Health, Diet and Fitness for the Over 50’s

fitness advice for older peopleDid you know that medical researchers have proved that a more active lifestyle leads to improved memory, intelligence and cognitive function in senior citizens? It also improves overall health in many other ways.

It is never too late to get active and lose weight, as was shown when British acting legend Sir Anthony Hopkins lost 80 pounds in 2 years by eating healthily and exercising more.


Contrary to popular belief many people are living longer because they are healthier and more active. Obesity may be a massive problem, but still today a majority of senior citizens are relatively healthy and of a good weight. In addition to this, some researchers announced that it is often healthier for a senior citizen to remain a little overweight rather than adopt a strict diet and exercise plan. Although the research in this case is not clear.

Should Older People Tackle Fitness and Weight Loss Differently?

In short, no. Most young people actually tackle weight loss the wrong way. Most people think that to lose weight you must start exercising. Although some exercise is vital to maintain weight loss, most weight loss comes from following a healthy diet. This is pretty logical really if you think about it. You get fat because you eat too much, so to get thinner, you need to eat too little.

The Best Types of Exercise for Elderly People

There really is not age limit to exercise. Some people continue to go to the gym in their 90’s and beyond. Take Ray Moon for example. He is the World’s oldest competing bodybuilder who is now in his 80’s. He says weight training has given him a new lease of life.

If you are an elderly person who has not exercised for many years then you cannot expect to jump straight into an intensive weight loss plan. However, there is still much you can do. Just look to Sir Anthony Hopkins for advice.

Really the best form of exercise is walking. This can include power walking (walking as fast as possible) and Nordic walking (walking with 2 long sticks). Other forms of exercise that are suitable are swimming, tai chi and some forms of yoga.

We should touch briefly on the benefits of exercise. Exercise helps you in many ways:

  • Improved strength increases mobility
  • Improved balance reduces risk of falls
  • Improved bone density reduces risks of developing osteoporosis
  • Exercise makes your brain healthier
  • Exercise improve digestion and reduces constipation
  • Exercise makes you feel younger

Whether you take up weight training or walking, regular exercise will make you stronger and fitter, and improve the quality of your life. Research has shown that people who do regular weight bearing exercise suffer less falls and injuries than the unfit elderly.

Swimming Is Best Exercise For Women Over 50

Researchers from the University of Western Australia have determined that swimming is a better exercise than walking for women aged 50 to 70 years.

In a study 116 women were tested for fitness, body weight, fat levels (lipids), glucose (sugar levels in the blood) and insulin.

The women were divided into two groups and one group swam 3 times per week and the other group walked. Intensity of exercise was described as moderate.

After 6 months on these fitness programs the time to walk a mile decreased in both groups, indicating that both swimming and walking can improve general fitness, although as expected the walkers could walk faster than the swimmers. For the swimmers the distance swum in 12 minutes decreased. The walkers did not improve their swimming speed.

Swimming had the greatest impact on waist circumference, with slimmer waists amongst the swimming group. Also swimmers showed a greater improvement in blood-sugar levels. The level of fat did not differ significantly between the two groups.

Swimming led to a greater reduction in total bodyweight and also a greater reduction in low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) levels. It was concluded that swimming was better at lowering bodyweight, improving overall fitness the most, improving fat distribution and weight management.

So it seems, at least for women performing moderate intensity exercise, the type of exercise is important for maximising health benefits.

Walking obviously has various advantages over swimming – you can do it anywhere, do not need to join a club or pay for a public swimming pool. However, swimming provides a better full body workout as you use your upper body and work the core muscles more too.

Swimming is also impact free, so once you are in the pool you can exercise without risk of injury to the joints. If you have the option to swim, then swimming is the best form of exercise. Swimming workouts can provide excellent cross training as well as improving general fitness and aiding weight loss.

Things to Consider

Health and safety is key and many people do make the mistake of trying too hard too soon when exercising after a long break.

  • You are not as flexible as you once were. If you dive straight into a vigorous exercise program then you could easily pull or tear a muscle or ligament in the process.
  • You are not as strong now. Do not jump into a weight training program without first performing many lightweight induction sessions to assess your strengths, weaknesses, range of motion and stability.
  • Your heart and lungs (cardiovascular system) may be much weaker. Do not try too hard too soon as your cardiovascular system may not be up to the task from day 1.

You should get a medical check up and some advice from your doctor before starting to work out again. At the age of 73 Anthony Hopkins had fantastic weight loss results but he has the resources to obtain medical and health check-ups to make sure that he is capable to follow an exercise plan. So make an appointment with your doctor first and see what they suggest.

