In the year 2050 some 30% of Spaniards will be older than 65, and Spain will be the country with the second oldest population in the world. Faced with this situation, and taking into account that old age accounts for almost a third of our existence, it is necessary to find the formula so that our old people can have a more active life during this period and enjoy optimum physical and mental health. ‘Active ageing’ responds precisely to this question and provides solutions so that the passing years will not be impede living a life that’s full in every way.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines active ageing as “the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age… It allows people to realize their potential for physical, social, and mental wellbeing throughout the life course and to participate in society according to their needs, desires and capacities.” In sum, it’s a case of assuring quality of life during old age.
For the WHO, active ageing means enjoying good health, optimal physical and mental functioning, being independent and autonomous, and maintaining social activities and participation. To achieve this, researchers agree that it’s essential to lead a healthy life and keep the body and mind active through sports. Nevertheless, according to Lidia Brea, Director of the University Master in Physical Activity and Health of the Escuela Universitaria Real Madrid-Universidad Europea, “the most recent studies demonstrate that nearly a third of the population older than 70, and more than half of those over 80, don’t satisfy the recommendations.”
Losing the fear of exercise
Age shouldn’t ne an impediment to exercising. On the contrary, it influences the quality of life just as much as it does the length. According to Brea, “if you engage in 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week, the risk of death is reduced by 31% compared to less active people.” Alejandro Lucía, department head and professor at Universidad Europea, adds that “it’s necessary to lose one’s fear of exercise” because it attenuates the effects of ageing and is the best way of preventing disease.
The principal advantage of engaging in sports is that they help stave off one of the most frequent problems of old age: sarcopenia, or the loss of muscle mass and strength. Between 5% and 13% of people between the ages of 60 and 70, and from 11% and 50% of those over 80, suffer from this disease, which is the principal cause of falls and which can lead to incapacity in some cases. There are no medicines to fight it; the only cure is strength exercises that fortify the body’s muscles, as Alejandro Lucía explains.
Sports also help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, prevent diabetes and obesity, reduce the chances of suffering from anxiety and depression, and favor rehabilitation from problems with joints and the respiratory system, traumatology and post-operative blood circulation.
Although it’s always advisable to consult a professional from the field of sports and physical activity, older people are advised to practice moderate aerobic exercises at least five times a week for a minimum of 30 minutes. The most common way is to get out and walk, although any activity that increase heart and breathing rates is valid. There should also be strength and flexibility exercises two or three times a week, with some light weights and stretching the muscles between 30 and 60 seconds, without causing pain. In this way, Lucía explains, “we get healthy and in good physical shape.”
Mental gymnastics to activate the brain
But it’s not just the body that needs exercise: the brain should also be kept active and agile throughout life. With the passing years, this organ undergoes changes that usually affect, for example, memory and attention. That’s why it’s important to train the neurons to prevent or delay the symptoms and development of possible cerebral deterioration. Mar Sánchez, a psychologist and one of the founders of Neuromotiva, the first gymnasium in Spain designed to train the adult brain, recommends that older people engage in mental gymnastics to maintain and improve their cognitive capacities.
“Some 80% of what we do every day is routine, and thus doesn’t require any mental effort on our part. But the brain, if it isn’t used, becomes weakened,” she explains. The key is in living in a conscious way and keeping the head active by solving puzzles or learning new things… Students at Neuromotiva practice this concentration when brushing their teeth using the other hand or changing the way they usually walk to work, for example. The benefits, she claims, are noticeable in a short time.
Physical and mental activity is thus a basic pillar in active ageing that makes it possible to play a relevant, participative role in society. In this demographic context, where an increase in the number of old people is foreseen, it’s essential to look out for their safety and wellbeing. The cultural, social and economic challenges of this new situation can be met by applying policies that promote and facilitate active ageing.