Effective exercises for older adults: expert tips to keep fit

August 01 2016

Updated: August 1st 2016

As we grow older, it becomes even more important that we stay active.

Research undertaken in Norway last year, and published in the British Medical Journal, found that by completing 30 minutes of exercise six days a week, you can increase your life expectancy by up to five years.

There are plenty of great exercises for older adults to do, but unfortunately it seems that far too many people struggle to stay active. Indeed, NHS Choices notes that many over-65s spend an average of ten hours or more sitting or lying down each day.

It’s imperative that this trend is reversed.


How often should I exercise as I get older?

Older people should aim to get 150 minutes of moderate exercise under their belts each week

According to NHS Choices, over-65s who are “generally fit and have no health conditions” should aim to be active every day.

It’s recommended that people in their senior years partake in at least 150 minutes of “moderate activity” a week. This could be anything from walking to pushing a lawnmower around the garden. Ideally, this will be split across a number of days.

Alternatively, you might opt to do 75 minutes of “vigorous aerobic activity”, such as running or playing a sport.

On top of this, older people should aim to do some strength exercises at least twice a week, working all of their major muscle groups.

As we’re about to find out, a lot depends on how fit and capable the individual is.


Who should I turn to for help?

For many older people, the hardest part about adopting a healthy lifestyle is getting started in the first place.

Heading to the gym for the first time can be daunting, but there will always be a friendly face there who will be more than happy to show you the ropes - especially if you live in Milton Keynes!

This is where DW’s Master Trainer Eddy Diget plies his trade; providing expert advice and drawing up exercise programmes for members of all ages.

If you haven’t read our Blog post about this incredible person, who is now 72, we strongly urge you to do so. You can find it here.

So, what is Eddy’s secret and what tips does he have for older people who are joining a gym for the first time?

Balance is key

“Most older folk are concerned about balance, and can be worried about moving their bodies in certain ways. Therefore, no matter what age they are, they should concentrate on ‘MOVEMENT’, both static and dynamic, as a start to fitness,” Eddy told us.

*Tip*: “If you are just starting out, you should avoid machines like the treadmill and cross trainer until you have enough confidence in your balance.”

Where is the best place to start?

“The best pieces of confidence-building equipment for any older person are cable machines and static bikes, as they are easier to use than having to remember various programmes to operate other pieces of gym equipment - this can come later,” Eddy continued.

“These are flexible, dynamic and very stable if you have a limb or joint issue. They also give the muscles throughout the body an opportunity to gain strength equally.”


Exercising through the pain: daily preparation is crucial

Start each day with a full-body stretch

Without wishing to generalise, it stands to reason that the older we get, the more injuries and ailments we will have to deal with.

This shouldn’t necessarily be a barrier to keeping fit, though.

Richard Pinchen is a personal trainer who has a 90-year-old client on his books. He believes that older people should start every day with a warm up to ensure their joints and muscles are primed for more rigorous exercise later on.

“Loosen those joints with some slow controlled shoulder rolls and gentle walking on the spot. Loosen each joint from neck to shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips and ankles with some gentle controlled rotations in both directions. Listen to your body and if you feel any discomfort, stop or ease back,” he remarked.

“Perform a full-body stretch holding each stretch for five to ten seconds. I tend to start at the top of the body and work down so you know you haven’t missed a muscle group.”

In addition to this, Richard suggested that one of the biggest mistakes that people make is sticking to the same rigid exercise regime. This is something that gym-goers of all ages are guilty of and is a sure fire way of hitting a dreaded exercise plateau.

"I have trained a man in his 90s who complained he had been using the same exercise regime since his 80s,” he added.

“Don’t be afraid to get in the gym. It’s never too late. It’s social so you can meet like-minded individuals of a similar age, plus there is a lot more choice of exercises available to you such as yoga, swimming, aqua classes and gym instructors who will be more than willing to help you with technique and exercise selection.”


Swimming exercises for older adults

Swimming is a great exercise for older people

As Richard alluded to, swimming is a great form of low-impact exercise for seniors.

Swimming can be an effective way to lose weight and tone up. This tool from swimming.org is really useful for figuring out roughly how many calories you’ll burn during a session.

For example, 30 minutes of breast stroke - a gentle stroke that is ideal for older people - will burn around 367 calories. It’s worth stressing that this is only a guideline, as the number of calories you burn will vary from person to person.

Joe Welstead, co-founder of www.motionnutrition.com, explained some of the other health benefits of getting in the pool.

“Swimming is a complex motor activity, meaning it requires you to move both upper and lower parts of your body simultaneously. This means you’ll not only get your blood flowing and your muscles pumping, but you’ll also be stimulating your brain. It can help strengthen your legs and your core, which is essential in preventing falls,” he commented.

“If you are a beginner, you may want to start with a water-based class, like aqua Zumba. Next, move on to a few lengths with a floating device like a pull buoy. If you are a comfortable swimmer, try changing up strokes regularly to work different parts of your body.”

You can find out more about DW’s swim, steam and spa facilities here.


Exercise classes for seniors

Group exercise classes like yoga and Pilates are perfect for older people.

Not only are they a fun way to get your weekly quota of physical activity under your belt, they’re also a fantastic place to socialise.

Farah Fonseca - a personal trainer, class instructor and recently-crowned England’s Strongest Woman - shared a useful workout plan for seniors to follow.

