Five fitness tips that could prevent poor health in old age

The problem with fat (subcutaneous not dietary) is that it encourages binary thinking. If you can fit into an aeroplane seat or those jeans you’ve had for a decade, it’s easy to assume you’re winning: you aren’t part of this obesity crisis everyone’s talking about, and nobody’s going to make a harrowing C4 documentary about you or haul you out of your house on a crane.

And as for all these fat people wandering about, eating Gregg’s pastiesand going venti on their frappucinos, what’s their problem? Eat less, move more; it’s not complicated. Whatever you’re doing works all right. You don’t have to worry. You’re fine.

Well, sorry: you do have to worry. We all have to worry. We’re all going to live longer – according to the Office of National Statistics, as a man you can expect to hit 79 – and, while that’s good news, there’s a decent chance that, without taking steps to prevent it, you’ll spend those bonus years indepressingly poor health. “The increase in healthy life expectancy has not been as dramatic as the growth of life expectancy,” write researchers in a recent edition of online medical health journal the Lancet. “And as a result, people are living more years with illness and disability.”

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So: let’s assume you’re not medically-definably fat. Congratulations! Perhaps you’ve snuck under the wire of the outmoded BMI system, which doesn’t take muscle into account and will happily classify you as ‘obese’ even if you’re built like an Incredible Hulk-era Lou Ferrigno. Hopefully you’re actually using your body fat percentage as a measure instead, and you’re somewhere in the 8-19 per cent range that the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition considers ‘healthy’.

At the very least, let’s assume your waist circumference is less than half your height, which most health professionals consider to be a decent marker of longevity. If you’re simply pulling that off through fortuitous genetics and no exercise ever, well, there’s no reason to be smug: if you want to spend your last days on the planet getting off the toilet unassisted, there’s more you can do.

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And to go one further: even if you already get some exercise and eat reasonably well, there’s still more you can do. There are clear links between the right sorts of physical activity and living better in your old age, and chances are you aren’t hitting all of them yet.

Here’s your five-step plan to a happier dotage.


Walk around more

It’s arguably better than running. It’s low-stress, low-impact, easy to incorporate into your daily routine, and studies have linked it to everything from improved heart health to a decreased risk of stroke. Those advice columns suggesting getting off the bus/Tube early might seem ridiculous – why would you intentionally make your commute longer? – but even a little bit helps. 10,000 steps a day – often suggested as the critical point for serious health change – is a bit more than two miles. Figure out a way to get there.

Do the ‘Batwing’

Years of hunching forward – whether over your laptop, phone or desk – are tightening your muscles and giving you an old-man hunch. Fix it with an exercise you can do in the time it takes to boil a kettle: without getting sweaty or crawling on the floor. To do the Batwing, stand a foot or so from a wall and lean back against it. Press your elbows into the wall and bring your thumbs to your armpits. Hold for 10 seconds, relax and repeat. Get into the habit to fix your scapula and redress some of the damage.

Build some strength

Running isn’t enough: there’s good evidence that resistance exercise – thestrength-building sort – will strengthen bones, reduce the risk of osteoperosis in and even lessen your chances of getting dementia. This doesn’t mean you have to join a gym: press-ups and pull-ups (get a bar for your house) are a good start, and you can do them while you watch TV or wait for a bath to run. Multiple, short sets are one option – try a few reps on the minute, every minute, for 10 minutes – or, if time’s a factor, one set to failure before your morning shower’s better than nothing.

Stand up four times an hour

You’ve heard the muttering about chairs: they constrict circulation, cause tightening of the muscles, send your glutes to sleep – but if you’re not at the sort of progressive company that encourages walk-along meetings and standing desks, what’s to be done? The simplest fix is to stand up occasionally: just getting to your feet for a second, bracing your abs and sitting back down is enough to undo some of the damage. Try to do it every 15 minutes.

Do ‘loaded carries’

Your workout secret weapon. Moves like the farmer’s walk, fireman’s carry or just wandering around with a heavy backpack on are arguably better than a bench-press session: they’ll activate more muscles, force your lower back to work, and improve your grip (a key indicator of health in later life). Find a way to incorporate them into your life: whether that’s a big shop a couple of times a week, helping friends move house, or taking more stuff to walk than you strictly need. Remember: your weekly Ocado delivery is killing you.

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