As we get older, it is more important than ever to look after ourselves. Keeping active is one of the best ways of improving our physical and mental well-being. This information will be helpful to those who are not very active at the moment or are looking for ways of doing more. It’s never too late to start making a change.

Being active in later life has many benefits for older adults with autism. Everyone with autism can:

  • improve their health, well-being and independence
  • keep in touch with their local community and friends
  • learn new things, maintain interests and enjoy life
  • use physical activity to help manage stress and anxiety.

If you are someone who supports a person with autism, physical activity will also make a difference to your quality of life as well. The benefits are there for everyone.

What is physical activity?

Physical activity is anything that gets your body moving. This includes everyday activities such as walking, housework and gardening as well as dancing and swimming. Physical activity should leave you feeling warm and breathing more heavily than usual.

Being active doesn’t mean having to join a gym or an exercise class or play sport (unless that is what you enjoy). It can include fitting some activity into your daily routine - simple things like walking or cycling to the shops or the park.

How much physical activity should we be doing?

Any physical activity is better than none. If this is the first time for a long time, try walking more, just five minutes to start. Gradually increase from five to ten minutes each day and then when ready, increase to 15 minutes each day.

Over a period of time, aim to increase up to 150 minutes a week; sometimes a variety of activities may help.

Activities that improve strength, balance and co-ordination are particularly beneficial to us as we age.

Sedentary behaviour

There is good evidence that sedentary behaviour (eg, long periods of sitting at a desk, watching TV or using a computer) is harmful to our health, even if we are active. Taking a break from sitting, eg standing up to answer the telephone, is also an important part of maintaining our health.

The more active we are, the greater the benefits, but physical activity doesn’t have to be strenuous. What matters most is the total amount (volume) of physical activity each day.

Why is physical activity important as we age?

There are many ways in which physical activity can improve the quality of life of older adults with autism.

  • Well-being - feeling better, (more energy, alertness and concentration) and looking good, (better body shape, appearance and confidence).
  • Independence and mobility - being able to do the everyday activities we want to do, eg climb the stairs, go shopping, enjoy the garden.
  • Health - a lower risk of disease, eg, heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancers and dementia and reduced risk of falls and injuries.
  • Stronger bones and muscles, better joint mobility, posture and co-ordination.
  • Activity can reduce isolation and loneliness, and increase opportunities for fun and enjoyment with a friend or a group of people.
  • Improved sleep, lower anxiety, good digestion, core strength and balance - all of which are beneficial for people with autism.

A small change in the level of physical activity can make a big difference to health and well-being and some of the benefits can be experienced in a short space of time.

Choosing your activities

Choosing an activity that is enjoyable and convenient will help with motivation and there are many different ways of being active to choose from.

  • Being active at home - digging or raking in the garden, using a DVD or Wii fit exercise programme, walking to the local shops.
  • Getting out in the fresh air - walking to the park, bird-watching or photography, or going to a garden centre.
  • Being with others - going to a dance or exercise class, joining a health walk group, or taking your grandchildren to the playground.
  • Learning something new - line dancing, tai chi, Nordic walking or taking out a gym membership
  • Exploring somewhere different - visiting a shopping centre, museum, art gallery or leisure centre.
  • Doing something you have previously enjoyed - swimming, racket sports or gardening.
  • An activity that is relaxing and calming, eg yoga or tai chi.

Choose activities that you like, and that are easy and convenient to do. Look for ways to keep it interesting, too. The more enjoyable the activities are, the more likely we are to stick to them. Here are some simple ideas to get started.

Make a plan which could include:

  • thinking about and choosing an activity that you enjoy
  • setting a convenient time and date to start and put it into a diary or planner
  • being clear about the reasons and motives for doing this activity.

Everyday physical activity

There are many simple things you can do on an everyday basis. 

  • Avoid long periods of sitting by standing during TV advert breaks or whilst answering the telephone.
  • Walk more each day. Walk all or part of the way to the shops, to the local library, leisure centre or to work. 
  • Climb more stairs. Use the stairs instead of the lift or escalator, or walk up the escalator.
  • Find something that fits into a daily routine - it will be easier to remember. Use reminders and prompts, eg keep a note in the kitchen or by the front door.
  • Find ways of moving the whole body, this will strengthen the heart and lungs, promote circulation and involve all the muscle groups.
  • Meet up with a friend on a regular basis and be active together. Keeping each other company will keep you both interested.

Getting out to other activities

There will be many other opportunities to be active in your local community. It will be useful to plan ahead.

  • Find out about what is available. Try it out to see if you enjoy it.
  • Plan how to get there, eg what bus to take and where to get off. Think about what to wear, how much it will cost, start and finish times.
  • Check the building, the physical and sensory environment, eg, lighting and noise, and if you will need assistance while you are there.
  • The first time you try something new, ask someone to go with you who also enjoys activity. 
  • If there is a teacher or leader, do they provide you with enough help and support to ensure you are successful and enjoy the experience?

Walking

Walking is the most popular and easiest activity for older adults and provides a range of benefits. If you are not a regular walker already, it is important to remember that healthy feet are vital to our well-being and ability to walk. Basic foot care should include:

  • washing your feet on a regular basis
  • drying carefully between the toes
  • wearing clean shoes and socks with a comfortable fit
  • regular checks for bunions, corns, ingrowing or discoloured toenails
  • regularly cutting toenails straight across to prevent ingrowing toenails.

Local opportunities for staying active

Ask at your local library or council leisure and recreation department about activities in your area. Many will have online directories of activities. Look for:

  • leisure centres
  • day care centres
  • exercise and movement to music classes
  • sports and activity groups for older adults
  • local walks
  • local services offered by the charity Age UK.

Making a change can be difficult

There are many reasons why people may not be as active as they’d like. You may often think about doing some physical activity, but then other things get in the way. