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Getting fit – and staying fit – for healthy ageing

Are you contemplating a return to exercise and trying to decide what to do? Not sure what might suit you best? If so, you’re not alone.

In my 20 years working as a psychologist and exercise scientist, I know lots of people feel that way. When that uncertainty isn’t resolved, it goes into the too-hard basket and one of two things happen. People either do nothing because they can’t decide, or they do something, anything, because they quite rightly decide that some action is better than no action.

But in both cases the outcomes aren’t likely to be great.

Obviously, doing nothing changes nothing. But less obviously, if people take on forms of exercise they don’t care much about (because they felt it was better than nothing), their motivation is likely to be highly unstable and not last very long.

If that rings true for you, fear not! There are ways to work out what sort of exercise might suit you best. And I firmly believe there’s something out there for you, even if you’ve never been a very physical person.

It’s never too late!

Take this example. Recently I interviewed a man who, for 50 of his 59 years, had lived a life almost entirely devoid of sport and recreational exercise. Having grown up in a family that was ‘anti-sport’, there was little encouragement to do much. Added to that, he was small and slightly built, which made school sports a struggle and resulted in him being bullied a bit.

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As a result, he devoted all his time to music and academic pursuits. That was until he needed to find an energetic after-school option for his young son. After his son announced he wanted to do ‘sword fighting’, they contacted the local fencing club and started going every week. The dad watched for a while, then decided it was time to have a try.

To his great surprise, he enjoyed it immediately. There were two reasons for this. First, the fencing foil was surprisingly light (only 500 grams), so he felt capable of using it. Second, he found he could land some ‘hits’, so he felt capable of doing it.

As it turned out, this was to be the start of a new and surprising chapter in his life. A time when he channelled energy into an enjoyable sport, developed his own training program, and even enjoyed some competitive success.

This story perfectly illustrates that it’s never too late to connect with an enjoyable form of physical activity. That’s especially true if you’re prepared to search a little for it.

Working out what sort of physical activity works for you

In my experience, when people attempt a return to physical activity, the biggest mistake they make is not giving enough thought to it. All too often, the impulse to get moving again is quickly followed by a decision to head back to the gym, get the bike out of the garage, or start running around the block.

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Now, these may all be things you’ve done before, or had recommended to you by others. And clearly there’s nothing wrong with any of those choices. Provided you have no health issues that make those choices unsafe, go for it!

However, if you want to get moving and keep moving, there are bigger motivational questions to consider:

  • To what extent is the gym/bike/running interesting to you?
  • How much do you enjoy the activity?
  • Does it excite you?

These questions are useful to reflect on because the more energised you are by your physical pursuit of choice, the more likely you are to stick with it.

Start by looking backwards

A good way to start is by looking back in time, to things you did earlier in life. Why? Because, as human beings, we’re naturally active creatures – something that’s very evident during childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.

Have a think about it. There’s a good chance some of your best memories involve being physical active when you were young. It might have been playing tennis, little athletics, swimming carnivals, bushwalking, weekly netball or footy, or hours of backyard cricket.

Whatever it was, there’s potential value to be gained from using the power of your memory to relive and reminisce about those experiences. To bring them to life again in a search of inspiration, or confirmation, about what you might do.

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Maybe you really enjoyed canoeing at a school camp when you were 12 but never got the chance to do it again. Perhaps kayaking might be worth a try?

Maybe you came from a family of tennis players, which you quite enjoyed, but you always wanted to try ice skating and never did. Perhaps that time has come?

If at first you don’t succeed …

Finding the physical pursuit that suits you best can be like trying on a pair of shoes. If you’re prepared to think – and play – outside the box, you can experiment a bit. Try a couple of different things and get someone to try it with you (because doing it with others adds hugely to the enjoyment). 

Sometimes you can get lucky, like the 50s fencer. But why leave it to chance? There’s a form of enjoyable physical activity out there for you and, if you put in a little effort to find it, you’ll be very pleased that you did.

Dr Gordon Spence, author of Get Moving. Keep Moving, is a psychologist and exercise scientist, a speaker, coach and educator who helps clients to live well and perform well. For more information visit www.healthyageingproject.com.

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