Senior couple running together in a park

Keep Active — No Matter Your Age

Source: Mind Your Body, The Straits Times, 19 February 2015 © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction.

People say it is a fact that as one grows older, one loses physical strength and grows more frail.

This affects daily function. It becomes harder to climb the stairs, carry heavy loads, or even just to get up from a chair, for instance.

In an average adult, strength decreases at a rate of 10 percent per decade after the age of 30, said Mr Gary Cheok, a physiotherapist at Singapore General Hospital.

This rate of strength loss accelerates to 15 percent per decade after the age of 60 years or so.

So it seems to be a fact that one gets weaker as one gets older.

Or is it?

In fact, recent studies show that this may not necessarily be the case, especially if one keeps up with his activity levels and continues to exercise regularly.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States studied 40 competitive runners, cyclists and swimmers aged 40 to 81.

They were fit, trained four or five times a week and took part in competitions frequently.

The researchers found no evidence of muscle mass loss in the older athletes.

In the 2011 study, those in their 70s and 80s had almost as much thigh muscle mass as those in their 40s.

Researchers have also found that older people who exercise are fitter than younger people who do not.

And it is possible to reverse age-related decline in aerobic power.

Reversing Ageing

Senior lady stretching in the park

The Dallas bed-rest study, carried out by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, measured the baseline fitness levels of five healthy men aged 20 in 1966 and put them on bed rest for 20 days.

All five suffered plunging levels of exercise capacity and cardiovascular fitness after the bed rest.

They were then put on eight weeks of intensive exercise. All were able to regain and surpass their original level of aerobic fitness.

Thirty years later, the researchers contacted the same five men — who were, at that time, aged 50 to 51 — and asked them to do a fitness evaluation.

Their baseline fitness levels had dropped and were similar to the fitness levels they had after 20 days of bed rest 30 years earlier.

Again, they were put on individualised exercise programmes, which included walking, jogging and cycling, where the duration and intensity of their exercise were gradually increased to their 1966 levels.

After six months, their aerobic and cardiovascular fitness were again measured.

All five had restored their aerobic and cardiovascular fitness to the levels they enjoyed 30 years earlier, as healthy 20-year-olds.

The researchers concluded that with as little as six months of moderate aerobic exercise, those who are middle-aged can “turn back time” and reverse the effects of decades of ageing of their cardiovascular fitness.

To maintain lifelong fitness, physiotherapists advocate regular moderate exercise.

Such exercise, which includes jogging or swimming, can help to improve cardio-respiratory endurance, thus preventing the deconditioning often seen in older adults, said Mr Cheok.

An example of deconditioning is feeling fatigued after climbing a few flights of stairs.

Weight-bearing exercises, such as jogging or squatting, can also help to prevent bone loss, as the load on the bone causes it to remodel (a process by which bone is renewed to maintain bone strength) itself over time to become stronger and more able to bear the load.

Most importantly, strengthening exercises, which include weight lifting and body-weight resistance workouts like doing squats or dips, help one to build a reserve of strength to counter the gradual loss of muscle strength that comes with ageing, said Mr Cheok. This helps to slow down functional decline often observed in older people.

Falls among this age group are usually due to several causes, including a decrease in balance, strength and reaction time, said Mr Cheok.

But exercise can help older adults address these weaknesses. In Taiji, for instance, the slow weight-shifting movements and the emphasis on controlling one’s balance at the ankle contribute to improvements in balance, he added.

Multiple-component exercise programmes, which target strength, balance and flexibility, have also been proven to prevent falls in older adults.

Continuing such exercise programmes will be key to living out a healthy old age, something that will become more crucial here.

According to official data, the median age of the population here was 29.9 in 1990. This rose to 39.3 in 2014.

Correspondingly, the number of residents aged 65 and above almost quadrupled to 612,606 last year, from just 182,826 in 1990.

This number is set to increase by more than three times in 2040. This makes Singapore one of the fastest ageing countries in the world.

Related: Keep Track of Your Exercise Intensity

How Much Exercise to Do

Multigenerational family running together in a park

The Health Promotion Board (HPB) recommends 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week. This can be accumulated throughout the week, such as 30 minutes a day for five days.

The exercise intensity should be moderate to vigorous. At a moderate level, you should be able to talk, but not sing, said Mr Cheok.

And as vigorous aerobic activity causes your heart to pump faster and lungs to work harder, you should only be able to say a few words — though you should not be completely out of breath, he added.

Some examples of vigorous exercises include jogging and step aerobics.

For strengthening exercises, HPB recommends doing them at least two days a week. These include stair-climbing, lifting handheld weights or doing exercises with a resistance band.

Similarly, the intensity of the strengthening exercise should be moderate to vigorous.

During weight-lifting, you should do them in sets of eight repetitions, one to three times in all. But do not do more than 12 per set to prevent injury.

Ideally, six to eight different types of strengthening exercises should be performed during each session.

Elderly people have varying levels of fitness and different medical conditions. It is best to consult a physiotherapist to check whether they are fit to exercise and get advice on planning a suitable exercise routine for each individual.

Mr Gary Cheok, a physiotherapist at Singapore General Hospital, demonstrates some exercises for the elderly.

Related: Pushing Your Weight Around


  1. Stand straight.
  2. Reach out as far as you can to the front/left/right, leaning in that direction as you do.
  3. Always ensure that you are near a table or railing when doing this exercise so that you are able to support yourself if needed.

This exercise challenges one’s balance by getting the person to reach for his limits of stability.

Perform the reaching motion slowly and repeat 10 times for each direction.

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  1. Lie flat on your back.
  2. Bend both knees at a 90-degree angle and have your feet flat on the ground.
  3. Slowly lift your buttocks up.
  4. Hold for 10 seconds.
  5. Repeat 10 times. Repeat the set of 10 for two or three times.

This exercise helps to strengthen muscles of the buttocks, back of the thighs and lower back.

Related: 4 Ways to Exercise with a Friend

Stepping Up

  1. Holding the handrail of a staircase, step up and down with your right leg 10 times. Repeat with the left leg.
  2. As you get more confident, do this without holding the railing.

This exercise helps one to gradually learn to balance on one leg as the individual will have to stand on one leg for a short duration to move the other leg up and down the step.

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Walking and Turning

  1. Stand straight and walk at a regular pace. Turn right and walk back to where you started.
  2. Then turn left. You should be walking in figure eight.

This exercise helps to improve your balance by getting you to quickly change direction while walking.

Related: Get Active!

Toe and Heel Raises

  1. Hold onto a firm surface. Lift your toes up. Hold for 10 seconds.
  2. Now raise your heels and balance on your toes. Hold for 10 seconds.
  3. Repeat 10 times, and repeat the set of 10 for two or three times per session.
  4. These exercises strengthen the calf muscles.

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  1. Sit in a chair.
  2. Cross your arms in front of you.
  3. Stand up.
  4. Use the armrests if you are unable to stand up without the use of your arms.
  5. Repeat 10 times, and repeat the set of 10 for two or three times per session.

This exercise helps to strengthen the muscles in the thighs and buttocks.

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