Keeping Fit in the Third Age

by Sep Meyer


"The good news . . . is that people can benefit from even moderate levels of physical activity" - Surgeon General of the United States


You are never too old to take exercise.

Exercise will not restore your youth, but it will re-energise you; and the right exercise, done regularly in the right way,  i.e. appropriate to your age and physical condition, will make you fit and keep you fit.

Indeed, the failure to embark on and maintain some form of physical activity could be more harmful than any risk that may be associated with exercising.

And this does not apply only to those "older people" who have only recently entered the "Third Age" (usually assumed to be age 50-plus).  Researchers have found that exercise and physical activity can improve the health of people who are 90 or older, who are frail, or who have the diseases that seem to accompany ageing. Staying physically active and exercising regularly can help prevent or delay some diseases and disabilities as people grow older. In some cases, it can improve health for older people who already have diseases and disabilities, if it's done on a long-term, regular basis.

What then are the criteria that need to be observed in the light of advancing years and diminishing physical ability?  First of all, let's look at types of exercise. 

Types of Exercise

These fall into four main categories:

   ◙   Endurance Exercises

   ◙    Balance Exercises

   ◙    Strength Exercises   

   ◙    Flexibility Exercises

Endurance exercises increase your breathing and heart rate. They improve the health of your heart, lungs, and circulatory system. Having more endurance not only helps keep you healthier; it can also improve your stamina for the tasks you need to do to live and do things on your own -- climbing stairs and grocery shopping, for example.  Endurance exercises also may delay or prevent many diseases associated with ageing, such as diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease, stroke, and others.

Balance exercises help prevent a common problem in older adults: falls.  Falling is a major cause of broken hips and other injuries that often lead to disability and loss of independence.  Some balance exercises build up leg muscles; others require simple activities like briefly standing on one leg.

Strength exercises do more than just make you stronger. They build your muscles and give you more strength to do things on your own. Even very small increases in muscle can make a big difference in ability, especially for frail people. Strength exercises also increase your metabolism, helping to keep your weight and blood sugar in check. That's important because obesity and diabetes are major health problems for older adults. Studies suggest that strength exercises also may help prevent osteoporosis.

Flexibility exercises help to keep your body supple by stretching the muscles and the tissues that hold the body's structures in place. Physical therapists and other health professionals recommend certain stretching exercises to help patients recover from injuries and to prevent injuries from happening in the first place.  Flexibility also may play a part in preventing falls.


Statistical evidence reveals that physically active men are healthier - and live longer - than sedentary men 


Specific exercise by type

1.  Moderate Endurance Activities

Swimming; bicycling; gardening (mowing, weeding, raking); walking briskly; mopping or scrubbing floor; playing golf (without a cart); tennis (doubles); rowing; dancing.


2.  Vigorous Endurance Activities:

Climbing stairs or hills; gardening (digging); cycling up hills; tennis (singles); skiing; hiking; jogging.


3.  Balance Exercises

(a) Plantar flexion: standing straight, supporting yourself by holding onto a table or a chair back, slowly stand on tip toe as high as possible.  Hold position for one second.  Slowly lower heels all the way down, pause, then repeat 8 to 15 times.  Rest.  Then do another set.  {Add modifications as below]


(b) Knee flexion: adopt similar position as for plantar flexion and slowly bend one knee as far as possible, lifting foot behind  you. Hold position for one second.  Slowly lower foot, pause, then repeat with other leg.  Repeat 8 to 15 times with each leg.  Rest.  Then do another set.  {Add modifications as below]

(c) Hip flexion: adopt similar position as for knee flexion and slowly bend one knee upwards without bending waist or hips.  hold position for one second.  Slowly lower leg all the way down.  Pause.  Repeat with other leg.  Alternate legs, doing 8 to 15 repetitions with each leg.  Rest.  Then do another set.  {Add modifications as below]

(d) Hip extension: stand 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 cm) from table or chair, feet slightly apart.  Bend forward at hips at about a 45 degree angle holding onto table or chair for balance.  Slowly lift one leg straight backwards without bending the knee, or the upper body forward, or pointing the toes.  Hold position for one second.  Slowly lower leg.  Pause.  Repeat with other leg.  Alternate legs, doing 8 to 15 repetitions with each leg.  Rest. Then do another set.  {Add modifications as below]

(e) Side leg raise: stand straight, directly behind table or chair, feet slightly apart.  Hold onto table or chair for balance.  Slowly lift one leg 15 to 30 cm (6-12 inches) out to one side.  Keep back and legs straight.  Do not point toes outward, but keep them facing forward.  Hold position for one second.  Slowly lower leg all the way down.  Pause.  Repeat with other leg.  Alternate legs, doing 8 to 15 repetions.  Rest.  Then do another set.  {Add modifications as below]

(f) Anytime/Anywhere (exercises that can be done almost any time and anywhere, and as often as you like, so long as you have something nearby to steady yourself if necessary.  For example (see illustration): walk heel-to-toe.  Position your heel just in front of the toes of the opposite foot each time you take a step.  Heels and toes should touch or almost touch.  Another exercise is to stand on one foot (for example while queuing at a check-out counter), alternating feet.  You might also try standing up and sitting down without using your hands.

Modifications: Try holding table or chair with one hand; then try it with one fingertip; then with no hands; then with eyes closed, if you feel steady enough.


Exercises acknowledged with thanks to National Institute of Aging (website:


So what should you do, and how much should you do? 

Some types of exercise improve just one area of health or ability. Frequently, however, an exercise has several benefits, so it's important to exercise as much as you can, to combine as many of the four types of exercise as possible, and to increase the types and amounts as your progress.  All within certain constraints.

◙    Do not attempt to do too much too quickly, particularly when you start to embark on an exercise programme.  It's good to be enthusiastic, but sensible to start at the appropriate level that you can maintain, and work your way up gradually.  It's rather like weight loss dieting.  Weight that is lost too quickly is frequently regained every more quickly.   Weight that is lost gradually, following a regime that is not too strenuous, is easier to maintain.  Exercise, like diet, should be for life - regardless of your age - it should be a permanent habit.

◙    Don't be afraid of exercising for fear that it will be too strenuous.  You do  not have to do strenuous exercises to gain health benefits.  Moderate exercise is also effective.

◙    What you do, and how much you do, will vary from person to person.  It will depend upon your age and physical condition at the time you begin, as well as what goal you have set yourself, and to what end it has been targeted.  You may want to build up leg muscles sufficiently to embark on a programme of hiking, or jogging, or cycling.  On the other hand, you might simply want to strengthen your arm muscles enough to do the washing-up yourself instead of having someone do it for you.  The aim is simply to improve from wherever you are right now.  Remember, you can always get there from here.


. . . people 90 and older who have become physically frail from inactivity can more than double their strength through simple exercises in a fairly short time. For some, that can mean the difference between getting up from a chair by themselves or depending on someone to help them . . .  some people 80 and older progressed from using walkers to using canes after doing simple muscle-building exercises for just 10 weeks. - excerpt from a US Government publication


What is the simplest exercise you can do to improve your fitness?  To my mind it is merely to walk.  If you haven't exercised for some time, this will accustom your body to the physical activity.  Walking can be done at whatever rate and level is best suited to your particular physical and mental condition.  And "mental" has not been thrown in there simply to fill up space.   A brisk walk each day will make you feel more positive, more alive, will reduce stress and help to control depression.  On the physical side, it will burn calories, exercise the heart, the joints, the muscles, and can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by as much as 40 per cent.

When embarking on a regular walking regime, make sure you are wearing comfortable walking shoes and don't forget to wear good, thick socks.  Protecting your feet means protecting the 26 small bones, 33 joints, and network of over 100 tendons, ligaments and muscles that make up each foot.


horizontal rule


Sep Meyer will conclude his article on Exercise in the Third Age in the next online issue of Nurturing Potential.  Readers may also like to be reminded of his earlier article on fitness in Issue No. 9 -  Sep Meyer is a graduate of the London School of Economics and, since his retirement from a commercial life, has been devoting his time to the totally non-commercial activity of writing poetry, magazine articles, book reviews and drama.