Physical activity in later life: every little helps

It is well known that physical activity has many health benefits at all ages. And that being inactive adds to many chronic health problems like diabetes and heart disease.

It is less clear just how much physical activity is necessary for good health, particularly in late old age. Activity guidelines suggest that 150 minutes of activity – like walking - is required each week. However some older people are unable to achieve this because of physical and/or mental health problems – no matter how much they might like to do so. Only 7% of over 75s in Scotland meet the 150 minutes a week target. And of course, there are some people of all ages who are capable of being active, but are unwilling to do so.

But activity guidelines are based on information drawn largely from younger populations in good health. The guidelines are neither specific to very old people, nor to older people with significant health or mobility problems, such as those living in care homes. There is growing information to suggest that the amount of activity that such older people need to do for health benefit might be very considerably less than the guidelines.

A large US study followed over 1,000 older women who had walking difficulties for one year. It found that those who walked a total distance of just 8 blocks a week had considerably better health and were more independent than those who walked less far. This suggests that in later life even very small amounts of walking can be beneficial.

Other research has found that regardless of whether people meet activity guidelines or not, prolonged sitting is also bad for health. So just standing up every 30 minutes or so is good for us.

So the message about physical activity for people in late old age, and for those with health or mobility difficulties is:

  • Avoid sitting for hours on end
  • Stand up from time to time
  • Do what you can, every little helps


Simonsick E.M., Guralnik J.M., Volpato S., Balfour J., and Fried L.P. Just get out the door! Importance of walking outside the home for maintaining mobility (findings from the women’s health and aging study). Journal of American Geriatric Society. 2005; 53: 198–203

Van der Ploeg H. P., Chey T., Korda R. J., Banks E., Bauman A. Sitting Time and All-Cause Mortality Risk in 222 497 Australian Adults. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2012; 172 (6): 494-500