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Stay active to stop 'senior moments'

What’s good for your heart is also good for your brain. Judy Hobson reveals why older people should get into the exercise habit

Did you know your senior moments could be down to inactivity and that five 30 minute sessions of moderate exercise a week such as walking or swimming could reduce your risk of developing dementia?

A study published in European Geriatric Medicine last year, involving 1400 men and women whose average age was 66, found those with the strongest muscles had the sharpest minds. What is good for your heart, it seems, is also good for your brain.

However, many older people spend ten or more hours every day sitting at their computer or watching TV. Indeed statistics from the British Heart Foundation reveal that two out of five adults in the UK are so physically inactive they are putting their health at risk.

Inactivity slows the body's metabolism, making it difficult to maintain a healthy weight and regulate blood sugars, which increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

"Being physically active is probably the single most important thing any of us can do to stay healthy and independent," says Benjamin Ellis, senior clinical policy adviser at Arthritis Research UK, "and the single most important thing an older person can do is to find an exercise they enjoy that works for them."

As we age, however, aches and pains become more common and often deter people from exercising. According to Arthritis Research UK, half of over-75s have osteoarthritis, causing pain in their joints. A study for Puressentiel, a range of muscle and joint remedies, found eight out of ten over-55s had painful shoulders, knees and necks.

Benjamin says "The evidence is clear. Resting painful joints only leads to them becoming weaker. It also risks weight gain, which puts even more strain on the joints. Regular exercise is one of the best ways to reduce your pain, maintain your independence and reduce your chances of falling or breaking a bone. It also boosts your mental health.

"If you're in pain, it can feel counterintuitive to move and do more, but id you have arthritis, exercise is one of the best things you can do to reduce your symptoms. However, health professionals need to recognise how hard it can be to exercise if you have joint pain and haven't been physically active before.

“Discussions should explore your hopes and fears and try to find something that will work for you, because if exercising is miserable, boring or unaffordable, people aren’t going to do it.”

Dan Jones is a chartered physiotherapist who works with the Cardiff Blues rugby team. He believes we have become an unfit nation because of our modern way of life where we rely on cars, TVs and computers, do desk-bound jobs and eat high-calorie food.

Dan points out: “Our body’s ability to maintain muscle mass declines as we age. It is difficult to prevent this, but exercise can go some way to reducing this rate of decline. Put simply, it is a case of use it or lose it.

“Neck and shoulder problems are becoming increasingly common among those who spend long hours staring at a screen. Anyone who uses a computer will be familiar with the way muscle tension and tightness can build up around the neck and shoulders. Over time this sort of tension will begin to shorten these muscles and lead to more tension and muscle pain. When it comes to knee and back pain, lack of fitness and obesity are major factors”

In the past when people had lower back pain they took to their beds, but today GPs recommend exercise because this helps strengthen their backs, relieving the stiffness and pain.

A 2011 study in the American Annals of Internal Medicine reported that people with back pain recovered faster after doing a 12-week course of yoga. The Alexander Technique, which teaches people how to improve their posture, has also been shown to be beneficial.

But is it safe to start exercising in your fifties, sixties or seventies if you have done very little physical activity in the past?

The good news, according to Dan, who runs a clinic in Cardiff, is that it is never too late to start doing some low-level exercise.

Even people with painful joints, he says, will benefit from low-impact exercise such as walking, cycling and swimming. He suggests they first manage their pain with massage and using essential oils with a proven track record because this will help them relax and relieve any aches.

A clinical trial, published in the French journal Cahier d’Aromatherapie in 2014, found that 98 per cent of patients with muscular pain showed an immediate reduction in pain after using the Puressentiel muscles and joints roller. The roller, Dan explains, recreates the technique of deep transversal massage that physiotherapists use to treat painful tendons, ligaments and muscles.

“The key is for the physiotherapist to find the most appropriate form of exercise for the individual. Then they will discover that exercise not only reduces their pain but also improves their general health.”

Benjamin agrees: “It is finding what they enjoy and what works for them. For some this means doing something at home, others like to be outdoors, in a gym or in the water. Some enjoy exercising in groups while others prefer to be on their own.

“The best programmes combine strengthening and stretching for joints and muscles, aerobic exercise for the heart and lungs and balance exercises to reduce the risk of falls. Some find being in the water supports their joints, so swimming or aqua-aerobics are perfect for them.

“Once you’ve found a form of exercise that works for you, start off with small amounts of it, but do it regularly. All of us should aim to do 30 minutes of moderate activity, the sort which gets you slightly out of breath, five days a week.

“You don’t need to do the whole half-hour at once. It works just as well if you break it down into three ten-minute bursts. This can feel more manageable when you’re starting out.”

He adds: “Some people with arthritis find physical activity makes their pain worse or that they’re not strong enough to do the exercise. If this sounds like you, then you may need to see a physiotherapist for a full assessment and to advise you on which exercises you can do at home.

“For example, if you have knee arthritis, building up the muscles at the front of the thigh can be helpful. This can be achieved through dedicated exercises or using an exercise bike.”

If you are deterred from going to a gym because you imagine you will be confronted by the super-fit, you can start your own exercise programme by simply taking a walk.

Dan advises: “Include movement whenever you can. Stand up every hour, stretch and take a five-minute walk around the block or your home. Get off the bus a stop earlier and instead of using the lift take the stairs. These little changes, which you can easily incorporate into your everyday life, will help reduce your risk of joint pain and improve your fitness.

“There is absolutely no doubt that strong muscles support a strong body and mind, and that it’s never too late to reap the benefit of increased exercise.”

Benjamin adds: “It’s better to do a small amount of something most days than to do a long weekly session if that leaves you exhausted and in pain. But if you do decide an exercise class is for you, it’s fine to tell the instructor on your first visit that you only want to do 20 minutes or less to see how you go. In between classes you can do some of the exercises every day at home. If you do this, you’ll soon find you’ll be able to do more.

“Exercise is safe if you listen to your body, go with what feels right initially building up gradually over weeks and months. If you commit to doing a bit most days, you’ll be amazed by the improvement in your fitness, stamina and mood.”

Find out more

If you want to know more about exercise and arthritis, tel: 0800 5200 520 or log on to: (

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