“Physical activity keeps people stronger and more supple as they age. It also improves balance, gives better bone density and makes them less likely to be depressed or develop Alzheimer’s. These are all things associated with needing less social care”.

Sedentary lifestyles: the hidden factor in the social care crisis

Peter Walker writing in the Guardian 15th Dec 2016

The above conditions and benefits reported by Walker are appropriate for the general population but are of particular relevance to older adults. With predictions that the majority of people in the UK will be over 50 in less than a decade and a continuing increase in longevity, it is surely time for the exercise, physical activity and (yes), the fitness industry to start to look at effective exercise interventions if we are to avoid a meltdown in the NHS and Social Care systems.

Is it too late to intervene once a person gets to old age? Not at all. Significant gains in health, cognitive ability and function can be achieved by previously sedentary adults of any age.

Having said that, it becomes increasingly difficult to engage people in physical activity as they age. Functional decline and internal beliefs such as “It’s too late to get fit”,” I’m too old to exercise”, “I’m too frail, ill to exercise” as well as social isolation all conspire to make activating this population particularly challenging.

So how to achieve engagement?

Whilst it is never too late, exercise habits established at a young age will normally carry people throughout their life course. When I first became involved with Central YMCA, the late (and brilliant) Lesley Mowbray designed and launched the first nationally recognised instructor qualification in Fitness for the Older Adult. Back then in the late 80’s, this was titled “Exercise for the 50 plus”. As if people over 50 were “old”!. Of course there are physiological changes that happen with ageing that cannot be reversed but such is the effect of exercise in slowing that decline that amazing results are possible. Look around at lifelong exercisers who are in their 50s 60 70s and 80s. In terms of function and fitness, they are way ahead of their younger inactive counterparts. In fact I would argue that chronological age is no longer a reasonable way of defining any given population. Their age according to health related activity is far more relevant but of course this is challenging to measure. Known as morbidity, it is the quality of life that people can expect at a given age.

To get back to “older” (inactive therefor unhealthy) adults, Walker also quotes a “public health expert”

“I tell them, ‘being active throughout your life is about being able to get to the loo on time in your old age’. 

The message is clear, the earlier you start, the more health and functional benefits you are likely to have in later years. Yet this message is completely irrelevant and cannot be comprehended by younger adults or indeed children. The concept of being old and infirm is simply beyond their grasp.

As we age and begin to notice some of the effects of ageing, we do become more somewhat more susceptible to health messages but at the same time we are firmly conditioned by years of learned sedentary behaviour.

There are no simple solutions to the issue of a significantly increasing life expectancy accompanied by greater infirmity and diminished quality but I think the following are worth thinking about.

Politicians need to wake up and start to really get behind physical activity. Fund it, promote it and develop a world class infrastructure facilitating sport and exercise. Make it accessible to all and stop wringing your hands and castigating cycling because a few idiots jump red lights in London!

We need an army of trained, empathetic and (yes) older exercise and activity facilitators who understand behaviour and how to support the uptake and maintenance of a healthier and more active lifestyle for that majority of our population who take no physical activity.

The Fitness Industry needs to start actively targeting this population and use its undoubted marketing abilities to do so. The majority of messages and images used to promote fitness have no appeal or relevance to older adults.

Social care MUST combine with the National Health Service and physical activity must become a central plank of older adult care in both community and residential care settings

As an older adult (thankfully a lifelong exerciser) I know that exercise is not a panacea. Disease and death can strike and lay low the fittest of people at any time but the weight of evidence is undeniable that morbidity and mortality can be significantly reduced and the quality of life increased massively via participation in regular physical activity.

By Robin Gargrave (Ad-Lib Training Ltd.)

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