How to stay fit and healthy in your 70s and 80s


A commitment to living healthily as you age can have significant consequences for your happiness and longevity

Fifteen years ago, Maura Ward was seriously overweight. Juggling her job as a social worker with bringing up two children on her own meant she had no time to play the sports she’d loved as a child, healthy eating went out of the window and she’d piled on the pounds. In 2006, she decided to do something about it, and started going for runs after work.

Then in 2012, Ward was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Undaunted, seven years later, she climbed Mount Fuji, then last month, embarked on an adventure: to cycle 100km (62 miles) in two days across the desert in Jordan. Along with a group of 19 others, Ward braved 20-plus degree heat, dust and hills on the back of a tandem (her son was on the front).

Ward is 74. And while Parkinson’s affects her balance and mobility – so riding a bike, even a tandem, is not easy – she still powers through. “Exercise helps Parkinson’s symptoms quite considerably,” she says modestly – and besides, she’s raised over £12,000 towards funding a cure for the disease. Now Ward is back from her Jordan adventure, she will continue with her regime of going to the gym four to five times a week (despite “not being a gym lover”), lifting weights every other visit and keeping active in between times by walking.

Chris Whitty would doubtless approve. Earlier this month, England’s Chief Medical Officer urged older people to take responsibility for their own health with what he termed “old fashioned methods” of staying fit and well: exercise, a healthy diet, drinking less, stopping smoking and getting plenty of mental and social stimulation. With an increasingly ageing population – by 2050, a quarter of those in the UK will be over 65 – Sir Chris argued that it should not be accepted that those extra years should be spent in ill health.

The auspices are not good, however: according to Whitty’s annual report, Health in an Ageing Society, published earlier this month, people also become less active as they age: a third of 75 to 85-year-olds and 57 per cent of those aged 85 and over are physically inactive. And the difference between a happy and fulfilling old age and one beset with a loss of dignity and independence, as well as increasing frailty and discomfort, is “largely determined by health, physical and mental”.

As the report concludes, “Those who enter older age in good health and maintain it to the end have a very different experience to those who rapidly accumulate multiple debilitating or degenerative conditions, living with them for many years.”

So what can older people do to improve their health span, and get more out of life as they age?

A healthy mind in a healthy body

John Dalton is a firm believer in the importance of “remaining strong in mind and body”. At 70, Dalton swims in the sea at his home in Scarborough most days, cycles on the nearby Yorkshire Moors and regularly practises Indian clubs (a type of resistance movement) on the beach – all activities that he says keep not just his body active, but his essential self youthful. “As the body ages, you can become younger in spirit,” he declares. “You’re less trammelled by the ideas of society – you can become freer than you were when you were young.”

It might sound a bit woo-woo, but he’s not entirely wrong – because when it comes to the brain itself, it is in fact possible to reverse the ageing process. While the brain will show age-related changes – ventricles enlarge, matter declines and white fiber connections degenerate – they don’t have to amount to changes in brain performance or inevitably lead to decline.

“In every decade the brain rejuvenates itself in a process called neurogenesis,” says Prof James Goodwin, director of science at the Brain Health Network, and author of Supercharge Your Brain. He explains that the part of our brain affected by our DNA only amounts to 25 per cent; the other 75 per cent is due to environment and lifestyle, which means we can slow the natural rate of change in the brain – and associated cognitive decline – that happens with age.

The usual rules apply: a healthy diet and exercise (of which more below), plus good sleep (you should be aiming for seven to eight hours within a 24-hour period), keeping sociable (“chronic loneliness carries the same risk to your health as a bottle of vodka a day, or 15 cigarettes,” says Prof Goodwin) and trying to keep a lid on stress. Get these things right, and you can change the whole ageing process.

Eat five (or more), stay alive

One of the main ways to not only slow brain age but, as Sir Chris pointed out, retain a fit and healthy body is through what we eat. “Our Western diet is woefully narrow,” says Prof Goodwin. “In Neolithic times we’d be eating a variety of about 300 plants; if you went to Covent Garden Market in the 1850s you’d find 30 different kinds of apples. Now, those in the Western world get 75 per cent of our calories from five animals and 12 plants.” And, as you get older, nutrition deficiency becomes alarmingly common – a person might not be underweight, but their high body fat and low muscle mass means that they are lacking in what their body actually needs to be healthy.

