We all know that exercise is an important part of staying healthy, but many people assume that as we get older, we should slow down.
Nothing could be further from the truth – and in fact, investing in your physical fitness in your 50s, 60s, and beyond is one of the most valuable gifts you can give yourself.
When we think of ageing well, we often think of staying healthy and retaining our independence, continuing to pursue activities we enjoy, developing new hobbies, and staying active within our community. Just because our age changes, doesn’t mean that we have to fundamentally change as people.
Time and again, studies have shown that taking time to improve our strength and balance can significantly improve our physical and mental functions. It can also actively reverse some effects of disease and illness that prevent older adults from retaining their independence.
According to Age UK, ageing well and being able to live a healthy, socially inclusive lifestyle in our 70s, 80s, and 90s is easier when we take certain steps to improve our physical health and mental wellbeing.
Below, we’ll take a closer look at why building strength and balance in our 50s, 60s, and beyond is so important.
Reducing the risk of falls
At present, falls are the leading cause of injury among people over 75, and while the physical pain of a fall can be incredibly serious, often the most harmful effects run deeper. The injuries that people sustain from falls can cause a range of health problems, which may lead to a loss of confidence and independence.
According to a survey by Age UK, millions of older adults are seriously concerned about falling, with 4.3 million people (36% of those surveyed) reporting that falling was the thing they were most worried about. This fear is by no means misplaced, as statistics show that 30% of people aged 65+ and 50% of people aged 80+, fall at least once a year.
However, Charity Director at Age UK, Caroline Abrahams, says that while falls are a threat to older adults’ health, wellbeing, and independence, they shouldn’t be “dismissed as an inevitable part of growing older.” There are, in fact, many steps we can take in our 50s and 60s that greatly reduce the risk of falls. So what are they?
What are the benefits of strength training in mid-life and how can I get started?
Strength and balance training are hugely effective in reducing the likelihood of falls. This is because muscle weakness and poor balance are among the highest risk factors for falling.
Strength training (also known as weight and resistance training) doesn’t just prevent your bones from weakening – it can also add years to your life. For example, a long-term study of 3,600 older adults showed that people with higher levels of muscle mass lived longer and stayed healthier.
If you’ve never done strength training before, then the idea of lifting weights might seem quite daunting – but you don’t have to be a bodybuilder to do it! Research suggests that it isn’t about lifting the heaviest possible weights – which could easily be counterproductive – it’s about lifting any weight, so long as you exert yourself enough to feel tired by the end of it. That being said, it’s often best to begin strength training by using just your body weight.
If you’re looking for somewhere to start, then you could spend your first session working out your upper body, and the next working out your lower body. Exercises like squats are great for strengthening your legs, while push-ups are good for strengthening your arms, shoulders, and chest.
Bear in mind that full push-ups require a considerable amount of upper body strength, so we’d suggest doing either knee push-ups or wall push-ups if you’re new to resistance training.These exercises don’t just work out your chest, arms, and wrists – but they also strengthen and build the muscles that can help you to break a fall.
It’s worth having a look at the linked videos for squats and push-ups to see the correct technique, and remembering that there are also ways to make these exercises easier – for example, doing chair squats rather than full squats.
Doing exercises like these for half an hour, twice a week can have a big impact. As we age, our muscle mass and bone density slowly begin to decrease. Even gentle strength training stimulates muscle and bone growth, which can go a long way in preventing falls and fractures. It can also help improve functional mobility, for example, how fast you can comfortably walk.
We know the gym isn’t everyone’s favourite place, but because of its equipment, facilities, and professional advice, it can be a good place for strength training. You might like to have a read of our guide to starting the gym if you want to feel more confident about getting started.
Alternatively, if hitting the main area of the gym isn’t for you, you could always ask a friend to come along to an in-person exercise class with you. Sharing an experience with someone you care about and learning together can help make exercise become an enjoyable part of your routine, and something you look forward to.
How to incorporate strength training, aerobic activity, and stretching into your exercise routine
According to experts, the best type of exercise involves a mix of aerobic activity, strength training, and stretching. And luckily, it’s easy to merge all three. For example, walking briskly to work or to run errands, and doing a short session of strength training and stretching afterwards, ticks all three boxes.
