Healthy aging: diet and exercise

With age, the metabolism and the ratio of muscle to body fat change. The energy requirement reduces and the body becomes weaker and less mobile. This is precisely why it needs regular exercise, ideally including some strength training, and, of course, all the important nutrients for remaining healthy. 

At a glance

  • With age, the metabolism changes and the body’s energy needs decrease. 
  • However, the need for vitamins, minerals and trace elements does not reduce; in fact, it partially increases. 
  • A varied diet and regular exercise can help people maintain good health and prevent several illnesses. 
  • Even existing symptoms of illness can sometimes be alleviated. 
  • There are several basic rules of thumb that can help people follow an age-appropriate diet with little effort. In principle, the recommendations are very similar to those for younger people.  
  • Furthermore, activities that promote good health do not have to be complicated: everyday forms of exercise such as walking, climbing the stairs or cycling, but also getting together with others to do sport are simply fun. The main thing is to exercise regularly, ideally on a daily basis.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

Diet and exercise in later life: older man in cycle clothing pausing during a cycle tour in the forest, supporting himself on the handlebar of his bicycle.

Eat well, stay active, age healthily

With a personally tailored, balanced diet and regular exercise, people can play a big part in helping themselves remain fit and healthy as they get older. 

People who eat a varied diet and exercise regularly can prevent or at least delay the onset of age-related conditions. A balanced diet supplies the body with all the key nutrients needed to strengthen the immune system and enhance physical performance. Exercise keeps the body fit, strengthens the bones and joints and protects the cardiovascular system. It also promotes mobility and balance. This creates a good basis for a healthy and independent life right into old age. 

The body and metabolism change with age

That persistent cold is back again, stiff joints are becoming increasingly familiar and the body no longer seems able to deal with certain foods. It also generally feels less mobile. These are all normal signs of age that are experienced by most. 

A healthy diet and plenty of exercise are important for staying healthy to a very old age.

People’s muscle and bone mass decrease with age, whereas their body fat percentage increases. The heart rate changes and the blood vessels become less elastic. This can result in blood pressure fluctuations. People’s digestion and sleep behavior also change. The body needs less energy than previously but its need for important nutrients does not decrease. A balanced diet and plenty of exercise are therefore important for remaining fit and healthy into old age.  

Healthy eating also involves an age-appropriate diet

It is common knowledge that the body and immune system’s physical condition and ability to regenerate deteriorate with age. The immune system produces fewer antibodies and the body’s natural defenses no longer work as effectively. It is therefore advisable to pay particular attention to the immune system in connection to diet and exercise.

The most important thing in this regard is a varied diet. The resting metabolic rate, i.e. the calorie consumption at rest, decreases with age. However, the need for vitamins and minerals remains similarly high to in younger people – and in some cases even increases. It is therefore important to reduce the daily calorie intake in old age but to still ensure a good supply of nutrients. 

Older people can sometimes experience difficulties as they are no longer able to tolerate certain foods (for example due to taking medication). Chewing and swallowing disorders can also cause problems: some people are no longer able to properly chew nuts, apples or other foods, for instance. In addition, people’s appetites often wane with age, as does their desire and strength to prepare their own meals. As a result, older people can end up having too one-sided a diet and no longer getting all the nutrients they need. This can lead to malnutrition and people being under or overweight.

In view of the above, age-appropriate diets also take account of people’s individual preferences and circumstances. The following ideas and tips are therefore solely intended as general guidance on how to eat healthily in old age: 

  • When choosing food, it should be varied, regional, seasonal and as fresh as possible.  
  • Varied means that the items eaten are from a range of food groups (cereals, fruit and vegetables, dairy products, meat and fish, oils and fats, and beverages). 
  • The food pyramid from the Federal Center for Nutrition (BZfE) and the food circle from the German Nutrition Society (DGE) provide guidance on healthy eating. 
  • Cooked food is easier to digest. However, it should ideally be briefly steamed rather than boiled so as to retain the vitamins and nutrients. 
  • “5 a day”: it is really not difficult to eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables. For example, a piece of fruit, a glass of fruit juice, a handful of salad, a handful of cooked green vegetables and a handful of cooked legumes. 
  • 1.5 liters of water per day: unsweetened tea and fruit juice spritzers also count. Keeping a glass close to hand at all times makes this easier. 
  • Eat fewer foods that contain high levels of sugar, salt and animal fats (for example ready meals, fast food, sausages and sweets). 
  • Quark (with or without herbs) and cream cheese can replace unhealthy sandwich fillings and should be everyday features in people’s diets together with other dairy products as they provide calcium, protein and B vitamins. 
  • When eating bread, rice and pasta, wholegrain varieties should ideally be chosen as they contain high quantities of vitamins, fiber and minerals and keep people full for longer. 
  • Get together with friends or family to cook: it makes eating fun. 
  • Occasionally eat in canteens or order home-delivered meals: “meals on wheels” are partly subsidized by the social welfare authorities. 

