Practice question

How do I encourage older people to become physically active?

Types of physical activity that can benefit older adults and some suggested resources
Picture shows a group of older people hiking in the countryside

Types of physical activity that can benefit older adults and some suggested resources

Undertaking physical activity is beneficial to the mind and body regardless of age (Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) 2019) . For older adults, it can reduce the risk of the following:

  • Cardiovascular disease by up to 35%.
  • Type 2 diabetes by up to 40%.
  • Some cancers by up to 20%.
  • Joint and back pain by up to 25%.
  • Falls by up to 30%.

It is never too late for people to become more physically active

Physical activity can also help maintain bone density, reduce the likelihood of dementia,

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Types of physical activity that can benefit older adults and some suggested resources

Picture shows a group of older people hiking in the countryside
Vigorous activity for people who are fit can include uphill walking. Picture: iStock

Undertaking physical activity is beneficial to the mind and body regardless of age (Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) 2019). For older adults, it can reduce the risk of the following:

  • Cardiovascular disease by up to 35%.
  • Type 2 diabetes by up to 40%.
  • Some cancers by up to 20%.
  • Joint and back pain by up to 25%.
  • Falls by up to 30%.

It is never too late for people to become more physically active

Physical activity can also help maintain bone density, reduce the likelihood of dementia, improve mental health and help with weight management (DHSC 2019). The better our muscle strength the more likely we are to remain independent as we age (Dinan-Young and Skelton 2018) and it is never too late for people to become more physically active.

For those with a disease or impairment, even a small increase in physical activity can stop or slow down further decline (DHSC 2019). As the saying goes, if exercise were a pill we would all be taking it.

Older adults should try to incorporate activity into their daily routine, aiming for the same 10,000 steps per day as other adults (DHSC 2019). However, taking fewer steps than this or undertaking light activity, such as dusting or standing to make dinner, are beneficial and better than remaining seated all day (DHSC 2019).

Older adults should undertake 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, for example dancing, mowing the lawn or chasing the grandchildren in the garden (DHSC 2019).

It is important to add exercises that build balance and flexibility

Those who are already fit may find that undertaking 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week brings the same benefit as undertaking 150 minutes of moderate activity (DHSC 2019). This activity could involve playing sport, uphill walking or an aerobics class.

Most of the activities mentioned improve muscle strength, but it is also important to add exercises that build balance and flexibility at least twice a week (DHSC 2019). This helps to reduce the risk of falls (DHSC 2019) and to maintain independence in tasks such as weeding, toenail cutting and getting onto and off the floor to play with grandchildren.

Exercises that increase balance and flexibility include tai chi and yoga, or people could be signposted towards the balance exercises page on the NHS live well site. For those with very poor balance or a history of falls it is advisable to see a physiotherapist before starting balance exercises.

Suggestions on how to motivate older adults to increase their physical activity

Although we all know that physical activity is good for us, it can be difficult to motivate ourselves to get started. Here are some suggestions on how to motivate older adults to increase their physical activity:

  • Get off the bus one stop earlier.
  • Schedule time to exercise in the diary.
  • Get a step counter.
  • Do balance exercises while brushing your teeth.
  • Park in the furthest space from the shop at car parks.

Health conditions must be factored in when undertaking physical activity

If COVID-19 restrictions allow, people could join a walking scheme or volunteer at a sports club, school or wildlife centre.

The charity Age UK runs exercise classes – and has a free national advice line on 0800 678 1602. For those who are tech savvy, the not-for-profit organisation Later Life Training has videos that are an excellent free resource.

It is important to remember that older adults often have health conditions that need to be factored in when undertaking physical activity. Some may have a visual or physical impairment and may need referral to a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist.

Some people may need to be referred to a physio or consult their doctor

It is probably safest for adults living with frailty, moderate to severe dementia or vertebral fracture to be referred to a physiotherapist before starting a new activity programme (DHSC 2019).

Some people may need to consult their doctor before undertaking physical activity and/or losing a lot of weight, for example if they are taking insulin, have recently had surgery or have a newly diagnosed health condition.

To reduce the risk of injury when starting an exercise programme, they should start with a small amount of exercise that is slightly challenging, then build up the length of time they exercise, then the intensity of the exercise if able to do so (DHSC 2019).


Jo Jennings is an orthogeriatric advanced clinical practitioner at Warwick Hospital, South Warwickshire NHS Foundation Trust 

@JoJenningsNHS

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