A man smiles, standing in front of an outdoor swimming pool, with a towel around his shoulders Credit: Getty

How do you keep fit?

Saga customers reveal their exercise habits, and experts explain why walking is not enough.

Walking, it seems, is the nation’s favourite exercise – and it’s Saga customers’ main way of keeping fit too, with 80% taking regular strolls. Only 16% enjoy going to the gym, 15% play sport, 12% swim, 13% cycle and 6% run.  

Six in ten rely on more informal activities to get in their exercise, such as DIY, housework and gardening – especially men (61% vs 54% of women), and that rises as people get older. 

They must be doing some pretty vigorous digging, sawing and pruning, as just under two thirds (63%) of the almost 5,000 customers who answered our survey said they hit the Government target of 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise (or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise). 


83% say exercise boosts mood

Around half of you are pleased with your level of fitness, which doesn’t vary as much as you may think between age groups: 52% of 50-to-64-year-olds, 49% of 65-74s, 42% of 75-84s and 41% of those aged 85+ all rate it as excellent or good. Of those less happy, 41% blame poor motivation and 38% say health conditions stop them doing more. 

However, even among the fittest, only four in ten say they’re doing the recommended two sessions of strength training a week. Seeing as many of us might not know what strength training is, that figure may be lower, says Professor Janet Lord, at the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing, University of Birmingham.

49% of women feel guilty they don’t do enough

Walking fans among you may want to look away now. That’s because, while it’s a wonderful stress buster and definitely counts as a healthy pastime, a daily walk isn’t strength training and is not enough on its own to keep us fit and strong as we age.

“So much focus has been on getting your 10,000 steps – it’s really stuck in people’s heads,” says Professor Lord. “But as we get older, if anything, strength training is more important than the aerobic side. You are future proofing yourself, because if your muscles aren’t strong enough, you can’t get out of a chair and therefore cannot live independently.”

So what is strength training? Essentially, moving your muscles against resistance: so walking doesn’t count, but walking up stairs does because you’re carrying your bodyweight up each step.

“Hard digging works if you are lifting up a good spade full of soil each time,” says Professor Lord. “Carrying heavy shopping also works, but how many people actually do that?”

She advises a few simple exercises, before and after a daily walk: “Sitting in a chair with your arms crossed on your shoulders and getting up and down 10 times, three times a day, will strengthen your legs. For your arms, buy a cheap resistance band and simply pull it out and back.”


39% never do exercise that leaves them out of breath

Exercise physiologist Dr Ashley Gluchowski, at the University of Manchester, was so concerned that older people rely on walking to stay fit, she titled her recent research, A Lot of People Just Go for Walks and Don’t Do Anything Else.

“Walking is great,” she says, “but it isn’t building the strength we need. I’ve heard people say, ‘I’m not going to be able to build strength’ or ‘Why bother at this stage?’, but there’s no age limit for getting stronger and there’s evidence that strength is what preserves your independence.”

She advises buying a few pairs of dumbbells and searching strength exercises online. “Choose weights you can do six to eight repetitions with and no more. If you can do 12-15 that’s too light.” Work the arms, legs and core. 

Don’t give up the walking, says Professor Lord, but try to increase speed. “You need to push yourself to get the benefit. Aim for a minimum of 5,000-7,000 steps a day at 2 mph – or 3 mph if you can – to stay ahead of the grim reaper!”


Written by Rachel Carlyle