Why it’s so important to stay active for life

April 19, 2018

Professor Peter Reaburn, Head of Exercise and Sports, Health Sciences and Medicine, explains why it’s vital we all stay active for life…

“I was in the crowd at the Australian Swimming Trials on the Gold Coast recently when 99-year-old George Corones upstaged some of the biggest stars of the pool.

George, who turns 100 next month, smashed the 50m freestyle world record for his age group by 35 seconds. After clocking a time of 56.12secs, the champion’s parting words on the pool deck were: “Stay active for life.”

There, in four words, was the solution to some weighty problems confronting Australia’s ageing population – premature illness, declining mental health, the rising cost of health care, the isolation of our elderly and staying physically and mentally sharp into old age.

The older we get, the more active we should become, yet the opposite is true for most people.

Fitness usually starts to go downhill in your 30s. You’ve got a family, your career is happening and suddenly you don’t have the time to exercise any more.

Then you hit 60 and the hill gets steeper. You retire; your muscle mass drops; you lose your strength; you don’t do as much aerobic exercise.

It’s at this point you’re more at risk of diabetes, heart disease and you’re highly unlikely to make it to George’s age, never mind break a world record.

In Australia we still have this belief that old age is a time to cut back on physical activity despite the fact it’s a stage of life when we have more time to exercise. We throw in surfing and cycling and take up lawn bowls.

Until the 1990s this was driven by a belief you shouldn’t do hard exercise as you got older because of the risk of heart attack or hurting yourself, yet there is no evidence to say older athletes sustain more injuries than younger ones.

In fact, the current evidence says the benefits of keeping active in old age far outweigh the risks.

Studies show that not only are older athletes fitter, they’re psychologically healthier. They suffer less anxiety and depression, they’re cognitively sharper than non-athletes and they’re socially more engaged.

It makes sense – generally to take part in an organised sport you join a club, you train with people and you engage with them.

Ultimately you lead a happier, healthier life because exercise is medicine.

Unfortunately, many in the medical profession are not trained in the benefits of exercise. Their thinking is to prescribe a pill - the instant cure.

I’m not aware of any university that has exercise training prescription within a medical degree - and yet all the evidence says exercise is the ultimate cure-all with the positive side-effect of lessening the burden on the public health system.

So where to start? You don’t need a gym membership or fancy equipment and it doesn’t have to be huff-and-puff exercise to begin with.

Start by doing something that you loved as a kid. Did you enjoy riding a bike? Then ride a bike. Don’t feel safe out on the road? Get on a stationary bike or ride around the block.

If your council has had the foresight you’ll soon come across bikeways and paths and be on your way to a healthier lifestyle.

And don’t be afraid of working up a sweat with some serious resistance training. If lifting a 3kg dumbbell is hard, then congratulations, that’s resistance training. So is walking up the hill if you’re not used to walking up the hill, or swimming 50m.

At 99, George Corones has laid down a challenge to all of us. At the risk of sounding like a Nike ad, just do it."