To age well, keep your mind and body active
Physical and mental fitness is key to staying healthy into old age
If all the advice on healthy ageing could be encapsulated into one short sentence, it would be to “keep your mind and body active”.
Even people suffering with chronic conditions such as arthritis and some forms of dementia are encouraged to engage in activities that stimulate their mind and body – to help prevent their symptoms getting worse. “It’s all about trying to bat away frailty by maintaining strength, mobility and fitness as much as you can through exercise. The aim is to keep moving,” says Ruth McCullagh, lecturer in physiotherapy at the School of Clinical Therapies in UCC.
McCullagh recommends two types of exercise – aerobic exercise for the heart and lungs and strengthening/conditioning exercises to keep the muscles strong. “After the age of 40, the muscles start to weaken and after the age of 50, it’s important to do strengthening exercises. Strengthening exercises help to prevent falls because if you have stronger legs, you are less likely to fall,” she explains. Strengthening exercise includes gym classes, hill-walking, cycling, golf, tennis and swimming.
And any of these exercises become aerobic when they get the heart pumping faster and the breath moving faster in the lungs. “The key with all exercise is to do what you enjoy – whether that’s walking, swimming, going to an over 55s exercise class, gardening, playing golf or tennis, and the social element of exercise is important too,” she adds.
There is growing awareness among health professionals that people are sitting for very long periods of time – whether at desks in offices, in their homes or even in nursing homes and hospitals. “We all have to start breaking up sedentary behaviour by taking a short walk every hour. For older people in their own homes, it can be difficult to get up out of low, comfortable chairs but it’s important to do so,” says McCullagh.
The second component of healthy ageing is keeping your mind active. Dr Annalisa Setti, cognitive psychologist and lecturer in the School of Applied Psychology at UCC, says good cognitive fitness is about using your attention and memory to solve everyday issues as you age. “When you are young, healthy and fit, most things are obvious but as you age, it can become less obvious to consider things like knowing whether you have all the correct ingredients in the house to cook a meal,” she says.
Dr Setti recommends simple things like going out to meet friends, reading a newspaper or book and discussing it with someone else, playing cards, doing crochet or crosswords. “There is no one recipe but it’s all about keeping your mind active by doing things that you enjoy. Having a certain amount of challenge in the activity is also important,” she says.
Having a negative view of ageing can impact on your own ageing, according to Dr Setti. “We really need to step out of the idea that when you are older, it’s all about decline. It’s also detrimental to see older people as a separate group. If you think about it, ageing is something that faces all of us in 20 or 30 years’ time.”
Dr Setti says it’s important to realise that people can learn new things when they are older. “My own parents – who live in Italy – have learned how to use Skype and tablets so that they can see and talk to their grandchildren in Ireland. Now, they use the internet for other things too and they are in their 80s.”
We really need to step out of the idea that when you are older, it’s all about decline