, exercise builds up bone mass, while research shows that those with angina or arthritis can reduce their meds as their fitness improves. The positive effect on our mental wellbeing is huge too. When we exercise, endorphins are released into the body. These are natural painkillers and they trigger feelings of happiness, reduce anxiety and help depression.”
Movement is our friend. It supports our flexibility, our beating heart, our straight back. It’s our lifeline. OK, so a regular exercise regime might not be easy to build into the picture, especially at first. But if we don’t want our elderly existence to become a can’t-tie-own-shoe-laces saga, then perhaps the sensible solution is to just go for it. We’ll meet you – barely out of breath – at the finishing line.
‘Water feels safe because there’s no concern about falling over’
Kari Furre, 72, is an artist and lives in Totnes, Devon. She has been a passionate swimmer most of her life