By Lisa Salmon
We’re all living longer than ever, so it’s a good idea to think about how you can help yourself stay as fit and well as possible during those golden years.
Both medics and fitness experts like Diana Moran, The Green Goddess of Eighties breakfast TV in Britain, agree that much of ageing well is down to looking after yourself, keeping active – even though it’s tempting not to as your joints get creakier – eating healthily and staying socially connected.
And if you need proof that making an effort brings results, look no further than Moran. At 81, the super-fit granny, who still does a daily fitness routine, has just brought out another exercise DVD, called Keep Fit And Carry On, to get older people moving – even if it’s just in their chairs.
“It’s so important to retain as much movement as possible, however limited your physical abilities are,” says Moran. “I know what a difference it makes. Life is so much richer if you’re physically fit. Chances are you’ll be mentally very fit as well.”
Tahir Masud, a professor of geriatric medicine and president of the British Geriatrics Society, points out that keeping up good levels of physical activity can reduce the risk of dementia, depression, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. Being physically active also means you’re 30 per cent less likely to suffer falls. “All the evidence shows that if you’re motivated enough to do proper lifestyle measures, it can really make a difference,” he says.
One of the most important things about looking after yourself as you get older is making sure you’re as active as possible, stresses Masud, who says older people should aim for 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical exercise per week, like walking, jogging or cycling, with a particular emphasis on maintaining strength and balance.
“I’m very, very aware of how exercise – moderate, I’m not talking about going to the gym and pumping iron and all that business – is important to maintain your good health,” Moran says.
And there are numerous options for people who struggle to get out of a chair or use a wheelchair, Moran adds, including both upper and lower body exercises. “It’s surprising how much you can actually do sitting in a chair,” she says. This includes weights workouts using cans rather than dumbbells, and strengthening activities using exercise bands or even an old pair of tights.
“When you do any form of exercise, there are four immediate benefits,” Moran explains. “The first one is strength – if you’re getting up off a chair, you’re using your quadriceps muscles, you’re keeping your legs strong. If you’re lifting a can, you’re keeping your arms strong.
“The next is that physical activity and lifting things keeps you supple, and if you’re getting up and moving, you’re improving your stamina and your cardiovascular system. If you get it right and eat a reasonably good, mixed healthy diet, then chances are you’re going to keep in shape.”
Minimise sedentary time
If managing proper exercise is too much, Masud says people should at least try to get up a bit more frequently if possible, rather than being too sedentary for long periods. “You shouldn’t just sit in front of the TV without getting up regularly,” he says. “If you’re watching a programme for an hour, you should get up a few times, even if it’s to make a cup of tea.”
Avoid ‘bad’ things
Just because smoking and drinking haven’t killed you yet doesn’t mean they won’t get you in the future. “Older people need to reduce smoking and excessive alcohol,” says Masud. “There’s lots of evidence that if you want to stay healthy as you get older, you’ve got to cut back on those particular things.”
“The important things are to cut back on carbohydrates and sugar, but what’s stressed is that an adequate amount of protein, for example eggs, meat, fish, and pulses, is really important,” Masud says. “If you don’t have enough protein, you’ve got an increased chance of becoming frail, which causes problems such as falls and other issues.”
In addition, everyone – at any age – needs to try to eat five portions of different fruit and vegetables a day, and plenty of fibre.
“Loneliness isn’t a good thing for your future health,” says Masud. “And as you get older, if you get socially isolated and lonely, it can increase the risk of heart disease, depression and dementia.”
And lonely older people may have a higher risk of heart disease simply because having more reasons to socialise means you’re more likely to get out and about, which means keeping your body and brain more active.
Get your jabs
Older people should have the flu vaccination every year, stresses Masud, plus any other important jabs, like those for shingles and pneumonia.
Strengthen your bones
This can include things as simple as “walking, gardening, putting weight on your spine, hips and legs and lifting up, lifting your grandchildren”, says Moran. “You’re putting weight on your wrists, and your wrists, hip and spine are the areas where you could be affected by osteoporosis and have a fracture.”