The retirement series, part 3: Fighting fit

There’s no denying the importance of staying healthy and active, but that’s especially true as we start to get older. In part three of our series on retirement, we want to explore the reasons why you should be keeping fit in your later years, as well as the different ways of doing so.

Staying active doesn’t have to mean hitting the gym and lifting weights, there are plenty of other ways to keep your body (and your mind) active. We spoke to a handful of people who shared the different ways they stay fighting fit as they get older, and there’s no gym membership or dumbbells in sight for any one of them!

Why stay fit?

From reducing the risk of diseases, including type-2 diabetes and some cancers, to improving your balance and the quality and length of your life, we’ve all heard the reasons why it’s important to stay fit and healthy.

The thing to consider is what that actually means to you. Keeping fit no longer means you need to pump iron at the gym, or dedicate hours to jogging on a treadmill. While for some that might be the kind of exercise you love, for others the concept of being fit and healthy takes on a broader, more holistic sense.

No matter the kind of exercise you love – and we’ve spoken to a handful of people with a range of ways to stay fit – there are two recent studies that show the key benefits for those of us with a few more years under our belts.

Recent research from Katrien Segaert, Lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham, relates fitness in older people to a decrease in what we call ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ moments. For example, those moments when you can’t quite name something, but you feel like the name is on the tip of your tongue, just out of reach.

These moments become more likely as we get older because “cognitive decline seems to be an unavoidable part of getting older,” says Katrien.

However, Katrien found that “fitter older people are less likely to have tip-of-the-tongue moments than less fit older people. Being fit seems to offer some protection against language decline in older people.”

And, as Katrien points out, language is all the more important as we get older. “Speaking is a skill we all rely on every day and communication with others helps us maintain social relationships and independence into old age,” says Katrien. “Being fit may offer some help with that.”

It’s studies like this that show the importance of fitness outside of more commonly considered impacts like how we look or the amount of weight we can lift.

Keeping on your toes

As well as the cognitive benefits of exercise, another recent study found the value of exercise in bringing people in a community together. Whether you’ve slipped on a pair of ballet shoes before or not, this recent study by Queensland Ballet and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) was around the benefits of ballet for seniors – and the results were fantastic

Artistic director at Queensland Ballet, Li Cunxin, said classes started three years ago as a way to give older members of the community a chance to try out ballet and see if it had a positive impact on them.

“This is a dream come true moment for some of them,” says Li. “For them to realise how they can use their body and move in the most beautiful way… and at the same time when they come out they feel like their muscles have been worked.”

Two of the students in the class, both in their sixties, gave rave reviews of the classes. “It makes me feel beautiful… it’s just the most wonderful time of our lives,” says Vicki Wilson, 62 years old. And Ross Clarke, 66 years old, says “This is something I always wanted to do and never had the opportunity when I was young.”

Just as important as this positive feedback from those who attended the classes, is the findings from the report.

“Participating in ballet classes led to positive wellbeing outcomes as perceived by the participants, particularly: feeling more energetic/animated, keeping in shape, bodily control/awareness, posture, flexibility, physical wellbeing, and overall wellbeing,” says the report.

For Professor Gene Moyle, head of School of Creative Practice at QUT, “what’s been really lovely to see is that it is making such a contribution to their lives broader than just what we’re looking at from a research perspective – the social connections and sense of community.”

As important as these studies are to understanding the importance of exercise later in life, we also wanted to hear from some older Australians who have found themselves fighting fit in all different ways, depending on their lifestyles and what they get enjoyment out of each day.

Finding alternative activities

For someone like David Black, he’s ended up getting fit from working as an actor on a film set – something he wouldn’t have expected to say if you’d asked him 20 years ago!

“Acting is something that I discovered just over two years ago, at age 51,” he says. “I was just starting to get my energy back after having had cancer, so it was the first time I’d been out for longer than a few hours. I had a fantastic time, made lots of contacts and was then invited to be an extra in quite a few indie feature movies after that.”

While David had always been pretty fit, during his battle with cancer he realised how much of his level of fitness he’d lost.

