If you thought old age was a time to slow down and take it easy, think again. A new Irish study suggests that the answer to the eternal question about how to live a long and healthy life lies in picking up the pace.
According to the study, jointly led by researchers in DCU and UCD, it is within our own power to prevent creaky bones, wobbly waistlines and even ward off life-threatening conditions like heart disease and stroke. No magic pill is required to achieve this. Instead, experts say that a simple combination of regular aerobic exercise and resistance training is the most important tool to keep us in rude health well into old age. They call it 'concurrent training' and say the benefits of doing both cardio and weights far outweigh those of doing just one form of exercise.
Funded by the Irish Research Council, more than 80 men and women over 65 years of age took part in the 12-week study undertaken at Medfit Proactive Healthcare. Participants were divided into three groups. One did aerobic training such as walking or running, another did resistance training in the gym with weights, and a third did a combination of the two.
They exercised for the same amount of time - 24 minutes per session - three times a week, and their progress was observed and measured by researchers over the course of the study. Those on concurrent training were found to have improved walking speeds, leg strength, muscle strength, aerobic fitness and physical function than those on just one form of exercise. They also lost more belly fat, the potentially hazardous fat that we casually put down to 'middle-age spread'.
If you want to get active, but you're a couch potato, those involved in the study say you should start with an easy goal like brisk walking for 10 minutes, three times a week, and make it more challenging each time - walk up a hill, walk faster and longer. According to exercise physiologist and lead author on the project, Dr James Timmons, you need to ramp up the intensity progressively to get your heart rate up.
"The talk test is an easy way to monitor your intensity levels," he says. "If you're able to speak easily with someone while walking, your heart rate is low. For a cardio workout, you need to push yourself - not to the point where you're panting, but it should be uncomfortable to have a casual conversation. You can also use a heart rate monitor or download a phone app to keep track of your heart rate as you walk."
If you already walk or swim, he suggests incorporating a resistance element to your existing regime.
"Add an extra 15-20 minutes to do some weight training exercises before or after your activity so that it becomes part of your routine," he says. "The gym is the best environment as it has a wide variety of machines and weights. If you want to age well, join a gym."
One of the participants in the study, former Irish Times Letters Editor Liam McAuley, did just that when the programme wrapped. "I was very lucky to get a place in the concurrent training group on the trial," says the 70-year-old. "Having finished a round of chemotherapy a few months earlier for a chronic form of lymphoma, I wanted to build up my strength and fitness again, so the timing was perfect.
"I felt a lot stronger at the end of the 12 weeks. When the programme finished, I didn't want to slide right back to where I'd been, so I joined a gym. An instructor devised a routine for me using bikes and resistance machines, but now my favourite activity is a class combining yoga, tai chi and Pilates."
Another participant, Abyna Twomey (71), says she felt and looked better than ever after the intensive three months of training.
"It's not about losing weight, it's about building muscle at a time when the body tends to slacken," she says. "I like to play tennis and walk, and I think how good it would be to have resistance machines in public spaces. That way we could all combine aerobic and weight training for free, while getting out and about with friends."
As fitness levels vary in the older population, you should check with your GP before starting an exercise programme, according to the study's lead investigator Dr Brendan Egan, Associate Professor of Sport and Exercise Physiology at the School of Health and Human Performance, DCU.
"Once you've got the all-clear, ideally then consult a qualified trainer or physiotherapist who will assess your fitness levels and recommend an appropriate exercise regime," he advises.
However, if you can't stand the gym or don't have one near where you live, there are exercises you can do at home.
"Go up and down the stairs repeatedly, or if you don't have stairs, get up and down out of your chair," says Dr Egan. "Repeat the activity 10 times per session and do it three times a day. Gradually increase the intensity and introduce new challenges, like holding a two-litre carton of milk in each hand while climbing the stairs - that's the equivalent of carrying two kilos in weight."
You don't have to invest in expensive kit to get fit at home, he adds. You can pick up exercise bands from as little as €7 in Aldi or Lidl.
"Resistance bands are strong elastic bands that you can use in a variety of ways to work out at home or in the garden. Some have handles and some don't. They're inexpensive, easy to store and can work all the muscle groups."
The worst thing you can do approaching old age is to sit still. If you work from home, it's important not to sit at your desk all day.
"In terms of health hazards, sitting is almost the new smoking," says Dr Egan. "It may not pose quite the same threat as nicotine, but prolonged sitting is seriously detrimental to health. If you sit most of the day, you need to get up at least every one or two hours and move around for five minutes.
"Getting older does not mean giving up on physical activity. It's never too late, and you can do it. In fact, concurrent training over the age of 60 is more important than ever, unless you have a condition that would render such activity dangerous."
It's an important message for Ireland's ageing population, especially as experts predict that for the first time in our history, by the year 2030, we'll have more citizens over the age of 65 than under 15.
"That's a huge demographic shift and consequently we need to put strategies in place to make older people healthier and improve their quality of life," says Dr Egan. "As a prescription for good health, exercise is a powerful medicine."
Dr James Timmons, exercise physiologist and lead author on the joint study, lists the five major ways concurrent training can impact your health.