The key thing to focus on, says GP Rob Jameson, who specialises in geriatric health, is nutrient-rich food – not least because digestive ability also decreases with age, which affects the absorption of nutrients. At the basic level, that means plenty of fruit and veg, a small amount of fish and meat and cutting down on very starchy, simple-carbohydrate foods like white flour, white bread and potatoes. Regular, balanced meals are also key, to make sure you’re eating enough and to stabilise blood sugar levels, which in turn helps sleep and increases energy.

You can boost your digestive ability by including probiotic-containing foods that give the body and the gut a helping hand, like live yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut and kefir. Aiding digestion also helps to reduce inflammation. According to the National Library of Medicine, chronic pro-inflammatory status is a pervasive feature of ageing, representing a significant risk factor for morbidity and mortality in the elderly, so it’s vital to mitigate this.

Nutritionist Dr Gabriela Peacock recommends green tea as an excellent anti-inflammatory; it also helps with hydration, another common problem among older people who may find it difficult to drink the recommended two litres of fluid a day which doesn’t include regular tea and coffee.

Prof Goodwin also warns of the dangers of inflammation, and counsels against the likes of ultra-processed foods, many of which contain an inflammatory fatty acid called omega-6 which inflames the brain, and is often found in the ready meals that older people may turn to for ease. The key nutrients everyone should be focusing on instead are omega-3 (which makes up 60 per cent of the brain and is found in oily fish), magnesium, zinc, vitamin D and vitamin B12 – and while it is better to try to get these from food (largely because supplementation chemistry is very complex), Goodwin himself supplements with vitamin D during the winter months, or if he has a virus.

Then there’s protein. “As we get older, we need to eat more protein,” says Prof Goodwin. “That’s because there’s a natural decline in the physical composition of the body as we get older – we lose muscle and bone mass by one to two per cent a year.” Meat and fish are great sources of protein, so going vegetarian or vegan may not be such a wise idea as you get older, although lentils and beans are also a source.

Move your body

“Fitness for those in their 70s and 80s is all about functional fitness,” says Dr Jameson. He defines this as keeping major muscle groups, at risk over time of deconditioning, active – so you can still stand up from a chair, climb the stairs or get into the bath easily.

While any kind of movement is good for keeping the body active, the key things to focus on as you age are cardiovascular exercise (which gets the heart going), strength training (which keeps the bones and muscles strong) and some focus on flexibility.

That doesn’t mean you have to become a powerlifter, or run a marathon. But neither should it mean bursts of intensity followed by lots of sitting around. “You need to be aiming for 150 minutes of gym work or other activity a week, and trying to sit for less than 10 hours a day,” says Prof Goodwin. “That kind of formula means you’re going to reverse aging in the brain by one to two per cent a year” – and you’ll stay mobile to boot.

Stay strong

“A little bit of strength training is so important as we get older”, says personal trainer Pauline Cotton. If you can lift some basic weights – kettlebells, for example – that’s great, but even just squats using just your body weight will help build muscle and burn fat, as well as ensure you can keep getting up from a chair.

“I encourage my older clients to do body weight exercises – standing in the kitchen and doing push-ups against the wall, maybe doing them the second time on their toes,” says Cotton, who also gets people to practise squats by pulling a chair out, sitting on the edge with just their tailbone touching the seat and squeezing the muscles.

If you’d prefer to have someone helping you, there is an increasing number of exercise classes available for older people. “We always do some squatting and deadlifting, as well as upper body exercise and a focus on grip strength with our older clients,” says Nick Smith, who has started a “Legends” exercise programme at his gym in Rugby, Warwickshire, for people over 55. “And there are ways of making it easier – with a box, or exercise bands for assistance.”


“Some people find it very hard to get out of bed in the mornings as their body is so tight,” says Cotton. She recommends some gentle stretching – like doing the yoga cat pose, arching your spine and bringing your head and pelvis down like a cat – in bed, on the mattress, to release the spine.

Pilates can be a great way to keep your body supple, as well as helping with breathing (good for the lungs), and you can easily modify it according to ability.

Move more

“Getting outside, especially for a walk, is wellness for the mind,” says Cotton, who adds that a walk doesn’t have to be long, but is helpful to do every day. Dr Jameson says that to reduce cardiovascular risk, you should do something that makes you sweaty or breathless for at least half an hour three times a week – “so a dog walk is great, but it needs to be a brisk walk, not a dawdle”.

And finally, “normal sexual activity is essential to brain health” (as well as being great cardiovascular exercise), says Prof Goodwin. “Regular sex once a week, with a steady partner, is the gold standard of benefit to the brain. It’s social, it’s an exercise, and it releases feel-good hormones. Even solitary sex is beneficial to the health of the brain.”