From t'ai chi to Pilates and yoga, we take your through the best exercises to do in your 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond

Having good mobility, strong muscles and a healthy heart are not only important for our quality of life, they can also extend our overall life span.

We know that exercise matters, but doing the right kinds of exercise can give you good levels of health and fitness in the short term, and onwards into later life.

‘Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of many chronic conditions, including coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity, mental health problems and musculoskeletal conditions,’ says Louise McGregor, Chair of AGILE, a professional network of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.

‘Even relatively small increases in physical activity are associated with a protective effect against chronic conditions and an improved quality of life.’

Exercise For… Coordination & Flexibility

Every early morning in parks across India and China, you can see people practising yoga and t’ai chi, individually and in groups; and more and more classes in both are available across the UK, as we realise their immense benefits.

Any exercise that focuses on posture and movement, such as different forms of yoga, t’ai chi and Pilates, is great for helping to maintain neuromuscular coordination as we age.

John Saxton, Professor of Clinical Exercise Physiology at the University of East Anglia, says: ‘These are mind-body activities that require mental concentration, and involve controlling changes in the body’s centre of gravity, which develops a greater awareness of movement and movement perception (proprioception), thus helping to prevent falls.’

In your 40s

If you’ve always fancied yourself as a yogi, but never found the time to get on the mat, why not start now. The late Vanda Scaravelli – creator of Scaravelli yoga – only began to learn yoga in her forties.

She created a style of yoga that focuses on the yoga asanas (poses) performed without tension, in order to promote relaxation, free the muscles and produce flexibility.

‘Yoga students are sometimes inclined to force the flexibility of their bodies to the maximum, but this leads nowhere,’ she writes in her book Awakening The Spine (£14.99, Pinter & Martin). ‘To relax is not to collapse, but simply to undo tension.

‘This tension has been accumulated in the body and in the mind by years of force… Now we have to work in the opposite direction, by letting go, giving place to a different action (if we can call it an action), an ‘undoing action’.’

Avoid aggressive styles of yoga that encourage you to push and force your body into poses.

In your 50s

Have a go at t’ai chi. Studies show that it improves flexibility in both the short and long term and significantly reduces the risk of falling, depression and knee osteoarthritis pain in older adults.

An Australian study showed that older women who practise t’ai chi age considerably more slowly; researchers in Hong Kong discovered that t’ai chi boosts heart health and reduces high blood pressure; while a report by the British Geriatrics Society found that t’ai chi can help to prevent falls by improving flexibility and strength.

In a bent-knee stance, practitioners move their bodies in a series of graceful, flowing shapes that – when practised regularly – promote strength, flexibility, balance, coordination and good health, and relieve your body of stiffness to help ensure the freedom of mobility in later life. As an old t’ai chi saying goes, ‘Be as soft as water
to conquer what is hard and inflexible’.

In your 60s

If you are feeling creaky, fear not – your sixties is not too late to address inflexibility. ‘If somebody is very stiff and unsupple, they can achieve good flexibility now, but some thought needs to be given to the type of flexibility exercises that are chosen,’ advises Professor John Saxton of the University of East Anglia.

‘Gentle yoga is great for improving flexibility and muscular strength, but other stretching exercises can also be used. The important thing is to remember that flexibility gains are best made when muscles are warm, for example, after a brisk walk or some other form of exercise.

‘Given that balance is generally not as good as we get older, flexibility exercises can be performed using support. For example, exercises can be done seated or using the support of a wall.’

Opt for a gentle, releasing form of yoga, such as Scaravelli or Sivananda, the flowing movements of t’ai chi or the controlled movements of Pilates, all of which boost strength, balance, flexibility and coordination, and deliver a sense of stillness.

70s and beyond

‘There is no age limit,’ wrote the late yogi Vanda Scaravelli in Awakening The Spine.

‘One can start yoga when 70 or 80 years old and no damage will occur if the movements originate from the spine… To talk about old age as an impediment is an excuse to be lazy.’

It’s important to boost flexibility, balance, strength and coordination in order to retain the freedom and independence of mobility in old age, and prevent falls.

As well as doing gentle yoga, Pilates or t’ai chi, one of the best ways to achieve mobility now is to practise qi gong.

Similar to t’ai chi but slightly more sedate, this system of meditative exercises is designed to relax body and mind via a series of flowing movements and breathing exercises that improve posture, proprioception (coordinated movement) and flexibility.

An ancient and important part of martial arts training, qi gong follows the belief that only stillness of body and mind can produce the greatest strength and balance.

What to eat

‘The more colourful your fruit and vegetables, the more antioxidants they will contain, with blueberries being especially good for coordination,’ says nutritionist Dr Marilyn Glenville.

‘In one study, older mice fed on blueberries for four weeks could balance on a beam with the coordination of much younger animals.

‘Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, like oily fish and flaxseeds, aid flexibility. Eat plenty of protein, too (eggs, fish and meat, or quinoa, nuts and seeds if you’re vegetarian), and add in spices such as turmeric and ginger to reduce any inflammation causing you to feel stiff.’