To say that things change as we age is an understatement. Some things improve as we become financially independent, hopefully wiser and we’re usually better able to do things (such as travel) we might not have been able to when we were younger.
A lot of other things change as well, which might not be as welcome. Some things, such as our height decreasing with age, can’t be changed, but others, such as the amount of physical activity and exercise we get, can.
When it comes to physical activity; we usually reach our peak amount when we’re around 20 years old. That’s when most of us are in college or university, or starting our first job, which is likely physical (and low paying!). From there, unfortunately, it tends to be downhill. It doesn’t matter how much activity we did, it seems no one is immune to being less active as we age.
The first big change happens before we even reach our 20s, during which the time we spend doing vigorous activities such as running, cycling, or playing team sports gets cut in half. We might have stopped playing on high school sports teams or clubs, or no longer ride our bike to school. Some of this is offset by an increase in less demanding activity, so the total amount is about the same.
As we continue to age, our activity further decreases. It’s generally not intentional; we graduate from college and no longer have endless miles of walking around campus. We get promoted in our job, which usually means we’re doing less physical work. We might buy our first car and no longer have to take the bus (people who use transit are more active because the bus doesn’t stop right at our house).
At the same time our sedentary time (the time we spend sitting or standing without moving) increases. Again this isn’t intentional. For most of us, no matter what profession we’re in, our activity at work tends to get less as our career progresses. We essentially get promoted into sitting at a desk all day.
As we get even older, near the end of our careers, our activity goes down even more. This time, though, it is intentional. We retire and don’t make up even the minimal activity we did at work. We might downsize our house, lose the yard and/or the stairs, meaning less activity at home. We feel as we get older, we’re less able to be as active, so we decide to do even less.
As activity decreases, so too does our fitness, and risk factors such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar and cholesterol may start to increase. In addition, your chance of getting a chronic disease and early death increases, since regular activity offers a protective benefit.
But it doesn’t all have to be doom and gloom. There is hope. It’s true that as we age, we might not be as strong as we used to be, and our endurance decreases as well as our speed. However, much of these changes are the result of not being active. It can’t all be put onto the fact we’re older.
People who were active and then stopped had a decrease in fitness seven times that of people who maintained a high level of activity. The active people still saw a decrease in fitness with age (about 1% over 10 years) but far less than if they had stopped being active.
When it comes to physical activity and health, our body doesn’t care what you used to do, it cares what you have done lately.
While it’s great to have been active in our 20s, it doesn’t mean much to our health if we stop and have been inactive for the next 30 years. The chances of you getting a chronic disease or dying early are no different from those people who were never active. Even though this is the reality for most of us, we don’t have to accept it.
The good news is it’s never too late to start exercising and increasing your physical activity. You can reap the benefits of activity at any age. Even if you were never active before. In fact, people who were never active when they were young who became active later in life had a 35% lower chance of death over a 14 year period. This was no different compared to people who were lifelong exercisers.
To simplify this, even if you were a couch potato in your teens and 20s, being active in your 40s to 60s can reduce your chance for disease and early death to the same extent as if you were active all your life.
Our body adapts in a number of positive ways to exercise even when starting in our 50s and older. The heart gets stronger, our balance increases reducing the risk of falls, our memory and brain function improve, along with benefits to our overall strength and well-being. Regular exercise is a great preventive medication.
It’s recommended that adults are active for 150 minutes per week, half of which should be in activities that get your heart and breathing rates up. Progressing to 300 minutes per week is ideal. For people over 65 years, the guidelines are similar with a greater emphasis on being active to maintain mobility and prevent loss of function. This is important for being able to do regular daily activities and live independently.
If it’s been a long time since you exercised (or maybe you never did), start out slow with something you enjoy doing. Activities such as walking, swimming or water aerobics are ways to be active without putting much work on your joints. You may want to talk to your family doctor or have an exercise stress test. Plus there’s lots of helpful advice on this website like how to set goals, how to fit in activity, strength training and when to increase the intensity of your activity. Above all, enjoy yourself when doing it.
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