How to start exercising in later life: tips from the UK’s oldest personal trainer  

Want to start exercising but don’t know where to start? Get these expert tips on how to get going and keep going.

If you don’t know how to start exercising, or it’s been a long time since you last worked out, it can feel an almost insurmountable hill to climb. But it doesn’t need to be.  

The trick is to build small, daily habits. Slowly – and there’s no rush – you can build on these habits. For example, you could make it a habit to walk around the house whenever you’re on the phone rather than sitting still. You might decide to walk to the post office instead of driving.  

Once these become habits, you can add something – a weekly walk with a friend, say – and then something else. This practice of “habit stacking” is an effective way to either start exercising or get back to it, and is explained in detail in the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. 

Woman lifting dumbbellsCredit: Shutterstock / Lordn

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A multitude of feelings can get in the way of starting to exercise. Perhaps you used to exercise regularly but circumstances have prevented it in recent years. That can lead to feelings of frustration, upset and like you’ve “let yourself go”.  

Maybe you’ve had a health-related wake-up call, and a doctor has recommended you get more active. Embarrassment, fear, anxiety and stress can all come into play, resulting in being overwhelmed and ultimately doing nothing about the situation.  

But these feelings can be overcome with a little time, patience and discipline. The best thing is that exercise makes you feel good, so once you start you’ll tap into all those positive emotions and happy hormones (serotonin) that will make you want to keep going.  

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Let’s start at the beginning…

There are many ways to start or return to exercise, depending on your current activity level, and our expert, Eddy Diget, has some great advice. Aged 78, Diget works as a personal trainer and rehab specialist at Pure Gym in Milton Keynes. With a passion for helping people discover the joy of fitness, and a medical background as a ship’s doctor in the Royal Navy, Diget has no plans to slow down.  

A lifelong fitness lover, who has been working as a PT for more than 20 years, Diget has helped many people become fitter, healthier and stronger. If you’re looking to start your own health and fitness journey, here are his top tips. 

Add more movement to daily life

“If you’re a person that has never trained before but has decided to start or been told that they must start exercising by the doctor, my advice would be to start as gently as possible, as your body will not be used to exercise,” Diget says.  

We all perform different patterns of movement every day. That might be walking around the house, getting in and out of the car, carrying shopping or digging the garden. Increasing your daily activity is one of the easiest ways of starting to move more. Here are some ideas to try:  

  • Park a little further away from the supermarket. 
  • Get off the bus a stop earlier. 
  • Take the stairs instead of the lift. 
  • Set an alarm at home every hour to get you out of your chair to walk about. 

As your daily movement increases, you will become ready to start gentle exercise too. “It’s worth keeping in mind that this will vary a lot from person to person, depending on medical problems or restrictions,” Diget advises. “The key is to ensure the movement is easy enough for you to succeed, because if it’s too hard, it becomes a reason not to try.”  

People stretching outsideCredit: Shutterstock / Drazen Zigic

Start with a simple at-home routine

“You can start with a chair,” Diget says. “Stand behind it with your arms outstretched in front of you, holding the top of the back of chair, with your feet slightly apart. Try to lower your upper body forward by bending from the waist, so your head goes between arms, if that’s possible. This will start to work mobility in your lower back, top of shoulders and spine. Aim for 10 repetitions. 

“Take a seat on the chair and hold something like a broom handle across the tops of your thighs. Slowly slide the broom handle over your knees towards your ankles. This will help to improve mobility in your lower back, upper shoulders and core. Aim for 10 repetitions. 

“Finally, sitting on the chair again, sit holding the broom handle (or similar) across your thighs, and lift your arms above your head, for approximately 10 repetitions, two times over (with a rest in between). This will work the chest, shoulders and upper back, as well as most of the neck muscles. 

“Along with walking, these simple exercises can be done in very little time each day, to help you progress in the safety of your home, before entering a gym.” 

Consider a step goal

A daily or weekly step goal can be a great way to start regular exercise. There are plenty of devices on the market that will count your steps, ranging from smart watches to relatively inexpensive step counters. Lots of phones will also count your steps – if you keep it on you while walking, of course.  

A step goal can become a fun competition between family and friends, and they’re inspirational for a lot of people. You’ll suddenly find yourself doing laps of the living room just before bed so you can hit your target – with a little buzz of euphoria when you get there.  

If you’d rather not have the pressure of a specific target, that’s OK too. As Diget explains: “Any movement done while standing will improve blood flow to the heart, lungs and especially the extremities such as the legs. A lack of movement is why some people can get an ‘oedema’, meaning the swelling of feet. So doing any walking, be it around the garden or to the shops, will help to avoid this, ensure blood is circulating, and your muscles are being worked. Step goals vary depending on the person, so I would always start with ensuring you are at the very least spending a part of your day moving.” 