Aerobic activity can often be incorporated into your everyday life without much effort – for example, walking the dog, hiking, cycling, swimming, and dancing (even in your living room!) all count as aerobic activity. The key is to keep a regular routine – and as always, to have fun.
Check out our articles, 5 steps to staying fit from home and 17 creative ways to increase your daily step count, for more inspiration and ideas.
Exercising at home
There are many ways you can exercise from the comfort of your own home too. And as luck would have it, some everyday household jobs count as strength training and aerobic activity.
Fixing the car, DIY, and gardening can all have big health benefits – and in fact, the NHS has emphasised that gardening can be both a moderate and vigorous aerobic activity, as well as an effective exercise for strengthening muscles. Any form of digging or landscaping counts as robust aerobic activity, while raking leaves, planting seeds, and pulling weeds are more moderate. Even mowing the lawn at a leisurely pace counts!
Virtual exercises have also never been more popular than they are today – and for good reason. While the coronavirus pandemic may have been the initial reason many people got into exercise classes, they’ve remained popular because they’re a great way to exercise on your own terms and at your own pace.
You can keep yourself motivated by following the routine and you can also take as many breaks as you like. Plus, if you’re not confident enough to work out in front of other people, online videos give some welcome privacy too. But with so many online exercise classes available, which should you choose?
Move It Or Lose It run classes that have been developed by experts in ageing research to help people maintain greater independence in later life. Each class is designed to help you improve your balance, flexibility, aerobic health, and strength. Classes are usually held UK-wide at local gyms, as well as community and leisure centres, but have gone virtual since the pandemic and can be done on-demand or live.
Classes do carry a fee – though if you already have a membership with a gym or leisure centre network, you might be able to take classes as part of this, with no extra charge. If you don’t have a membership, you can still take your first class for free to see if you like it.
Turbulence Training on YouTube also offers a great selection of free no-equipment bodyweight workouts that are perfect to do from home. And because the videos are generally under 10 minutes, they’re ideal for beginners and can give you the knowledge to create your own home workouts.
Another versatile fitness channel is Natalie Jill Fitness. Natalie Jill is a popular personal trainer who offers free workouts for weight loss, body weight exercises, exercise ball routines, and plenty of useful health and nutrition tips too.
You might want to check out Sean Vigue Fitness on YouTube too. On Sean’s channel, you’ll find strength, cardio, and core training – as well as Sean’s ‘fun’ one-minute burpee challenge!
If you’re considering getting into yoga, you might want to check out Yoga With Adriene. With over 11 million subscribers and videos for all abilities, there’s something for everyone. If you’re new to yoga, check out Adriene’s Yoga For Beginners – and if you’re ready to work up a sweat, you might want to try her Yoga for Weight Loss or Total Body Yoga playlists.
Alternatively, check out Do Yoga With Me, which offers a huge range of yoga at-home videos – and seeing the beautiful Canadian British Columbia backdrop throughout the videos is just an added bonus! If you’re interested in finding out more about the benefits of yoga, you might want to read our introduction to yoga.
As far as online exercise videos go, this is just the very tip of the iceberg. For more inspiration, you might like to browse Birgo Realty’s list of the top online workout resources. Or, by signing up (for free!) to Rest Less events, you can access a variety of online exercise classes and events.
What is balance training and how can I get started?
Balance training involves working out the muscles that improve our stability and keep us upright. The importance of good balance is sometimes glossed over, but it’s crucial for just about everything we do in life. An act as simple as standing up from your chair, walking across the room, and bending over to put your shoes on depends on your ability to remain steady.
There’s more good news for those of us with a green thumb – because it involves lots of lifting, bending, and stretching, gardening is also a good activity for improving balance. Plus, you’ll have a great-looking garden too.
Alternatively, why not have a go at Tai Chi? Because it focuses on bone strength, joint stability, and cardiovascular health, Tai Chi is one of the single most effective ways to improve balance.
According to research, it reduces the risk of falls among older adults by a staggering 45%. This is because it targets all various areas needed to stay upright and steady – including leg strength, reflexes, and flexibility.
