The Ultimate Guide to Working Out and Continuing to Exercise in Later Life
Lavina Mehta isn’t your ordinary PT. A mum-of-three, Mehta specialises in working with members of the South Asian community, inspired by statistics indicating that this section of the population was not only significantly less physically active, but also at higher risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Her other specialty is in encouraging older adults to exercise more. Throughout the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, Mehta provided free online workouts for seniors (offered in both English and Gujarati), joined by her 73-year old mother-in-law. While Joe Wicks was inspiring the nation’s youth, Mehta was working wonders at the other end of the life spectrum with her sterling work leading to an MBE for services to health and fitness during COVID-19.
A friend of Form, Mehta was kind enough to pass on her expertise around this important topic for us, breaking down the benefits of working out in later life along with some handy tips on how older adults can adapt their exercise regimes accordingly.
The Importance Of Continuing To Exercise
Physical activity, however small, will help you stay mobile and able to do everyday tasks for longer, improving your stamina, strength, flexibility and balance so you can stay independent for longer.
Not only that, but keeping active also helps you sleep well, eat well, maintain a healthy weight, stay social, strengthen muscles and bones in turn reducing the risk of falls and fractures, keep your bowels healthy, manage blood pressure and stave off a series of long-term conditions and diseases.
In sum, it will help you continue enjoying the things you love for as long as possible and might even help you keep up with the grandkids.
And don’t forget that what’s good for the body is good for the mind too. There’s a clear link between physical activity levels and cognitive performance, thinking and memory, while the impact of staying active for people with dementia is huge, with evidence to suggest that physical activity may slow down mental decline.
Staying active will also boost your mood and mental wellbeing, as well as help alleviate stress and anxiety. My slogan through the pandemic has been to “exercise for sanity, not vanity”.
Busting Myths Around Exercising In later Life
“I’ve Never Exercised Before And Now I’m Too Old”
Our bodies were made to move, and it’s a myth that getting older means an end to being active. Plus, adults who become active later in life often show greater physical and mental improvements than their younger counterparts, so you should be able to quickly reap the rewards.
Looking after yourself doesn’t have to mean working up a sweat or joining a gym – just a few small changes can make a big difference to your physical and mental health.
“I Don’t Have The Time To Do A Long Workout”
According to a 2020 study, just one minute of exercise per week is enough to provide health benefits to people over the age of 65, so it’s better to do something than nothing. Sitting for too long isn’t good for your health, so try to sit less and move more. The trick is to do what you can, as often as you can, and keeping at it. The best way to make it a habit is to keep it simple. Being active shouldn’t feel like a chore, so find something that you enjoy and suits you – you’re much more likely to stick with it.
“I Can’t Reverse Some Of The Conditions And Pains That I Already Have”
I have received amazing feedback from so many about improvements in their blood pressure, cholesterol levels, diabetes, and aches and pains. In fact, my own mother-in-law’s osteoarthritis and knee pain has disappeared. She also had a fall a few months ago which would have typically caused a fracture but as she’s been doing strength training in our workouts and it has helped increase her bone density by combating osteoporosis.
Mentally she has also seen measurable improvements, and she now has more energy and is able to do more. The fact that the workouts help others has given her such a purpose and she says she feels so much happier.
“I Need A Gym Membership And Fancy Equipment”
The pandemic has revolutionised the fitness industry and so many people are more comfortable and confident working out from home. So much content is free and there are many online workouts like mine that teach proper form and technique to help make it easy and free to workout from home.
I also encourage people to use safe household objects like tins, plastic bottles and cartons as weights, as well as resistance bands — you can even use a pair of tights instead — in my workouts. You do not need expensive gym equipment or a gym membership.
How To Increase Your Exercise As An Older Adult
The Government guidelines for physical activity for older adults recommend two strength training sessions and 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week, which works out to just over 20 minutes a day.
Hitting the guidelines, changing habits and starting to live healthier might seem daunting for older adults, so I recommend starting off small and taking short, bitesize bouts of movement throughout the day, even if it’s just five minutes. These add up and you can then gradually increase over time to build confidence. Think of these exercise snacks as a treat for your body and your mind.
Optimise Your Walking Opportunities
Try and set yourself achievable, snack-sized goals every day. For example, you might go for a 10 minute “feel-good walk snack” outside in your garden or local park — ideally among nature to boost the mental health benefits. After each meal is particularly good, as it helps control your blood sugar and helps you tie it on to an existing habit.
Every step counts so try walking about when you’re on the phone or walk to the shops instead of jumping in the car. Maybe use the stairs instead of the lifts, get off the bus a stop earlier than usual, and choose a parking space a bit further away from the shops.
Strength, Stair And Stretch Snacking
It’s important to cover a spectrum for older adults so in practical terms might that mean being able to walk longer distances, climb stairs, stand up independently and continue to get washed and dressed on your own.
What I like to call strength snacking can help here, with just some simple bodyweight moves like squats or press ups against the kitchen worktop while the kettle is boiling. And that traditional squat could be adapted to a ‘sit and stand’ — starting off on a chair and using it to support yourself as you try to stand up, even if it’s only hovering a few inches then sitting back down.
Alternatively, the shoulder press is good for mimicking functional movements like being able to reach up and put things on a shelf.
It’s important to keep in mind there is a degree of progression with these exercises. With the ‘sit and stand’, you can progress to fully standing up, unsupported, if that’s possible for you, and then maybe progressing to holding a weight, or adding in a full shoulder press at the top.
As well as strength snacking, you could also try “stair snacking” by climbing three flights of stairs, three times a day, or doing a “stretch snack” by getting up and stretching if you’ve been sat down a while.
Balance Work Everyday
I also encourage older adults to undertake balance work everyday, like standing on one leg with or without support. As we get older, our muscle strength and balance reduces, which can lead to a fall. Exercises designed to improve muscle strength can reduce your risk of a fall by improving your posture, coordination and balance. Movements that encourage hip mobility like hip circles keep the joints mobile and flexible and work the body through a full range of movement.
The Chair Workout
The free seniors workout videos I made throughout the pandemic with my 73 year old mother-in-law are all saved for replay on my YouTube Channel, and incorporate a range of specially devised exercises you can do while sitting in a chair. They’re a great way to improve your flexibility and strength, and you can even watch the telly while you do them.
I also demonstrate standing options and aim to break down the barriers to where exercise can be done, emphasising that you can do it anywhere, whether it’s in your bedroom, kitchen, or lounge. I’ve had such a fantastic feedback from participants — so many have never exercised regularly before, let alone on platforms like Instagram and YouTube.
Find more workouts and information at feelgoodwithlavina.com