Every time I prepare for some exercise, I have to remind myself why I do it. We all know significant changes happen to our bodies as we age, making us more susceptible to aches and pains, but it is also the subtle and gradual changes that I find interesting and motivating.

Physical Decline

Last year I had my wedding ring resized because it became difficult to remove (for cleaning purposes!) over my thickening knuckle. Nowadays I also struggle to undo jar lids and open tin cans as I lose some handgrip strength. These are quite minor changes to live with, but they serve to remind me that they are not the only body parts that will start to show signs of wear and tear.

As we age, changes occur in our muscles; the muscle fibres shrink and the number of fibres reduces, and they become less toned and less able to contract. In addition, our ligaments (the parts that connect bones to other bones in the joints), and our tendons (that attach muscle to bone and support movement of the bones) become less elastic. As a result, the movement of our joints becomes more restricted.

Some joints are characterised by the presence of cartilage between bones to provide cushioning, such as the disks between the vertebrae in our spines. This cartilage breaks down with age and may cause rubbing that can lead to joint inflammation and arthritis.

The joints with the most movement, such as the hips, have cavities separating the bone ends that are lined with synovial membranes containing a fluid. The volume of this fluid decreases as we age and this exacerbates the rubbing in the joint.

And there’s more…

We may experience calcification of our joints due to mineral deposits, particularly in the shoulder, causing that creakiness on movement. And osteoporosis may occur, when the bones thin and become fragile. Not only does this make us more at risk from fractures but if it affects the vertebrae of the spine, can cause the hunched-over posture often referred to as Dowager’s Hump. While this disease is more prevalent in women due to the lack of oestrogen after the menopause, men are also susceptible.

So, now the important question…

Are these physical changes inevitable?

Well, to a certain extent, yes, and the rate of change will also be influenced by your genes, but undertaking regular exercise will help to delay the onset and slow the progression of some changes.

Recent research from the Universities of Birmingham and Kings College London found that a group of cyclists, men and women aged between 55 and 79 years of age, who had maintained a good level of activity for most of their lives, showed no loss of muscle or bone mass.

Also, their immune systems had remained as efficient as that of 20-year-olds. This means they can fight infection and cancers, and can respond effectively to immunisations (such as the flu jab). This positive outcome occurred because the group experienced no shrinkage of an organ called the thymus gland, which makes new immune cells.

As Professor Janet Lord from the University of Birmingham says in the following video:

“staying physically active all of your adult life can prevent much of what we think of as ageing”

But it’s never too late and different types of exercise will help with particular aspects of the ageing process, so it’s a good idea to vary what you do. This is good news for those of us who get bored easily.

Setting personal goals

At this point I should say that for me to get motivated about doing anything, I need to identify a good reason or purpose and often this means having a specific goal. I also find it helpful to set short-term goals as well as a long-term overarching goal.

But before goal-setting, you need to decide just how important it is for you to take regular exercise. It might help to imagine a future you who takes exercise and compare that person with an alternative future you who doesn’t exercise. If, as a result of this, you do think that regular exercise is important, decide which activities might suit you and fit them into your current lifestyle.

Take things slowly and gradually build to where you want to be. Learn to tune in to your body and pay attention to how you are feeling. Be aware of occasions when you need to adjust your exercise routine to suit yourself and substitute other activity if you are unable to work-out to your maximum on any given day.

I have decided that my short-term goals are to feel more energized, to maintain a good healthy weight, and continue to enjoy my food. My long-term goal is to stay independently mobile until I am at least 90-years-old, so I can still take myself to the bathroom!

Now I am not a fitness expert and there is plenty of good advice available about the different types of exercise we should try and why. If you have any medical conditions or concerns, you should seek appropriate professional advice before starting your own regime. But I thought it might be useful to run through what I do and the reasons for my choices.

I choose exercise

One of my favourite activities is walking with my husband in the Brecon Beacons mountains and along the coastal paths of Pembrokeshire in Wales. We only get to do that a few times a year and keeping fit enough to continue doing this into the future is a real priority for me.

It seemed sensible to choose an aerobic exercise that maintains the muscles I need for this type of walking. We live in a small cottage with little room for any exercise equipment, and gym membership doesn’t work for me in terms of time and budget. But I discovered a simple, relatively inexpensive climbing machine that folds flat and is easy to assemble.

I hadn’t exercised aerobically for a while aside from walking, so I started with a gentle 5 to10 minute work-out and built up to my current routine over several weeks; building fitness takes time these days!

I now include some high-intensity interval (HIIT) training on the climbing machine. This happened after I heard about the results of research undertaken at Nottingham University that compared a traditional moderately intense exercise routine of 150 minutes a week with much shorter HIIT routines. I should say that HIIT hurts a little more, but it’s over quicker!

Dr Beth Phillips from the university’s research team said:

“The volunteers who did HIIT in the lab improved their VO2 max (maximal oxygen consumption) by 17%, which is huge, a really significant increase. And following not too far behind with a 12% improvement were our Home HIITers. A 12% improvement in VO2 max is what you might expect from a much longer traditional endurance training.”

Dr Michael Mosley, a medical doctor and television presenter who worked with the team and now includes regular HIIT in his routine, has found that he also has less of an appetite and finds it easier to control his blood glucose levels:

Over the years, I have enjoyed the occasional yoga and Pilates class, and because of some long-standing issues with my hips and back, I make sure I include a few simple stretches after my aerobic sessions, together with some tummy toning exercises, lunges and squats.

I go to a weekly dance-based class with my daughter whenever I can; thankfully it does not require me to follow any challenging choreography, just enough to keep my brain cells active. It’s mainly just for fun but I always feel like I’ve worked hard. And by the way, I recommend always exercising to music unless you are outdoors, in which case just enjoy the birdsong.

A suggested exercise routine

I have found that the most important aspect of effective exercise is consistency. You don’t need to set ‘personal records’, and regular short routines are much more effective than infrequent heavy work-outs.

I now use my climbing machine 3 times a week for 30 minutes each session, including at least 3 intervals of high intensity for 60 seconds. You may prefer other equipment — a stationary bike, rower, jogger, or stepper for example, or maybe jogging or cycling outdoors; the best option is whatever you enjoy doing because that’s where you’ll find it easiest to make a regular commitment.

Some additional suggestions:

  • Take a brisk walk around the local park for 45 minutes at least twice a week. Although low-impact, walking is one of the very best activities for the older person.
  • Try a dance-based class for around an hour once a week. Movement to music is great for the body and soul!
  • I highly recommend a 20 to 30-minute session combining Pilates and Yoga stretching for flexibility and strengthening, at least 3 times a week. I find this particularly helpful for my hips and creaky back, and usually do this after my sessions on the climber.
  • Add some resistance training whenever you can, to maintain your strength and bone density. Bodyweight training is fine, maybe a few push-ups, pull-ups, lunges or squats.
  • Get plenty of rest. Your body only adapts to exercise while you are resting, more so the ageing body!

If you don’t currently take any regular exercise (and 80% of us don’t), then maybe take a few minutes right now to think about what might work for you, and how you could fit more physical activity into your lifestyle. It will be worth it and your body will thank you later, I promise.