By Dr Kate Gregorevic
The average person turning sixty will have another thirty years of life. As a doctor with a research interest in healthy ageing, I find that I am always being asked for tips on lifestyle steps to stay well for as long as possible.
The good news is that it is never too late to take make changes to improve wellbeing. As our bodies continue to change throughout life and health advice for a thirty year old won’t always apply for a sixty year old. These are my top tips for self-care for a healthy, active life.
1. Don't lose weight
Many people spend a lifetime trying to restrict their eating to be ‘thin’, and it’s no wonder when this is so often portrayed as the height of fashion and beauty, but striving to be like the models in the magazines might actually have real health risks in older age. Body mass index is calculated as weight in kilograms over height in metres squared (kg/m2).
Many studies have shown that having a BMI over 25, or in the overweight range is associated with increased risk of poor health for younger adults, but the opposite is true in older age. A number of studies of people in their sixties and beyond have shown that the lowest mortality actually occurs with a BMI between 25-30.
Having a BMI over 30 is associated with poorer health and difficulty doing day-to-day activities. It is possible to lose weight safely, but this should be done in consultation with your doctor.
It is possible that the higher levels of mortality for those with a BMI in the lower range could be due to some people having lost weight due to illness, so if you are the same slim weight you have always been, there is no need to worry.
2. Keep up the exercise
If we could make a pill with the benefits of exercise, everyone would want to take it. When ever you move your body enough to get your heart rate up, you can start to have benefits. The mood enhancing effects of exercise can actually be used as a treatment for mild depression. And in addition, women who exercise more are also at a lower risk of dementia.
There are two key components to an effective exercise routine: aerobic exercise and strength training. Aerobic exercise is anything that raises your heart rate and makes you breathe a little faster, and can be as simple as walking fast enough to make it hard to carry out a conversation. The other key component is strength training, which is using resistance from weights or your own body to challenge muscles to improve power. Strength training can help to prevent sarcopenia, which is a loss of muscle mass and strength that can lead to disability.
Once again, before starting any new exercise program, it is always wise to check in with your doctor and seek guidance from a physiotherapist or qualified exercise physiologist.
3. Look after your bones
Osteoporosis is a common and potentially debilitating disease. It occurs when bones become thin and brittle and increases the risk of fractures. Bones are constantly undergoing remodelling in response to the body’s need for calcium to control cellular processes and in response to the movements we make. Unfortunately Calcium and vitamin D are not sufficient to prevent osteoporosis, but exercise can improve bone density.
Both strength training and weight bearing, like jumping or marching, can help to improve bone density and decrease the risk of osteoporosis.
4. Look after your pelvic floor
The pelvic floor is a sling of muscles that goes from the pubic bone to the sacrum that supports the organs in the pelvis and helps with faecal and urinary incontinence. Many women develop pelvic floor dysfunction around the time of childbirth, and receive inadequate pelvic floor rehabilitation in the post-partum period, which leads to long-term problems.
As well as difficulties with incontinence and sexual function, pelvic floor weakness can also be associated with back pain. Luckily it is never too late to improve pelvic floor strength and function, seeing a women’s health physiotherapist can be an excellent way to start.
5. Feed your friends (fibre)
The gut microbiome is made up of the trillions of bacteria and other micro-organisms that live in our gut. These are not just passive passengers, but active participants in creating health. A larger variety of gut bacteria is associated with better health in older age. These bacteria live on fibre, which is the indigestible cell wall from the plants that we eat. Eating a large variety of vegetables, legumes, wholegrains and fruit can support these bacteria and improve your chances of long-term health.
Eating a diet that is high in wholefoods can also improve mood and memory, so the benefits are immediate.
6. Do something that sparks joy
Feeling physically well is an excellent basis for life, but human connection and living with purpose are essential for living with meaning. Caring for others and using our own individual skills and resources to create something in the world can help to improve long-term health and to protect cognition.
Health is something to enjoy today, not something we achieve in the future by denying ourselves now, we need to prioritise our own wellbeing each and every day. Luckily by doing this with nutrition, exercise and spending time with those we love, we can dramatically increase our chances of living the longest, healthiest life possible.