Why less rest and more exercise became the new retirement goal

As the evidence continues build on the benefits of staying active in old age, the fitness industry is learning to stay nimble too.
28 October 2016

What does retirement conjure up for you – lazy days, long lunches and a nice snooze in the afternoon? Maybe its time to think again because growing evidence points to the benifits of staying active in our old age.

Exercise: The dementia preventor?

This month alone, a new study by Neurology was published that suggests a simple regime of light exercise could stall or slow the development of alzheimer's.

As reported in Time, the research studied 70 people around the age 74 who had a mild form of vascular cognitive impairment – the second most common cause of dementia. The group were divided into two, one half were assigned a walking exercises for six months, the other kept to their usual care routine.

Memory impairment is one of the major symptoms of vascular cognitive impairment, so the researchers were fascinated when they noticed that the 'excercise' group saw a noticeable improvement in their memory skills. This group also had better blood pressure and could walk farther and more efficiently in six minutes – all thanks to walking outside three times a week and gradually ramping up the intensity.

Certainly good news, but, when the researchers tested the two groups six months after the programme had ended, they discovered that the differences between the two had vanished.

“Unless you’re doing the exercise, the benefits do diminish,” said study author Teresa Liu-Ambrose, associate professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

Still, dementia remains a medical mystery, so while a total cure continues to elude scientists it’s fascinating to see a straightforward exercise regime offering some real hope. Especially as, the number of Alzheimer's cases is expected to triple to more than 100 million by 2050.

Older adults and exercise: the other benefits

As the calls for older people to stay active becoming ever louder the fitness industry is stepping in to help out. Declan Duncan manages the Healthy Living Programme at YMCA Club in London – one of Central YMCA’s operations. The programme, which is aimed at over 60-year-olds, provides a variety of low to moderate intensity fitness classes such as Aquacise, Zumba and circuit training, along with opportunities to socialise such as day trips to Brighton and Cambridge.

“We run the older adults programme because we want the Club to be inclusive,” Declan says. “It ties up nicely with our goal to make people healthier, happier and more fulfilled. Why shouldn’t that apply for all ages?”

Currently the scheme has over 800 members and it’s not just about fitness, although that’s a big part of it. “When you’re older, exercise improves your muscle strength, endurance, it also improves the cardiovascular system – not to mention improve your mood. You always feel better after some exercise,” Declan says. “But it also reduces social isolation, which is a big problem for older adults in big cities. Many of their friends have passed away and their family may have moved to another part of the country. This is their one session a week where they get to meet people.”

Declan talks fondly about one group in particular which originally came together as part of their cardio rehabilitation. It includes Stan, a 95-years-old who attends the Club’s Healthy Hearts Circuit class on Friday morning.

“Many have lost their partners over the years but they have all stuck together,” says Declan. “I call them the Friday gang. One woman who’s part of that gang, her husband died a few years ago and the group took her under their wing. I don’t think she’d be as outgoing without that support system.”

Preparing the fitness industry

Working with older people as a fitness professional does require specialist knowledge. Understanding the changes that can happen to the body as we get older and what remains safe is crucial to delivering a safe workout. Declan says that most of his volunteer instructors at the Club have studied the YMCAfit Exercise for Older Adults course. It prepares learners for the YMCA Awards qualification Adapting Exercise for Independently Active, Older People. This assesses the professional’s ability to deliver suitable exercise programmes for older clients, as well as understand the physiological, anatomical and psychological changes of ageing.

Allison Bagshaw is one of the product managers at YMCA Awards Product that helps develop new qualifications. She explains it was introduced to enable fitness professional to branch out into the growing older adult market.

“We have had an older adult qualification for a long time as we recognised early this will be an area of growth – it was updated  back in 2011 and will shortly be reviewed again to reflect the changing needs of teaching this group,” she says.

“The nation’s older adult population is ever increasing, thanks to greater life expectancy, and therefore fitness professionals need to be able to offer appropriate programmes to this demographic.”

Another YMCAfit course Declan’s volunteers study is the Diploma in Exercise Referral. This equips personal trainers or yoga instructors with the tools to help clients with a wide range of common medical conditions. “It gives you a lot more insight into difficulties like hypertension and osteoporosis,” he says.

With the number of those aged over 65 expected to increase by 12% (1.1 million) and life expectancy rates higher than ever before, it’s clear that interest in fitness products for older adults is only growing to intensify.

Whether we like it or not, that dream of seeing out our days on a beach resort might need to include some Zumba classes. Luckily, it looks like the fitness industry is already prepared.

YMCAfit and YMCA Awards are both Central YMCA operations. Read more about Central YMCA and its four operations.