Is physical activity the Holy Grail of successful ageing?

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We are all too aware that as we age we may experience some decline in our physical, sensory and cognitive function that makes it more challenging for us to do a variety of activities of daily living or play our favourite sport, while also increasing our risk of chronic health diseases and falls. So what are some ways that we can minimise these age-related declines in our functional ability and reduce our risk of disease and falls?

Regular performance of a variety of physical activities may be the actual Holy Grail that enables us to remain functional and healthy into our final years. We can see this if we search YouTube where we’ll find a variety of individuals around 90 years of age participating at an elite level in a variety of sporting and recreational activities. These include:

Ballroom dancing

The 100 m sprint in athletics

Or lifting 130 kg from the floor in a powerlifting competition

So what is it that allows all of these nonagenarians to put many people in their 20s to shame? The answer is they have continued to be physically active throughout their life.  While most of us will not achieve their level of performance if we are lucky enough to reach the age of 90 years, we should use their achievements as an inspiration to what remaining physically active can do for us.  The question therefore becomes what type of physical activity did these and other functional and healthy older adults perform?  The answer to this is often a wide variety of physical activities.  Just as our parents thought it was important for us to perform a wide range of physical activities and sports as kids so that we would develop into well-rounded adults, it’s also important that as we age we continue to do variety of physical activities.  This is because each form of physical activity has somewhat different benefits.

For example, cardiovascular exercises such as walking, swimming and cycling improve our aerobic fitness and reduce our risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and diabetes.  Resistance (strength) training which can be performed in a gym or at home with bodyweight, dumbbell or theraband (elastic band) resistance offers the best way to increase muscle mass, strength and endurance.  Other household activities such as gardening, carrying and lifting household objects and walking up hills can also be considered forms of resistance training that will help maintain our muscle mass and function.  Balance exercises are also vitally important in order to improve our balance, with improved balance allowing us to perform many more activities of daily living without the risk of falls.  Sporting activities such as golf, tennis and even lawn bowls also have a range of physical benefits.

We also need to consider that being physically active provides us opportunities for a range of mental health benefits. The increased oxygen supply to the brain during exercise can improve our cognitive function including memory and decision making.  Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety can also be reduced by becoming more physically active, perhaps due to the release of a range of neurotransmitters from the brain but also due to the increased opportunities for socialisation. These increased opportunities for socialisation can be just as important as the physical benefits, as after retirement we may lose contact with many of the people that we’ve worked with.

Based on the breadth and strength of this evidence, we therefore suggest you look at remaining as physically active as you possibly can. If you have any concerns about possible risks of increasing your physical activity, you should discuss these with your doctor and perhaps request a referral to an accredited exercise physiologist who will be able to assist you (often at no additional cost) develop an appropriate physical activity program for your needs.