The UK’s top doctors are recommending over-65s take up dancing, bowls or even activities like tai chi to help stave off injury and illness in old age.

New guidance issued by the Department of Health emphasises the importance of building strength and balance for adults, as well as focusing on cardiovascular exercise.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham’s School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Science worked as expert panel members, contributing to the new guidelines through evaluating evidence and drawing on the cutting-edge research carried out in the School.

Falls are the number one reason older people are taken to A&E and could be avoided through daily activities ranging from brisk walking, carrying heavy shopping or climbing stairs, swimming and gardening.  The guidance also advises on safe levels of activity for pregnant women or new mums, and the many benefits that this can bring, as long as they listen to their body and speak to their health professional.

There is strong evidence that physical activity protects against a range of chronic conditions. Meeting the guidelines can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 40%, coronary heart disease by 35% and depression by 30%.

Dr Carolyn Greig, of the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences, worked on the project along with Dr Afroditi Stathi, Dr Jet Veldhuijzen van Zanten and Dr Sally Fenton. Dr Rebekah Lucas, along with Nathalie Kirby and Bethany Skinner also contributed to the guidelines for adults with disabilities.

Dr Greig said: “As scientists our research continually generates new knowledge about the health benefits of physical activity across the life course, therefore it is crucially important that our national physical activity guidelines, which translate this knowledge to practice, are regularly revised and updated.”

Introducing the guidelines, Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies said: “Physical activity is an under-appreciated asset in our clinical arsenal. It is cheap and brings a long list of health benefits.

“As we age, our muscles weaken and we can become stiff, leading to falls and difficulty preforming everyday activities. Physical activity can prevent fragility and support mobility in old age. By keeping active, both throughout the day and also through hobbies, we can slow muscle and bone decline, ultimately keeping us independent for longer.”

Under the new guidelines, adults are advised to undertake strength-based exercise at least two days a week – which can help delay the natural decline in muscle mass and bone density that starts from around 50. It is believed that this is a central reason why older people lose their ability to carry out daily tasks.

The guidelines also include world-first recommendations for new mothers, advising that a moderate amount of exercise is proven to help them regain strength, ease back pain and reduce the risk of gestational diabetes.

The new guidelines are an update to those released in 2011, but the overall message remains the same: any activity is better than none, and more is better still.

New advice is also available to encourage good development in babies and children, with the UK Chief Medical Officers recommending lots of “tummy time”. As much active play as possible in children under five is encouraged, and older children are recommended to be active for an average of 60 minutes a day, across the week. To support this, the Government will work with nurseries to find fun opportunities for young children to exercise during the day through the new Daily Toddle initiative.

For further information please contact Beck Lockwood, Press Office, University of Birmingham, tel 0121 414 2772.

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