Some healthy foods have a worse reputation than they deserve. For example, people generally suspect that legumes and wholegrain products are hard to digest. However, it always depends on how these are prepared and cooked. For instance, lentils are easier to digest if they are hulled, soaked for several hours, then boiled and allowed to swell. Spices like ginger, fennel and caraway also make them more digestible. When it comes to wholegrain bread, there are now many products that are made from finely ground flour, which is more palatable and does not cause problems when chewing or swallowing.  

Further information on strengthening the immune system can be found on the “In form” portal from the Federal Office of Agriculture and Food (BLE; in German).

Further information about healthy eating and tips on shopping can be obtained from the German consumer advice center Verbraucherzentrale (in German).

Exercise is good for the body – in many ways

Your back hurts and your hips are giving you trouble. There are many “good” excuses to just stay on the sofa. In fact though, these are the best reasons to do more exercise and targeted activities. This is because aches and pains are often the body’s way of informing us that the wrong, too one-sided or too little strain has been placed on it.  

Targeted exercise is good and can strengthen your body and improve your well-being providing it is gentle on the joints and does not put too much strain on the body. Regular physical activity also strengthens the cardiovascular and immune systems and trains the sense of balance, thereby reducing the risk of accidents and falling.  

People who are active and mobile find it easier to enjoy a social life, have more contact with others and lead a more varied everyday life. Anxiety and depression can be reduced and quality of life and mental well-being can be improved.  

Numerous studies have confirmed the positive effects of exercise on health in old age. They also show that people do not have to do strenuous sporting activities. Standard, “everyday” exercise can already have lots of positive effects. Often, even a 30-minute walk three times a week can be extremely beneficial. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator, getting off the tram two stops earlier and keeping up with the grandchildren now and again can all make a big difference. Anyone who wants to do more should choose sports that are gentle on the body but improve endurance, for example hiking, swimming, dancing, yoga, Pilates or walking.

People aged 65 and over can also use the “national recommendations for exercise and physical activity” for guidance:  

  • do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week (e.g. 5 x 30 minutes of walking, cycling or swimming) or
  • do at least 75 minutes of higher intensity exercise per week (e.g. 5 x 15 minutes of running, fast cycling or fast swimming) or 
  • do a combination of moderate and higher intensity exercise (e.g. 3 x 30 minutes of fast walking, cycling or swimming and 2 x 15 minutes of running, fast cycling or fast swimming) plus do some muscle-strengthening exercise such as yoga, Pilates or strength training at least 2 days per week.  
  • People with reduced mobility are additionally advised to perform exercises that improve their balance at least 2 days per week. This helps them actively prevent falls. 
  • Where possible, people should avoid sitting down for long periods and take brief breaks to stretch the legs – for example by standing up while working or going for short walks.  

Anyone unsure of the best kind of activity for them should simply try to find something they enjoy. It is easier to get and stay motivated if you have a sports partner. Sports clubs, gyms and retirement homes also offer lots of age-appropriate sports services. People with physical disabilities or health conditions should consult their doctor prior to starting exercise to determine which sports are right for them.

Where can further information be found about health in old age?

The Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA) provides more tips on diet, exercise and other topics relating to health in old age on the websites “Gesund & aktiv älter werden” and “Älter werden in Balance” (in German).  

The National Action Plan’s internet portal “In Form – Deutschlands Initiative für gesunde Ernährung und mehr Bewegung” offers articles and tips on healthy eating and exercise as well as a wide range of recipes (in German). 

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