Getting old. It’s a topic no one really likes to think or talk about, right?

But, with a growing elderly population, more of us are starting to consider what “healthy ageing” looks like and what we can be doing now to enhance our life in years to come. If this is you then keep on reading!

Why is it that some people appear to age well? There are extreme cases of course, like Harriette Thompson; who currently holds the record for the oldest female to complete a marathon at 92 years of age and a half marathon at 94. Impressive right!? But there are also the less extreme cases. It’s not uncommon to come across an 80 year old who is in good physical and mental health and is subsequently able to maintain their independence, mobility and social life and are generally loving life. Conversely, there are others of the same age who appear to be plagued with chronic disease, disability and a lower quality of life. So why is there such a variance in aging? 

Ageing is a highly complex phenomenon which modern science still does not fully understand. But, what we do know, is that aging is influenced by our internal genetic makeup as well as external factors such as our physical and social environment, which includes exercise, diet and recreational activities. The good news is we have control over these external factors and can positively influence them to achieve better aging outcomes, simply by the decisions we make on how we live our lives.

So that leaves the golden question…what steps can we can take today to ensure we age as best as possible.

Well… before we dive in, let’s look at what actually happens to our bodies as we get older.

We feel weaker..

Our skeletal muscle undergoes a gradual loss of mass, strength and function, also known as sarcopenia.

We feel stiffer..

The cartilage lining the joint surfaces thins and becomes less resilient (sometimes resulting in osteoarthritis).

This feeling of stiffness is also caused by a decrease in synovial fluid which lubricates our joints and the connective tissue that makes up the surrounding ligaments. The joint capsule also loses flexibility.

We fall more..

Balance and gait disturbances are a common occurrence with increasing age. A decline in our sensory systems including vision, proprioception (your body awareness) and vestibular (your balance), reduces our ability to quickly respond and adapt to changing environments.

We are at increased risk of fractures..

Not only do we fall more but those falls become more serious, potentially resulting in fractures. As we get older, like muscles, our bones also lose mass and density which can lead to conditions such as osteopenia and osteoporosis.

We become more forgetful..

Our nervous system, including the brain is also affected. Cognitively we see a gradual decline in memory, processing speed and conceptual reasoning.

Sorry to paint such a depressing picture! While, yes, these are the ‘normal ageing changes’, remember they will affect all of us to different degrees, and we have the power to influence them.

Physical activity and exercise is one of the most important factors of healthy ageing. It plays a beneficial role by:

  • Increasing muscle mass and strength reducing the effects of sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass and strength).
  • Improving joint mobility and flexibility.
  • Improving balance and coordination, reducing the risk of falls.
  • Building stronger bones and bone mass, assisting in the prevention and treatment of conditions such as osteoporosis.
  • Helping to prevent chronic diseases such as, cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes.

We can all agree, this is no secret and may seem like a simple message. However, when our lives are busy with work, kids and everything else we try to squeeze into the day, it’s not uncommon for our exercise regime to be one of the first things to get dropped. This is a common reality for so many of us and it’s easy to forget what the longer term impacts of this can be.

The good news is, it’s not too late! A 2014 study concluded whilst sustaining physical activity throughout one’s lifetime shows an association with improved overall health and significant health benefits were also seen among participants who became physically active relatively late in life.

Another 2009 study reiterates this message by demonstrating participants who started to exercise after the age of 50 were far less likely to die during the next 35 years than those who were and remained sedentary. This research also concluded that the reduction in mortality associated with increased physical activity was similar to that associated with quitting smoking.

So, if you are reading this and can relate to feeling like your exercise regime has recently (or not so recently) got lost in the humdrum of everyday life, firstly, you are not alone, this is a recurring conversation I am having with many clients in clinic. By highlighting the longer term impacts of living a sedentary lifestyle, this may have ignited a new sense of motivation to build a bit more physical activity into your life to maximise your years and age with grace and vigour. 

If this is you and you’re not sure where to begin, watch out for part 2 in this blog series, where we discuss the types of physical activity we need to be doing and suggest ways of how and where to get started.

Becky Norrish is a Sports Lab Physiotherapist and Pilates Instructor. She’s a strong contender for the clinic’s biggest sweet tooth and most competitive player.