How To Start Exercising

Senior citizen wearing a swimming cap and tracksuit read for a healthy swimming workout

Swimming is for all Ages

Once you have the support of family, friends and your doctor you can get started. It is important to start slow and build up your fitness levels at a comfortable pace. If you feel any pain or dizziness it is important that you stop and rest.

Make a note of the exercise you have been doing. Just writing down in a diary how much you do each day can act as a great incentive and motivation to carry on. If you can see the work you have done and feel the changes to your weight then you will want to do more.

You should find an exercise partner if you can. People who exercise together with friends, family or in a class tend to lose more weight and make greater fitness gains than people who exercise alone. Plus exercise can be more fun when you do it with others.

Walk Your Way To Fitness

Sir Anthony lost most of his weight just be dieting and walking. Walking is a fantastic form of exercise that burns fat and gets you fit. It is also very easy these days to monitor your fitness progress. Get a pedometer and you can keep track of how many steps you take each day. Set yourself daily targets. You should aim to achieve around 10,000 steps per day. Fast / power walking is a great way to get your steps in and get fit at the same time.

Tai Chi and Yoga

Tai Chi is a great form of exercise as you get older and has several health benefits. Few people realise that Tai Chi is actually a martial art, a style of Kung-fu. However it is a soft style, meaning that its power is generated by learning gentle movements and channelling energy along very specific lines of weakness.

However, saying that, much of what people learn in Tai Chi classes is a form of gentle exercise that helps to strengthen and make supple the joints. Tai Chi how been shown to improve balance and make people more flexible and stronger. The flexibility comes from dynamic stretching instead of static stretching which means it is less likely to result in an injury.

Unlike tai chi, yoga involves a lot of floor work and deeper stretches. However if you ease yourself into it slowly and are able to work at your own pace it can be a fun exercise to do and yoga also has many health benefits such as improvements to suppleness, strength, balance and fitness.

Diet and Weight Loss

Losing weight is something that can, and should, be done regardless of age. Although there has been some research that suggests that elderly people should not lose weight, the best advice is still to ensure that you are not at the upper end of being overweight, and certainly not obese.


The key really is dieting to lose weight though. As we grow older total muscle mass reduces as a response to changing hormone levels. This means that less food is required, but people rarely change the eating habits of a lifetime and instead allow that middle -aged spread to carry on into old age.

What is a Healthy Weight for Elderly Men and Women?

Smiling elderly man drinking glass of beer outside barn

So, what should you eat to lose weight? Really, it is what you should not eat. Following a healthy diet is the best way to manage weight as well as to prolong good health and life. Cut down on sugar, cakes, cookies and bread. White bread is almost pure energy, you cannot burn that off easily and there is almost zero nutrition. Instead eat healthy vegetables, salads and lean proteins.

Eggs are good for breakfast. Do not guzzle fruit juice all day, instead drink mostly water. Juice is full of natural sugar (fructose) and a few glasses will add 250 calories to your daily intake – alone this is enough to put on quite a bit of weight over a year.
The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society published a report on this subject and it is from this report that we derive our discussion. The study looked at people with various body mass indexes. BMI = weight in kg / (height (m) squared. BMI Calculator.

The World Health Organization recommend that you keep your BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 to be of a healthy weight. Anything above and you are considered to be too heavy, anything below and you are too light. There are health problems associated with being both overweight and underweight. But do these rules apply to all people of all ages? Is there truth in the theory that the overweight pensioners live longer?

A cohort study of men and women from the age of 70 to 75 was carried out to determine which Body Mass Index group resulted in the highest number of deaths per year. These groupings were those with BMI less than 18.5 (underweight), between 18.5 and 24.9 (normal weight), 25.0 to 29.9 (overweight) and over 30.0 (obese).

Although the BMI is not the best way to determine how seriously overweight someone is, it does prove to be useful for obtaining empirical data on the relationship of weight and longevity. The main problem with the BMI system is that it does not take into account the amount of muscle tissue. This becomes less important as the subjects get older. One criticism of this report is that the researches could have more easily used waist measurement instead.

Being Slightly Overweight May Increase Lifespan Beyond 65 Years Of Age

Research just published in the Journal of Epidemiol Community Health has shown that being a little bit overweight results in a lengthened lifespan for elderly individuals.

With the ongoing obesity crisis much of the current research and discussion is concerned with people with a BMI over 30 (this being the accepted definition of obesity) and what can be done to help these people to lose weight. However, it seems that people with a BMI of 25-30, which is considered to be in the overweight range, but not obese or morbidly obese (the danger zones) have an decreased chance of developing fatal conditions. Those underweight and of normal weight (BMI scale) are at greater risk.

