Rather than sitting at home with tea and biscuits, today’s older generation prefer to be active in sports and exercise. John Bensalhia takes a look at the benefits of keeping fit over the age of 50
Here’s a turn-up for the books. A playground for the older generation. Yes, once the province of a million happy kids having fun on slides, swings and climbing frames, there is now a playground for the over-60s.
Okay, so it’s not quite as you’d expect, but the hugely successful site in Blackley, near Manchester, has proved popular enough to warrant a follow-up site, which is planned for Eastbourne. The older people’s play area comprises six pieces of equipment for exercising the hips, legs and upper body. And the older generation of Blackley are loving it for a whole host of reasons.
The chief positive is the fact that today’s older folk have finally got wise to the fact that life after 60 doesn’t mean sitting around dunking biscuits in lukewarm tea and watching Last Of The Summer Wine on a loop. More and more older people are signing up for sporting and exercising activities, which offer a number of advantages.
Health-wise, regular exercise is a godsend, since it helps to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Exercise can also diminish the chances of heart attacks and strokes and potentially lower the risks of cancer and osteoporosis. The latter condition is one of the greatest risks for the over-50s, but exercise can halt the threat. The immune system is also boosted as a result of regular exercise.
Older people can also benefit from stronger muscles and bones, and can develop a better posture, balance and flexibility. In addition, by exercising regularly older people can keep their minds active and remain mentally alert. Sporting and exercise activities can also do wonders for older people’s social lives.
That said, there are risks. Needless to say, the older we get, the more our bodies start to deteriorate. Older people can’t put up with as much wear and tear as the younger generation, so it’s advisable for the over-60s to have a word with their GP first before embarking on a fitness or sports programme, so that the doctor can assess what sort of level they are at.
This is especially the case for team sports, which are more physically demanding. They have one less advantage in that individuals do not get so much of a say in how much exercise they can or cannot do. Contact sports especially can also heighten the risks of damage to bones, joints, muscles and ligaments.
A number of studies have assessed the importance of sports and exercise for the older generation. American research from the Stanford University Medical Center rated how important older people found jogging. The study claimed that older joggers enjoyed a healthier lifestyle with fewer disabilities.
Taking place over 20 years, the study looked at the lifestyles of 500 runners (who were in their early-50s at the start of the programme) and compared them to their non-running counterparts. Nineteen years later, the study showed that 34 per cent of non-runners had died, compared to 15 per cent of runners. As the study progressed, disability crept in for both groups, but it began, on average, 16 years later for those that ran. The study also showed that running appeared to slow the rate of death caused by heart and artery disease, brain disease and infections.
Similar research has come to the same conclusions. In 2008, Karolinska Instituet, a Swedish medical university, said that golf was a good form of exercise for older people. The university’s study found that the death rate for golfers was 40 per cent lower than for non-players of the same sex and age. Because the sport featured a great deal of walking, golf was deemed to be good for the health and added five years to life expectancy.
Jonathan Dolzell, a lecturer and researcher in exercise physiology at Portsmouth University, said that scientists are discovering that the body will age faster if it does not take part in some form of exercise. He said that a 40 year old could have the body of a younger person in their thirties if they took part in regular exercise.
Another survey took a slightly different tack. In 2004 a study by Dr Kitrina Douglas and Dr David Carless from Bristol University on behalf of the Women’s Sports Foundation looked at the physical exercise and fitness of older women.
The study highlighted a number of key points. Modern exercise regimes such as weight training and aerobics were not popular among the participants because they were regarded as both boring and unappealing. Confidence was a key factor in this, because the participants lacked self-esteem with regards to their abilities and weight. They also thought that few exercise groups offered routines that were appropriate for their particular needs. Another finding was an emphasis on maintaining friendships in social circles, which was seen as a greater priority than keeping fit.
Apart from the over-60s playground in Blackley, there are many initiatives for the older generation when it comes to sport, up and down the country. From April 1, 2009, nearly 300 local councils provided swimming free of charge to those who were over 60.
The Extra Time Project was introduced to get older people in the country to participate in physical activity such as yoga, tai chi, short tennis and badminton. Project coordinator Steven Girling explained that the project was to get people together in order to both make new friends and gain enjoyment.
Another project called SHINE (Some Health Improvements Need Exercise) was launched in 2008 for the over-60s living in the borough of Wokingham, which comprised a programme of sports and physical activity. Fit As A Fiddle is a nationwide programme that supports people over 50 with, amongst other things, physical activity. The initiative is funded by the Big Lottery Fund well-being programme.
As long as older people stay within their comfort zones, the benefits of regular exercise are great. They should plan their programmes in accordance with their own personal health and also choose a sport or activity that suits them.
Help The Aged has actively promoted keep-fit programmes and sport for the elderly. Andrew Harrop, head of public policy at Age Concern and Help The Aged, has said that there are a number of benefits to be had from keeping fit and healthy in later years. “Not only does it keep the body in better shape, but an active lifestyle helps prevent isolation, which in turn reduces the risk of psychological conditions such as depression,” he says.
Harrop’s ethos sums up why the elderly should always keep active: “It’s about being able to be fit and healthy enough to engage in your communities, being able to get out and about and contribute…”