The physical condition, mobility and level of exercise of people aged over 65 vary greatly. However, recent studies show that the muscle strength, walking speed, reaction speed and cognitive ability of today’s 75–80-year-olds are much better than those of seniors who lived 30 years ago. The people of today aged 65–80 can also be seen as late-middle-aged adults who have great opportunities to exercise, thanks to both their health and increased leisure time. According to studies, physical activity decreases with age, while sedentary behaviour, along with screen time, increases. Only a quarter of people aged 65–79 move sufficiently, and they spent most of their day sedentary. Of people aged over 80, only one out of ten move sufficiently. Why so?
In addition to physical challenges related to ageing, mobility is reduced by various types of pain, health issues and fears of falling, for example. Furthermore, attitudes, such as ‘why should I bother moving anymore’, ‘exercise is not for old people,’ and the warnings of healthcare professionals or family members, such as ‘don’t go outside or use the stairs, you might fall’, are even greater obstacles to physical activity. In reality, physical activity is more important than ever for health and functional capacity as you get older. Exercise cannot prevent ageing, but it does reduce the extent and consequences of the changes brought on by age, such as weakened muscle strength in the legs and the related difficulties in movement and balance.
Those who have moved the least benefit the most
Physical activity includes not only purposeful exercise, but all daily movement. There is plenty of scientific evidence on the effects of activity on health and functional capacity. In addition to preventing illnesses and providing treatment and rehabilitation, activity prevents falling accidents and maintains functional capacity and brain health. Therefore, even if your health does not allow for heavy exercise, it is still important to lightly move about as much as possible. This speeds up the recovery from physical injuries and limitations, which, in turn, allows you to return to the things that matter to you.
Activity also maintains your physical capacity as you get older. One of the indicators of this capacity is the ability to walk about 0.5 kilometres – which can be considered a prerequisite for independent living at home. Even the shortest daily activity outdoors helps maintain functional capacity: studies show that women who walk about 1.6 kilometres a week are twice as likely to maintain their ability to walk as others. It has also been observed that the health of seniors taking about 5,000 steps a day remains much better than that of those walking less. When you add a 30-minute walk or a few shorter walks to your daily errands, you can achieve about 7,000–8,000 steps a day. Exercise and light activity that break up the time spent sedentary are especially beneficial for those who have trouble moving.
People aged over 65 should also focus on strength training, as it builds up the buffer against muscle loss. The muscle mass is reduced due to muscles not being used during a sudden illness, for example. The mass diminishes by 2–6 per cent during the first week, while muscle strength is reduced even more. Muscle loss weakens the ability to walk and increases the risk of falling. Physical activity is the best single way of preventing falling: at least one out of three falling accidents could be prevented with regular (2–3 hours a week) and intensive exercise that improves balance and leg strength. Activity also reduces the severity of falling injuries: the fracture risk of those moving briskly for over two hours a week is halved compared to those who do not move about much.
Activity brings joy and increases confidence
Physical activity is pleasant and provides positive experiences. Shared exercise sessions bring joy, social contact and a feeling of togetherness into life. Research shows that these are more important motivators for exercise than the physical effects. It is important that you find a pleasant way of exercising. You can also do a wide range of exercises at home and break up sedentary periods. When you go outside, you get exercise without even noticing, and, at best, you also get refreshing experiences in nature: moving about in nature is equally great for the mind. Exercise affects brain health and may postpone memory disorders and support the cognitive performance needed in daily chores.
Confidence in your ability to move is also important. It is known that seniors who have a high physical risk of falling, e.g. due to weakened muscles and balance, but who do not fear falling, will fall less likely than people who have fewer physical risk factors but do fear falling. Confidence in your own ability to move is seen in a higher walking speed, which is necessary when crossing a street, for example. Those who are already experiencing difficulties in movement, such as people with osteoarthritis, often gain the greatest benefits and effects from exercise in terms of walking speed. Regular exercise can increase your confidence in your ability to move.
Katri Turunen, post-doctoral researcher
University of Jyväskylä, Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences