3 essential steps for living well in later life

As we age, many of us have a tendency to live more sedentary lifestyles. This could be due to retirement and the view that later life should be the time to relax and refrain from arduous tasks. Or perhaps as we have grown older, we have found ourselves less physically able. Nevertheless, if we choose to commit to an idle or unhealthy way of life, we are sure to increase our chances of experiencing falls, obesity, heart disease, and early death.

The good news is that we can help to prevent this from happening with just a few simple steps.

Stay physically active

Experts from Oxford University and the UK's Centre for Ageing Better say that if older people are active and get exercise, there is more chance that the doctors will be kept at bay. But there are in fact many valuable reasons to increase your levels of physical activity. A joint study by the National Institute of Mental Health and Age Concern found that regular exercise was associated with reduced stress, depression and anxiety; enhanced cognitive function and overall psychological wellbeing; increased self-esteem and contact with the community. Studies also show improvements in balance, strength, gait, muscular power, blood pressure, endurance and bone density as a result of regular physical activity in older age.

So it’s clear that we need to stay physically active in order to continue to lead a healthy, happy and independent life, but how can we do this in our later years? While the government’s goal is 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity on at least five days of the week, at the beginning, you or your loved one should simply aim to start moving. Physical activity is anything that gets your body moving and can include anything from walking and gardening to recreational sport.

There is also a range of activities that are suitable for people with less flexibility, strength and stamina such as Yoga, Tai Chi or even Chairobics, where you perform aerobics whilst sitting down on a chair. And you do not have to head to the gym to exercise either, many exercises can be undertaken in the home or garden.

Other examples of moderate intensity aerobic activities include:

  • walking fast

  • water aerobics

  • riding a bike on level ground or with a few hills

  • playing doubles tennis

  • pushing a lawn mower

  • carrying heavy loads

  • heavy gardening

  • weight training

Try to find something that is enjoyable and keeps you or your loved one motivated, so that you can continue to reap the benefits of staying physically active.

Stay socially active

This can be something that many of us find is lacking or has significantly reduced in our lives as we have aged. We stop working and having those daily interactions with people; family and friends move away or sadly pass away; or we can lose our confidence, which prevents us from socialising.

But did you know that interacting with people on a constant basis helps to prevent a whole host of mental health issues? This is because when you stay socially active, your brain is constantly engaged, leading to the maintenance of a sharper mind and reducing the potential for faltering cognitive function. So you are more likely to feel connected to the world and a sense of belonging, and less likely to feel lonely and develop depression.

Staying socially active can also help to ensure that you have a stable support system, which can prove invaluable in times of need. You can motivate and comfort each other, laugh and cry together, while maintaining your health and independence.

To find social activities in your area that are right for you or your loved one, take a look at local information/notice boards or search online if possible. Think about finding something that you are really interested in, or perhaps a past hobby that you would like to get back in to. You may find an activity that helps you to remain physically active too.

Maintain a healthy diet

Most people know the importance of consuming a healthy balanced diet containing plenty of fruits and vegetables but did you know that our nutritional requirements change as we get older? The various physiological and psychological changes that occur make the body less efficient at absorbing and using many vitamins and minerals. At the same time, many people find that their appetite decreases as they get older, so it becomes even more important that the food that we eat is healthy and nutritious.

So what should we be eating in later life?

Fibre – As we age or become less active, we can experience digestive problems. Make sure that your diet includes lots of fibre-rich foods such as whole-grains, oats, fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils. A small glass of prune juice in the morning may alleviate constipation. It is also very important to drink lots of water.

Vitamin B12 – Levels of stomach acid fall with age, which can reduce the absorption of vitamins, leading to symptoms of fatigue, weakness and impaired concentration. Ensure that you include plenty of foods rich in B12 such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy products and fortified breakfast cereals, all of which contain vitamin B12. Check with your GP if you are concerned about your vitamin B12 levels.

Vitamin D – We become less efficient at absorbing and manufacturing vitamin D as we get older. Small amounts of vitamin D are found in eggs and oil-rich fish as well as fortified foods such as spreads. Vitamin D can also be made by the action of sunlight on the skin, so when the weather is warm, expose your arms and face to the sun for at least 20 minutes a day but always protect your skin with effective sun block.

Our sense of smell and taste also diminishes as we get older, but it is important to not add too much extra salt to your food. Herbs, spices and other flavourings such as garlic, lemon juice, flavoured vinegars or mustard can give food the extra punch that you need.

Finally, the risk of heart attack and stroke rises steadily with age, with the major contributing factors being nutritional deficiencies, too much saturated fat, alcohol, smoking and a lack of exercise. So it is best to try and reduce or avoid these negative things as much as possible and instead take on a healthy diet, new hobbies and activities to keep you physically fit, socially active and independent.

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