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Man stretching in parkCredit: Shutterstock / PeopleImages.com – Yuri A

Increase flexibility

Our muscles lose elasticity as we age, putting strain on the joints. One way to counter this is to work on flexibility with regular stretching. Keeping supple is a great way to protect against potential injury, plus it ensures daily activities, such as reaching things in high cupboards or climbing the stairs, remain doable.  

Take a look at our 12 stretches to increase flexibility for a range of poses to try. If you enjoy this kind of laid-back, soothing exercise, starting Pilates or yoga might be just the thing. Both focus on breath work, core control and movement patterns. While yoga is more restorative for body and mind, Pilates is more strength-based, which is something we need to focus on as we age.

Graduating to a gym…

Exercise builds confidence, and once it’s become a part of your daily lifestyle, you’ll want to explore more options. There are a wealth of cardio exercise and strength training options out there. If you are new to exercise, consider getting started with walking, or perhaps starting running with the help of the couch to 5k app. Maybe swimming is something you did when you were younger and would like to do again.  

A gym membership offers a good choice of activities. Some gyms have a pool or added community activities such as football or badminton teams. Almost all offer a range of fitness classes and a fully equipped gym to use.

Always warm up and cool down

“You must educate the muscle before you train it,” Diget says. “Therefore, with whatever exercise selected, the first few repetitions should be a warm up of the muscle group being used, with little to no weight. If you’re new to exercise, you can injure yourself without a proper warm-up.”   

A good example of this is squats. If you were planning to do three rounds of 10 repetitions with weights, do two rounds of six to eight repetitions first, with no weights. You can also use a cardio machine, such as a treadmill or rower, to warm the whole body prior to starting specific exercises.  

“A cool-down would follow the same approach, working the muscle groups with light movement,” says Diget.  

Our running warm-up and running cool-down articles both have great ideas for gently working the muscles in preparation for exercise and after. Even if running isn’t forming part of your workout that day, they’re still great exercises to do. 

Cardio exercises to try

Cardio can take many forms, from a structured run on a treadmill to joining a Zumba class. Variety keeps things interesting. If you know you get bored of the same routine, why not change it up and try something different?  

If exercise is new to you, take it at your own pace, rest when needed and ensure you stay well hydrated throughout your session. Diget suggests trying the following in the gym:  

  • Use a light dumbbell (around 1kg, or 2lb 3oz). Hold it in one hand and while standing, lift the weight above your head then swing down across body to the inside of the opposing ankle. Do this on both sides, with 10 repetitions each, for two sets. 
  • With two weights in each hand (1kg, or 2lb 3oz, to begin with) while standing, move the weights forward in front of you so they’re level with your chest, and “dip” by bending your knees, so the weights become parallel to your body in a squat-style position. Do this for 10 consecutive repetitions, for two sets.  
  • With a “Slam Ball” of about 3kg (6lb 10oz) in weight, stand with one foot on a stepper box, the ball resting on your thigh. The movement will be to swing the ball up and over your head while at same time stepping up on the box and keeping your feet still. As you step down from this upward movement, bend the same knee as the foot on the box and tap the ball on the box by your foot, and repeat. Do this for 10 reps on each side, for three sets. Doing this consecutively will be a real cardio burn! 
Man in gym doing a bicep curlCredit: Shutterstock / pikselstock

Strength training has added benefits

“It is medically proven that any form of strength and resistance exercise helps with posture, reduces the likelihood of bones breaking, and staves off osteoporosis,” Diget says. 

“It will also tighten supportive muscle groups in your body, increase heart function, and add endurance to muscle groups. Weight loss and more can also be attributed to strength training. There are so many physical and mental benefits.” 

Strength training benefits your health and is a really important aspect of fitness as we age. If you’re already exercising but not doing any form of strength or resistance work, it’s worth adding some in.  

Talk to gym staff or a personal trainer for more information on how to get started, or follow along with our workout suggestions.  

Enjoy the gym community

A few years ago, lifting weights or being active in a gym as we get older would have been almost unheard of. But most gyms now actively encourage older participants, with classes tailored for them and many community offerings such as cafes, quiz nights, parties, book clubs and other social events.  

Diget’s own Pure Gym runs a specific “Over 50s Fitness Championships” to celebrate older athletes. With cardio and weight-lifting events, it proves you’re never too old to try something new.  

“It can be daunting for many people to walk into a gym for the first time, which is based on the fear of not knowing what to do, equipment you’ve never seen and the thought that everyone is looking at you,” Diget says. “But what you’ll actually find is a community that are all aiming to get healthier, reach a goal, and help each other in doing so. 

“You’ll find a lot of likeminded people at the gym. If you just want to go, workout and go home, you can do that. But if you’re open to meeting new people and making friends, you’ll find that all at a gym – and wonder why you didn’t join sooner.”  

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Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her

Updated:

Becky Fuller is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain. Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

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