Exercise for older adults

Jul 09, 2019

Getting older doesn't automatically mean slowing down and putting your feet up 24/7. Indeed, health experts encourage the over-50s to stay physically active, as it can help boost health and energy levels, as well as increase the likelihood of staying independent into your 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond.

Many adults aged 65 and older spend, on average, 10 hours or more every day sitting or lying down. But being this inactive can increase your risk of obesity, heart disease and make you more likely to have a fall.

Staying active, on the other hand, is thought to lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, depression and dementia. If you keep moving, it can also help reduce pain and your risk of mental illness.

Physical activity is anything that gets you moving - whether that's walking, doing the gardening, playing with your grandchildren or taking part in a fun run for charity. The current official recommendation is to do 150 minutes of moderate activity every week - such as:

  • Brisk walking
  • Cycling
  • Mowing the lawn
  • Playing doubles tennis

How you split up those 150 minutes is up to you. The government also recommends doing some activities each week that help strengthen your muscles, such as:

  • Working out with weights
  • Doing heavy gardening
  • Carrying heavy shopping

What about HIIT?

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a form of exercise that has become popular in recent years. This involves short bursts of intense exercise alternated with longer intervals of recovery time where you move more slowly and gently, which helps lower your heart rate.

This may include sprinting or cycling at full speed for a short time - a minute or less in some cases - followed by a longer but much lower-intensity period of activity to let you get your breath back. Hill walking is another example of interval training - your heart and lungs will work hard when you walk uphill, then your heart rate will slowly return to normal while going downhill.

The principle behind HIIT is that it takes a fraction of the time to achieve heart and lung fitness compared with more traditional forms of moderate-intensity exercise, with followers claiming a few short HIIT sessions reap similar or even better fitness rewards than doing the recommended 150 minutes of brisk walking, swimming or cycling each week. This makes it ideal for people who don't have much time, or who simply don't want to work out for longer periods at a time.

HIIT safety in the over-50s

But are HIIT and other similar forms of intense, vigorous exercise safe as you age and get older? Experts suggest those in their 50s and even 60s who have no underlying health issues and who already have a good level of fitness should be able to take part in vigorous training without any problems.

Norwegian scientists, whose study was published in the medical journal Circulation, asked whether or not HIIT is safe or risky for older people with heart problems, such as heart failure and a history of heart attacks. Dividing almost 5,000 volunteers into 2 groups, they assigned 1 group to take part in a moderate-intensity exercise programme and the other in HIIT.

After an average of 36 exercise sessions, there was 1 fatal cardiac arrest among the moderate-intensity exercise group and 2 non-fatal cardiac arrests in the HIIT group. As a result of such a low rate of cardiac events, the researchers concluded that both types of exercise are safe for heart patients, with HIIT found to have particular benefits for those with coronary artery disease.

A review of 10 studies on HIIT published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine also found older adults with conditions ranging from coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, obesity and heart failure achieved improved cardiorespiratory fitness by doing HIIT compared with those taking part in traditional moderate-intensity exercise programmes.

Before you start…

As with any type of exercise, it's essential to consult your doctor or physician as well as GP if you want to embark on HIIT, especially if you're getting older, you're overweight or obese, you have an existing medical problem or you haven't been very active for a while. Your doctor, physician or GP can advise whether or not you're fit enough to start an interval training programme - if not, they may prescribe an age-appropriate beginners' exercise programme to start with.

Whatever type of training you want to do, start slowly and gradually. As your fitness level improves, the better chance you'll have of being able to push yourself towards higher-intensity activities - without putting yourself at risk.

Article reproduced with the kind permission of CABA, the organisation providing lifelong support to ICAEW members, ACA students and their close family around the world.