“Pilates and yoga are great because they're low-impact but can still be strenuous, increasing the heart rate to make sure there is still a cardiovascular workout happening. By doing (just a rough guideline)two swims per week, you can ensure all muscle groups are still being worked and that there is a cardiovascular workout, as we all need a healthy heart!

“Classes such as spinning (again less impact) and Aqua Aerobics will both be great for weight loss as you're able to get a real sweat on and you can work at the intensity that YOU want. Meaning each week you can push yourself that little bit more in order to burn those few extra calories.”


Find a class at your local gym


Diet tips for older people to follow

Kale and broccoli are great for your bones

You simply must get your diet right in order to fuel your workouts. Here are five tips from the experts.

1) Cut back on alcohol

We spoke to Elaine Hindal, Chief Executive of alcohol education charity Drinkaware, who highlighted figures from Public Health England, which showed the number of over-65s being admitted to hospital for alcohol-related problems is on the rise.

“Not only is alcohol packed full of ‘empty calories’ which have no nutritional value, but it can slow down the amount of calories you’re able to burn through exercise.

"Cutting back your alcohol intake can have a positive effect on both your waistline and your long-term health,” she commented.

Remember, one pint of 4% beer is the equivalent of one slice of pizza, while one large glass of 13% wine is the same as an ice cream.

Drinkaware’s unit & calorie counter is a great tool for working out how many calories are in your favourite tipples.


2) Up your protein and calcium intake

Luke Thornton, a fitness advisor for Discount Supplements, told us why this is important.

“As we age, we become less sensitive to protein so upping our protein intake each day may be worth looking into. It doesn’t mean a huge increase, but for most a gentle increase can certainly help muscle maintenance and development,” he remarked.

“Osteoporosis is a big issue particularly amongst the older generation. High-quality sources of calcium include broccoli and kale, which are absorbed nearly TWICE as well as calcium from milk, plus all of the other benefits too. In short, eat plenty of fruits and veggies, including broccoli and kale if you can.”

Kale and broccoli are rich sources of vitamin K, which play a key role in calcium regulation and bone formation. Studies have linked increased consumption of vitamin K with a reduced risk of hip fracture in men and women.


3) Give your digestive system a workout

Nutritionist, author and fat-loss mentor, Fiona Kirk - who has written the book 'Diet Secrets Uncovered for Seniors' - said that it’s tempting to stick with “plain and simple” foods so as not to overstretch the digestive system too much.

This, she stressed, is a big mistake.

“Taxing the digestive system and asking it to ‘go up a gear’ is the best possible way to keep it healthy! To get maximum nourishment from the foods we eat, we have to ensure that each stage in the digestion, absorption and elimination process is in good working order,” Fiona told us.

“Raw and lightly-cooked vegetables in particular not only provide the body with a plentiful supply of energy-enhancing carbohydrates, vitamins and protective plant chemicals, but also give the digestive system an excellent ‘workout’.”


4) Be open to vitamin D supplements

Fitness and nutrition expert Callum Melly pointed out that UK residents are dealt a poor hand when it comes to getting enough vitamin D.

We’ve talked about the “sunshine vitamin” before, and it’s a problem that people of all ages have to deal with.

“Vitamin D is essential for promoting strong and healthy bones which is important as we get older! Another good supplement is omega 3, this essential fatty acid that can’t be produced by the body is beneficial for improved brain function, promoting heart health and joint support, all of which again are important later on in life,” Callum told us.


5) Never run out of eggs!

Fiona is another advocate of the humble egg, which as we’ve discussed before, is a nutritional marvel.

“Possibly the quickest, cheapest and best snack in the world is a cold boiled egg. A great source of protein, rich in healthy fats and remarkably filling despite its size! Of course, you can also quickly scramble them, poach them or lightly fry them in coconut oil and have them on toast at any time of the day.”


A case study: 67-year-old Robert Respinger

As well as the aforementioned Mr Diget, we spoke to another inspirational person who is making a mockery of those who say you can’t stay in shape once you get past 65 years of age.

Robert Respinger - Founder of www.purecolsport.com - is a 67-year-old ex-pro squash player and despite suffering from joint pain, he exercises five to seven times a week.

He commented: “The main thing is that I exercise. I find it helps the stress levels as you can switch off from the work routine. Cardiovascular is good, muscle tone is good and the combination of regular squash and gym work keeps me in good shape.”

Robert also revealed that he’s an advocate of the ‘Tabata workout’, which is a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) - not something you’d naturally associate with older gym-goers.

His current routine involves the following…

• I have a good warm up, which I think is very important.

• First of all I use the rowing machine to get the heart rate up and the muscles warm.

• Then I go on to the bikes for five to six reps of more warm-ups and stretching, followed by five to six reps of 20-second sprints and ten seconds of rest.

• I then go into the gym to do maybe three sets of abs, legs, thighs, etc. – ten reps in each. I do another Tabata session of six exercises, spending 20 seconds on each.

• I do this three times and that’s my workout completed. It takes no more than one hour. There’s no need for any more. I can do more in 30 minutes than most others do in an hour or more!

We’re not suggesting for a second that everybody can emulate Robert, but it goes to show that if you stay disciplined, prioritise your fitness and understand the benefits of certain exercises, you won’t go far wrong!

You can check out our senior membership offers here.


Claim your free Fitness First guest pass

Find a club near you