The lower BMI range also showed some increased mortality rates;

BMI below 25 in elderly men and women was associated with increased mortality. A modest increase in mortality was found with increasing BMI among obese men and women. Overweight individuals (BMI 25–29.9) had the lowest mortality.

One suggestion for this trend is that generally people do lose weight when they become elderly and close to death. Being a little overweight may simply indicate that a person is still generally healthy, whereas someone that is of a “normal” weight may have been losing weight (muscle, fat and bone density) for several years as the result of the aging process. Being overweight beyond 65 may not improve health, it may just indicated that serious ill health has not commenced.

The research was a joint study carried out by scientists in Norway from the University of Tromsø, University Hospital of North Norway and the HUNT Research Centre.

The study concluded that a BMI below 25 in elderly men and women was associated with increased mortality. A modest increase in mortality was found with increasing BMI among obese men and women. Overweight individuals (BMI 25–29.9) had the lowest mortality.

Are Overweight Seniors Less Likely to Die?

The results of these studies proved to be very interesting indeed. During the study period the mortality rate of those overweight was lower than all other groups. Risk of death was 13% less in the overweight than for the normal weight. There was not a huge difference between death rates of the normal weight and the obese subjects.

For women the most important factor was activity levels. Being inactive doubled the risk of death for women of all weights, although men were only 28% more likely to die if they were inactive. Being overweight reduced risk of death in both men and women when exercise / activity was equal.

Why should older people be overweight?

This study raises an interesting question – why should older people be able to live longer if they are overweight? One idea is that the risks associated with being overweight are likely to cause problems when people are younger, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. If someone has been overweight for most of their life and had not problems, by time they reach their 70’s it is more likely that they will continue to be OK. Some people are just more robust than others.

So, why are normal weight people more likely to die? Maybe being overweight when older means that you have more energy reserves to help keep your immune system working better.  It may well be that once you reach the age of 70 years all the illnesses associated with eating too much would have killed you already if you were not built of such strong material.

Results Are Misleading – People Lose Weight Just Before Death

One suggestion that has been made in the past is that when older people become unwell they lose weight, so at time of death, it seems that they have either a normal weight or are underweight. However, this study attempted to take this into account in its results by taking the BMI readings at the start of the study rather than at the time of death.

The report also noted that there was a lower rate of death in the overweight but active adults between the ages of 75 and 84 years. For those that were morbidly obese death was more likely.

Body Mass Index Is Not a Reliable Tool

The main conclusion from this study is that the Body Mass Index scale should not be used to persuade older people to lose weight. Doctors, when confronted with overweight patients that are in their 70’s or beyond should focus on keeping them active and eating a healthy diet, but not try to persuade them to lose weight. Basically, if your are in your 70’s and you go on a weight loss program, it could kill you.

To summerize, no, you are not too old to lose weight and get fit. Start slow and never give up. This rule applies to people of all ages.

What Else Can You Do?

Other popular fitness activities for senior citizens include ballroom dancing and bodybuilding. What? Bodybuilding? Yep, bodybuilding for pensioners is fast becoming a popular (or relatively popular) activity for seniors. There are now bodybuilding competitions for seniors

Seniors Video Exercise Workout

Here Steve Thomas takes us through a workout designed to help get seniors fit. This workout uses several pieces of fitness equipment, including a ball, resistance band and dumbells. It also shows how you can use a stick to aid stability to allow you to perform the best exercises such as squats, lunges and calf raises.

Now it is time for you to get started. Got a question? Just ask below.

References

More like this in the Weight Loss section

  4 comments for “Health, Diet and Fitness for the Over 50’s

  1. Darvis Simms
    September 26, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    Excellent article. However, I would also emphasize the importance of beginning a strength training program as you age. I’m a ACE certified personal trainer with over 17 years of experience in the fitness industry. I’m in my fifties and I personally know the value of strength training in my life.

  2. MotleyHealth
    September 26, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    Totally agree with you there Darvis. We have touched on that in some articles, although not actually put anything specific together yet. Hopefully will do so soon.

  3. Denise
    December 16, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    I’m 63, but people guess I’m in my late 40s. I have been weight lifting for years, and use two 15 lb weights. In addition to weight training 3 times a week, I walk seven days a week for at least one hour. I also stretch for 10 minutes every day, and do some pushups. I feel I am very strong for my age, especially as I had a stroke at the end of 2009. The only after effect I have now is that my short term memory is not quite right, but my balance is fine, and so is my speech and understanding. My motto is “never give up”. Start out slow, as I did, and gradually improve. If you live in Southern California, I’m here if you want to talk!

  4. MotleyHealth
    December 16, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    Hi Denise, that is wonderful to hear. Daily walking plus some weight training – simple and yet very effective. I wish you well!

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