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6 simple but essential exercises for older people

Think that ageing should mean putting your feet up? Lisa Salmon finds out why keeping active is actually vital for supporting health in later years

As we grow older, niggling aches and pains can be seen as a sign it's time to slow down and take things easy. But slowing down too much can do more harm than good.

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP; csp.org.uk) points out that movement keeps muscles strong and helps maintain a healthy weight, which also protects the joints as we age. While it might feel like movement is the last thing you need when aches set in, regular activity can actually help manage joint stiffness, pain and fatigue, which can affect mood and mental health and wellbeing too. Keeping active can also cut the risk, or help manage, conditions like heart disease and stroke, certain cancers and type 2 diabetes.

Despite this, nearly a quarter (24%) of over-65s do no strengthening activities at all, putting them at increasing risk of falls and other health problems, according to CSP research.

"Movement is essential for every aspect of our health. Our bodies are designed to move, and not doing so is harmful to our health, muscles and joints. As we become older, this can also increase the risk of falling," says physiotherapist and CSP professional advisor Fran Hallam.

The good news is, it's never too late to start - so if your activity levels could use a boost, here's what the pros at the CSP advise...

How much exercise should you do?

Studies show that 3-5% of muscle is lost every year from the age of 30 onwards, if steps aren't taken to maintain it. Official guidelines suggest adults should do activities to strengthen muscles and bones and challenge balance and co-ordination at least twice a week, as this will not only prevent falls, but also improve mood, help sleep patterns and bring overall health and wellbeing benefits.

Do things you actually enjoy

Exercise doesn't have to be torture or punishment. Physiotherapists recommend everyone finds a physical activity they enjoy, so they'll keep going. Try involving family and friends for support and motivation too - you're much more likely to maintain an exercise routine if you do it with other people.

Then set goals - big or small - to keep you motivated, and pace yourself by starting slowly and gradually building up your activity. The CSP says it's okay to ache a bit, but if pain persists or gets worse, ease back and go slower.

What sort of exercise should older people do?

"You don't need to lift huge weights to strengthen your muscles," says Hallam. "You can start to build strength by completing everyday activities, like carrying shopping, washing the car and digging in the garden."

Seek advice if you're unsure

If you have a history of joint pain or problems, or any other ongoing health issues, it's always advisable to speak with your doctor before starting a new exercise regime. And if joint problems are a concern, a physiotherapist will be able to advise on how best to proceed with an exercise programme.

Activities that benefit older people

Unsure where to start? Consider incorporating some of these into your routine:

Aerobic exercise

Swimming or walking briskly will raise heart and breathing rates, benefit the cardiovascular system and help keep weight in check. Exercising in a swimming pool can include walking, squats, marching and side-stepping as well as swimming. All these activities improve fitness and are low impact on the joints.

Strength and balance activities

Tai chi, racquet sports and Pilates can help maintain muscle mass and improve posture and stability.

Weight-bearing exercise

Activities such as washing the car, carrying shopping or gardening can help maintain bone density and strength. "If you incorporate these activities into your daily routine, it won't be long before you start to feel the benefits," says Hallam. "But as with any activity, our bodies adapt quickly, so always make sure you're challenging yourself - getting off the bus a stop earlier or carrying the shopping a little further, for example."

Gentle stretching

Stretching muscles through activities such as such as Tai chi or yoga will help promote flexibility and range of motion in joints.

Avoiding sitting for long periods

Develop prompts to remind yourself to get on your feet - stand to make phone calls or get up during the advert breaks when watching TV, for instance.

Gym machines

Joining a gym is a good way to access resistance machines or weights. Most gyms have personal trainers or staff who can show you how to use the machines safely.

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