It’s inevitable that as we get older a lot of things change. Some of these may be physical and others may be changes in how we live our lives. We may feel a bit slower or not as strong. We may no longer be working allowing us the time to participate in other activities.

One thing that does change that shouldn’t, is how much physical activity we are doing. Physical activity is generally lower in adults over 65 years compared to younger adults and along with that, fitness levels decline too. However, this doesn’t have to be the case.

For some people, the decline in activity is the result of physical limitations and poor health. But for many people, the decline is the result of either deliberately reducing activity out of the belief that is what should be done as we age or an unconscious decline in activity such as no longer working.

People retiring may not realize how much activity they did while working and do not replace that with other activity in retirement, and as a result, their fitness declines. Similarly, it is common for people to ‘downsize’ their house to a condo or apartment as they get older. People do this to save money, the lack of desire to maintain as big of a residence or to avoid stairs in the house. In a lot of these situations, downsizing on your home also means downsizing on your activity. While we may not get a lot of activity in a house, it is still more than if one is living in a small apartment.

Alongside a decline in physical activity with age, is a decline in fitness levels. Researchers have been trying to determine if the lower fitness levels in older adults is part of the biological ageing process or a result of reduced activity (or a combination of both). While there are no randomized studies to look at this, studies looking at athletes who remain active in later life have far less of a decline in fitness levels than people who don’t. This would suggest that much of the decrease in fitness levels with age is due to a reduction in physical activity as people get older.

But getting older doesn’t mean being less active, and people in their 60s, 70s and 80s have gone on to do some amazing things. The fastest time for a marathon of someone 70 years or older is just under three hours for a man and nearly three and a half hours for a woman. These are incredibly fast times. When I was 20 I did my first (and only) marathon in just over three and a half hours.

The problem with declining activity is that it can be the start of a circular path that leads to further declines, loss of independence and ill health. For example, a person starts to limit their activity either by choice (avoiding certain tasks) or by changing their environment (like downsizing), unless that person consciously increases his/her activity by other means, the reduced activity will lead to a decrease in strength and fitness. That may then result in further curbing of tasks because previous tasks are now more difficult (require more effort). Often we think the extra effort needed to do the same task is due to age, when in fact it is due to a lower level of fitness from doing less physical activity. If it continues, then even performing general activities of daily living like doing laundry, stocking their pantry, going grocery shopping and washing dishes, will become a challenge and make independent living difficult.

A more extreme condition of loss of strength from ageing is referred to as sarcopenia (the loss of muscle size which results in a loss of strength). Sarcopenia occurs in about 10% of adults 65 years and older and may be the result of hormonal and neural changes that occur during ageing, and reductions in activity can also accelerate its occurrence. The good news is that regular activity and exercise can help prevent sarcopenia and is considered one of the better treatments for it.

Interestingly, the guidelines for physical activity in adults over 65 years is much the same as in adults less than 65 years with a recommendation of 150 minutes or more of moderate intensity activity. This exercise should consist of aerobic (continuous) exercise to maintain cardiorespiratory fitness as well as resistance training. The latter is important to keep up one’s strength. Keeping up one’s strength is important as we age so that we can maintain those activities of daily living.

Being active is something that we can continue to do throughout our lifespan. Many people want to live independently for as long as possible. A regular activity routine will help to ensure that is a reality.

In the next blog I will discuss how to progress your activity and exercise routine.

This is Part 9 in a series of blog posts entitled Being Active While Living an Active Life.