By Dr. Liji Thomas | News Medical

A new study from the University of Anglia demonstrates that physical fitness in middle age is important for a healthy retired life. Especially, it focuses on the crucial role of physical exercise in those over 55 years of age, in ensuring not just physical fitness, but mental and social resilience. On the other hand, it also throws light on barriers to fitness in this age group, such as health issues, lack of time or motivation, and low energy levels. This could leave retirees facing significantly impaired health in their post-retirement years.

The current study was based on an online survey covering over 1,000 people over the age of 55 years, titled “Physical Activity and Retirement Transitions”, which asked them about their current fitness level as well as their expectations of or current experiences during their retired life. In addition, the researchers directly met groups of people nearing or just after retirement, to find out more about this aspect of their lives during this transition period.

Interestingly, researcher Charlotte Salter found that interest in physical activity showed a decreasing trend around the age of 55 years in the English. She points out that in conjunction with this, people are showing poor health and a tendency to slip towards ill health much earlier nowadays. Earlier, these characteristics were seen in the elderly or retired adults, but are now evident in 1 out of 3 people aged between 50 and 65 years.

She comments: “Adults are spending more years of their life working than ever before. Retiring is a life-changing event which provides all sorts of opportunities – but it coincides with declining physical activity, health and wellbeing.”

In contrast to the typical expectations of a healthy and enjoyable retired life, for which people begin to plan from around the age of 55 years, the reality is much grimmer. Retired people often find themselves weak and ill, unable to enjoy the free time they now have.

The gamechanger is maintaining physical fitness from 50 years onwards. However, the study found that many older adults cannot do this because of varied reasons. Some cited illness, others a lack of motivation, while still others said they could not afford sports or fitness facilities. For others, these were simply not available, or that they felt out of place among the typical young athlete or fitness enthusiast towards whom the classes or activities were geared.

Still another class said they had no time for fitness-related activities, because of work or having to care for others. However, once they retire, they have time but not the ability to take advantage of the opportunity to do what they wanted to do. Also, society needs to recognize that as the population becomes older overall, the workforce is also aging. This will mean that these soon-to-be retirees will need current support if they are to lead active lives both during their working lives and after retirement.

The take-home is that adults facing retirement in the next decade or so must plan to make sure they remain fit. Also, they need support to achieve this. For instance, those over 55 could take up other physical activities involving other people of their age, or goal-oriented activities such as walking the dog, gardening, doing more housework, looking after children, or voluntary work at charities or other organizations which require physical labor.

The report also includes recommendations on achieving better physical fitness in the over-55 age bracket. One encouraging observation is that the less time one spends at work, the more time is spent on physical activity like gardening or other leisure activities. This is determined largely by pre-retirement habits.

Some recommendations are therefore aimed at employers and healthcare providers – such as formulating policies to encourage a health and fitness culture for older employees within the organization; allowing the flexibility to work out while working, such as through groups formed to walk together, or incentives to cycle to work; or a package including help with finding the right activity and planning an active retirement while still at work.

Others are focused at improving the integration of older people into sports and community programs that encourage fitness. These include more information on locally available sports or fitness activities for older workers, greater access to parks and other green spaces, training the staff to cater to older people, and designing appropriate keep-fit activities for this age group. This could include free demos and trial offers, discounts for older citizen groups, and the availability of time and opportunity for these individuals to spend time together at such facilities along with exercising.

Study partner Active Norfolk’s Rachel Cooke adds, “Active Norfolk will be working with our partners to influence policy and provision across these three target areas to support over-55s to be active in the lead up to and during retirement.” This is echoed by Salter, who says, “[This] could ensure people are more mobile, capable and healthier once retired.”

The study titled “The Physical Activity and Retirement Transitions Study (PARTS)” was published on August 12, 2019.

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