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How to keep fit and healthy if you’re over 70

Dr Peter Herbert from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David is a leading authority on fitness in the older generation.

With a huge percentage of the population now at home, it is vital that we continue to keep fit or indeed use this time to improve our health and fitness. 

Many of those at home are over 70 and if they don’t already exercise and are particularly inactive, the benefits of exercise could be felt within a couple of weeks.

Here, Dr Peter Herbert, a Physiologist at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and a leading authority on fitness in the older generation offers some advice on ways people can exercise at home in order to improve their overall health:

Once you begin to appreciate the numerous health benefits of following a simple exercise programme – such as increased energy; feeling less breathless after completing simple tasks; weight loss and feeling your muscles becoming firmer –  you could end up including exercise as part of your everyday lives.

Put simply, there are two main components of fitness that when combined will give us most of what we need for a healthy, independent lifestyle. These two components are strength and stamina. Both can be improved in the coming months during a period of self-isolation.  Indeed, keeping our muscles strong and our heart healthy will positively improve our health related quality of life. 

Stamina (Aerobic fitness)

Government guidelines currently state that you’re allowed to leave the house for one form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household.  If you live in a rural area and can ensure that you can follow the strict social distancing measures currently in place, you may be able to get outside in the fresh air and spend some time in woods or quiet paths. Walking is the most simple form of exercise that can succeed in reducing fat, improving aerobic fitness and can give you an amazing psychological lift during and in particular, following the effort. For the absolute beginner, just 10 – 15 minutes at a gentle pace will be enough. Do this 3 or 4 times a week on alternate days aiming to increase the duration of your walk by a few minutes each time. By the time you can walk up to 30 minutes you can add some intensity by walking faster. Maybe 1 minute and then slower for 3 minutes, then 1 minute faster, and so on. Aim to get slightly out of breath on the 1 minute walks. Change your route, look for some hills. Changes are good and keep things interesting. After a few weeks you might even be checking your watch to see if you are getting quicker. Most of us have a competitive streak, even if we don’t want to admit it!  If you’re self-isolating and unable to leave the house for exercise, you could walk or jog around your garden. Indoors, you could run on the spot, or do step-ups on the bottom step of the stairs.

There are other ways of achieving health and fitness benefits with functional activity and be a way of improving stamina and muscle strength at the same time. Staying at home could be put to good use by spending more time in the garden, painting walls, mowing the lawn, or doing other jobs around the house. You would be amazed at how many calories can be used by these types of physical activity. Think of the jobs as being your exercise time and work that little bit harder. The very fact that becoming slightly breathless is your heart’s response to your work – and your heart has to work harder to provide the energy to keep you going. Over a period of time your aerobic (heart) fitness will improve.

 Strength (Muscle Fitness)

All you need to improve your muscle fitness is a couple of supermarket type shopping bags to use as dumbbells! You can put your weights in the bags – these could be tins of baked beans, bags of sugar etc. If the resistance is too high, take something out the bag. If it’s too light, add to it.

An excellent exercise that uses almost all the muscles of the body is, in weight lifting terms, the clean and jerk. For you, the improvised version would be: from standing, bend your knees; keep your back straight and pick up the two bags from the floor either side of your feet. When your legs are straight continue the upward movement of the bags and lift them until they’re level with your shoulders. If the weight is not too heavy, keep the movement going until your arms are pointing upwards above your head. This one movement will exercise the calves, thighs, backside, back, biceps, shoulders and triceps!

Experiment with the weight you add to the bags. Use a weight that allows you to perform the movement 10 times but becomes more difficult on the last 2 or three lifts. As you get used to this you will be able to add more resistance as you become stronger. 

It would add to your safety if you performed the movement with a chair close behind you. If you get too tired, just sit down. Do these exercises twice a week, on days you are not doing your stamina exercises. 

Make a serious commitment to your exercise regime. You should get stronger, burn extra calories for weight loss, provide the heart and lungs with a stimulus to keep healthy and most importantly, make you feel good about yourself.

If you are not used to exercise or activity, or have any medical issues you should contact your GP before commencing an exercise programme.