10 myths about exercising as you get older

Over-80s marathon world record holder Ed Whitlock
Over-80s marathon world record holder Ed Whitlock

Think it’s too late to start exercising? Here are 10 myths about exercising as you get older.

There’s obviously something in the water where I live… because it seems that most people in my village have bodies that ‘work’ younger than their actual age.

Two weeks ago I was given the opportunity to showcase some of my skills at a neighbourhood event at our village hall.

To get people involved and interested, I took my biometric scales along that tell people their metabolic age – the age at which their bodies burn calories when compared to averages for various age groups.

I was surprised at the results. Of the 18 people I tested, all of them seniors, only two showed a metabolic age greater than their years – and then it was only a couple of years over what it should be.

One chap blew me away. He was in his late-70s, had athletic levels of 12 per cent body fat and a metabolic age 18 years younger than he should have.

Living on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales might help – people here do a lot of walking and tend to live active lifestyles – but that is the exception rather than the norm.

According to the NHS, people 65 and older spend 10 hours a day sitting or lying down – more than any other age group. And while it might be expected that people slow down as they get older, there are good reasons to keep on moving for as long as we can. You’ll find some of them as counteractions to the below myths.

I don’t have time to exercise
Yes you do… According to the American College of Sports Medicine, health benefits can be seen from doing just 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week. That’s 30 minutes on five days a week – and still gives you two rest days. What’s more, those 30 minutes don’t need to be continuous either, but could be 3 x 10 minute slots a day. Moderate intensity exercise would see you breathing heavier than normal, but still able to keep up a conversation. Things like housework don’t really count unless you are moving things around, but walking to the shop to pick up a paper, doing some gardening, sitting on a chair and standing up repeatedly would all count.

It’s too late in life to make a difference
It’s true that the body slows down as we get older – but thankfully that doesn’t mean it stops. The world record for an over-80s marathon is 3 hours 15 minutes – that’s better than my own personal best, as well as the PBs of  loads of other people I know who run ultramarathons. I’m not advocating you go out and start training for a 26-mile race, but it does show what can be done. A lot of the risk factors we associate with growing old – such as a lack of balance and instability – are actually caused by inactivity.

It costs too much
Sure, you can join a posh gym and spend £90 a month in subscriptions, but equally you can join senior classes that might only cost a pound or two. And walking – one of the major exercises we can all benefit from by doing more – costs nothing.

I have a chronic illness
Heart disease, stroke, diabetes, some cancers, depression, dementia, obesity, osteoporosis… scientific studies show that sufferers of all the above can benefit from exercise. If you want to stay mentally alert and mobile for as long as possible, exercise can help. The big muscle group at the front of your calves, the quadriceps, are nicknamed your ‘independence muscles’ for a reason – lose them and you lose your independence. Keep them strong by walking, running and doing sit-to-stand or squat exercises.

I might have a heart attack
While the risk is incredibly low, yes you might – but you are just as likely, if not more so, to have one as a result of not exercising. Your heart is made up of muscle – and the best way to keep it strong is to exercise it.

My joints won’t hold up to exercise
Do you suffer from arthritis? If so, studies show that exercising can help relieve the pain. In simple terms, osteoarthritis occurs when small spurs grow from bones that meet at a joint capsule. When you move the joint, those spurs rub against each other and cause pain as they break off. But by moving the joint regularly, the spurs are constantly worn down offering pain release. The biggest problems occur when you stop moving the joint and the spurs grow long and crash against each other.

I might have a fall
Exercise is great for improving proprioception – often called the sixth sense, it’s the body’s natural ability to sense position, motion, and equilibrium. In simple terms, it’s the body knowing where its parts are without you having to look!

Exercise is for younger people
Pay a visit to a gym in your area and take a look at the clientele… most of them will be over 30s and you’ll see people exercising well into older life. People today are living longer and enjoying more active lifestyles because of exercise, not in spite of it. If you feel as though a gym environment is too young for you – look for off-peak specials when the gym is less busy and many people are at work. Alternatively, have an exercise professional draw up a programme for you at home, or visit a senior centre. Look at other forms of exercise too – thanks to TV shows such as Strictly Come Dancing, there are ballroom dancing classes in most major towns and many villages.

I’m worried about my bones or I suffer from osteopenia/osteoporosis
Women are more prone to brittle bone disease than men are – and one of the major factors that can slow down the onset of osteopenia/osteoporosis is weight-bearing exercise. By lifting weights (they don’t have to be large or heavy) you encourage the growth of osteoblasts – cells that build bone.

I don’t want to get too big or look musclebound
And so you shouldn’t if you don’t want to… but it’s unlikely if not impossible that you will ever start to look too big. Increasing the size of muscles is incredibly hard work, requires a lot of dedication, a high-protein (and often high-calorie) diet and would require you to lift big weights regularly. If you’re still concerned, speak to an exercise specialist who can advise on the correct exercises, weight size, sets of exercises and repetitions to ensure you achieve the results you wish.

I have an active ageing qualification and am trained in teaching special populations such as those with diabetes, osteopenia/osteoporosis, dementia and obesity covered by the Exercise Referral scheme.