And there’s another intrinsic benefit to Tai Chi: it can have a powerful effect on your psychological health. As we’ve seen, fear of falling is the most common concern among older adults – yet, being fearful of falling can greatly increase the likelihood of a fall actually occurring. Practising Tai Chi can help to tackle that fear and boost confidence. Tai Chi is also about becoming more aware of your own body and the world around you. This heightened spatial awareness can help to reduce your risk of falling even further.
Another great thing about Tai Chi is that it’s a low impact sport, which means it’s suitable and adaptable for all ages and abilities. It doesn’t put too much pressure on ageing joints and bones, and even though the movements are slow, it still counts as stimulating exercise.
If Tai Chi sounds like something that you might like to try, you might like to check out our beginner’s guide, or search on Classfinder to find your nearest classes. If you fancy browsing some other options, you could have a look at our article, 6 popular martial arts to learn later in life.
Alternatively, if Tai Chi isn’t for you, yoga is another gentle activity that offers similar health benefits – balance being just one of them (more on that later!).
There are also many simple balance exercises you can do at home. Just walking backwards and sideways can be effective, as can walking on your toes or your heels, or walking heel-to-toe. Just remember to do the exercises next to a wall or chair in case you lose your balance.
How regular exercise in mid-life can reduce the risk of chronic disease
Regular exercise is important throughout life – though it becomes even more important with age. This study found that regular exercise is the most important factor in promoting a high health-related quality of life in our later years.
It not only improves physical and mental functions, but can actually reverse the effects of chronic disease.
This is because, as well as improving muscle strength and balance, regular exercise can also boost heart health and energy levels, help us maintain a healthy weight, and reduce the risk of various health conditions. These include…
- Heart disease and stroke
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Joint and muscle pain
- Type 2 diabetes
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Cancers including breast, lung, and colon
More good news is that physical activity has major health benefits no matter what age we are when we start – luckily enough for those of us who have been exercise-shy most of our lives! Plus, research shows that regular exercise is also safe for older adults who are frail or in poor health. Even gentle exercise, like low-intensity walking, can be incredibly beneficial.
As an added bonus, research shows that building strength and balance may even help to improve your memory.
For example, this study found that moderate physical activity increased the size of the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for memory). It also improved spatial memory, which is what helps us remember where things are located.
How building strength and balance over 50 can improve mental health
When we talk about building strength and balance, we’re mostly talking about physical strength and balance – but it can also benefit our mental health.
Every time we exercise, our brains release endorphins which can help to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression. These chemicals can improve mood, keep your brain healthy, and improve the quality of your sleep. All these factors significantly contribute to the overall quality of life and ability to remain independent.
So how can we build strength and balance in our minds as well as our bodies?
Research shows that simply practising yoga or meditation once a week can strengthen cognitive skills and help prevent age-related mental decline.
One study found that people who did yoga once a week showed improved mood and enhanced memory when compared to people who did brain training exercises. Even though brain training is specifically designed to improve cognitive ability, it was yoga that had a greater effect on a person’s ability to focus and multitask (and, unlike brain training, yoga also counts as physical exercise).
Dancing is another activity that has a powerful effect on your mood as well as your body. According to research, learning to dance can be an effective way to slow the effects of ageing, and strengthen both the body and mind.
Learning any form of dance, be it folk or salsa, can improve your aerobic fitness and mental capacities at the same time. A study found that participants attending dance classes showed improved brain function when compared to participants who exercised by walking or stretching.
This suggests that activities where you move, learn, and socialise have the biggest effect. To get inspired, you might like to have a read of our article; 10 online dance classes for beginners.
Despite the common consensus that older adults should take it easy, it’s clear that winding down as we age isn’t always the best idea.
As stated by Age UK: “Rather than considering older adults to be past the point of reaping the benefits [of physical activity], research concludes that there’s no section of the population in which it is more worthwhile and necessary to promote physical activity.”
If you’ve never been particularly active or are out of shape, it’s easy to feel daunted at the idea of including exercise in your daily life. But be gentle with yourself and go at your own pace. Remember, it only takes a small amount of physical activity to have a big impact on your quality of life.
Investing in your physical and psychological health in your 50s and 60s is one of the most rewarding gifts you can give yourself. It’s not just about adding years to your life – it’s about adding life to your years.