“It was a wake up call,” he says. “Staying active became a top priority after getting my energy back. Also, it has been good for my mental health. I was starting to get depressed when I had those bouts of exhaustion.”

Although it’s not what you’d think of as traditional exercising, David says that some roles can be physically demanding, while others are not. Either way, the most important thing is that it gets him out of the house.

“Some roles take me to country areas, so I end up with a weekend on set with amazing scenery,” says David. “Before taking up acting, I was often just doing indoor things such as painting models, playing online games or watching movies. Now, I am out most weekends, meeting people and seeing new places.”

Just like David, the founder of family travel blog Let’s Go Mum – Barbara Bryan – has taken an alternative approach to staying fit, and it’s just as much about a healthy mindset as it is a healthy body.

“A lot of our travel includes physical activity, from climbing through trees and zip lining to plunging into the pool,” says Barbara. “The kids insist I join in on everything, and I love the excuse to join in and have fun. Age is no barrier if you can keep yourself moderately healthy.”

In saying this, Barbara recognises that as she’s got older, she’s made a more conscious effort to get moving, but in a way that’s enjoyable and sustainable.

“I need to be able to keep up with our non-stop lifestyle,” she says. “That doesn’t mean I’m out jogging every night – just gentle exercise. If we are at home, I just try to keep things ticking over by doing something simple every day.”

When asked why it’s important to keep active later in life, Barbara has a straightforward approach. “I think it’s essential to feel good about yourself,” she says. “I don’t mean the way you look, but the way you feel inside.”

Getting a daily dose of movement

Although we might not all be keeping up with an acting schedule or a travel blog, those of us with a job that keeps us closer to home should still make fitness a priority.

Robert, who is in his early sixties and running a business for older entrepreneurs, encourages his clients to stay mentally and physically agile – and does so himself, too!

“I’m a 10,000 steps a day walker and have been for five years or so, and a regular yoga student,” says Robert. “I’m now able to give my health – body and mind – more attention!”

Susan has taken a similar approach to fitness, because her part-time work as a sports trainer keeps her more than active. As a 57-year-old mum of three kids, Susan says she always enjoyed taking her kids to their soccer games and she started out as a first aid volunteer.

After getting some training, she was able to help out as a sports trainer while also watching her kids play every Saturday. From there, her love of the job and her qualifications grew – highlights include the Bachelor of Public Health she completed at age 50, as well as working with Gold Coast United Youth the first year they were in the ‘A’ league.

“I love being a sports trainer when I am working with a set team,” says Susan. “Being part of a team is what I like best. On the days when I am feeling a bit down, the team perks me up, and when others are feeling a bit down I can help perk them up.”

Not only is the physical part of the job important to Susan, but she also really values the opportunity to see the younger trainers working their way up the ranks.

“The thing that does surprise me [about the job] is that I have a maturity that can’t be learned, it has to be lived,” she says. “The knowledge and maturity we have as an older generation is so valuable!”

A refreshed perspective towards exercise

This balance between a healthy body and a healthy mind is something that’s equally important to Jacqueline Quenault, who made a big change to her approach to fitness and is all the better for it!

Jacqueline moved to Magnetic Island, off the coast of Queensland, in her early fifties feeling stressed and overworked, and she was also overweight.

“Since my arrival on the island, I have stopped the intense exercise that I used to punish myself with and decided to make more of an effort to do exercise I enjoyed – both as an experiment and to see if my body responded. It did,” she says.

Instead of flipping tyres at boot camp, Jacqueline does yoga in the park; she’s also switched out high intensity training for Zumba classes.

“I totally transformed my way of looking at exercise (as punishment) to being an enjoyable activity,” says Jacqueline. “I feel healed since being here, I’ve lost 25 kg and I feel so much more at peace and rested.”

If you’re like Jacqueline, and you feel stuck in a rut with the kinds of exercise you’ve been doing all your life, it might be time to change your approach.

As Jacqueline so perfectly puts it, “life is, after all, about finding what makes you happy.”

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This material has been prepared for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on as, a substitute for health and medical advice from a qualified health professional. You should seek the advice of a qualified health professional regarding your health and/or a medical condition.