Keeping fit at 87

STRETCHED: Jean Williams' effort to keep fit is believed to be helping the already stretched health system.
STRETCHED: Jean Williams' effort to keep fit is believed to be helping the already stretched health system.

Elderly Kiwis should exercise more if they want to live longer and ensure they are not a burden on the already stretched public health system, the Ministry of Health says.

New guidelines on physical activity for older people recommend pensioners do aerobic activity five times a week for at least 30 minutes, such as aqua jogging, housework and kapa haka.

On top of this, they should aim to do three sessions of flexibility and balance activities, and two sessions of muscle-strengthening activities a week. These could include modified tai chi, petanque, yoga and bowls.

Physical activity has many health benefits for people in their golden years, including preventing depression, certain cancers, and premature death from falls, strokes, heart disease, and obesity, the guidelines say.

Apart from a few niggles, Jean Williams, 87, is in top condition thanks to exercising regularly throughout her retirement. "For my age, I am very lucky, " says the Upper Hutt great-great-grandmother, who began an exercise group at her retirement village, Summerset at the Course, in Trentham.

The group meets once a week and each person takes a turn leading the stretches and joint movements in an effort to keep nimble and strong. "Walking with your bottom is good for your hips. Then of course we do marching on the spot and that sort of thing."

Mrs Williams used to be a line dancer, played golf, and walked her dog twice a day. "It's very easy to become a vegetable watching telly as you get older, but you mustn't do that."

A survey by the ministry showed 55 per cent of men aged between 65 and 74 regularly exercised and just 47 per cent of women.

But once they passed their 75th birthdays, exercise rates dropped dramatically.

Maori were the most active, but did not perform as well in overall health. Asian people were the least active, followed by Pacific Islanders.

The guidelines were issued yesterday and drew on evidence from around the world, chief medical officer Don Mackie said.

Any activity was better than nothing, and could include walking to the shops, vacuuming or gardening.

"People are living longer - and we want to see that those years are spent in good health. Additionally, like health systems around the world, we face significant challenges in responding to an ageing population.

"We want to help older New Zealanders stay active, independent and to prevent illness, rather than focusing only on treating ill-health."

It is estimated that, by 2061, older people will make up a quarter of New Zealand's population.

Age Concern chief executive Ann Martin supported the guidelines, which encourage over-65s to exercise as a means of socialising.

"According to research . . . when you're feeling lonely it's as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So by joining some exercise group and by being out and about in your community, you're unlikely to feel as lonely."

Other age groups should be getting active for at least 30 minutes most days.

Fairfax Media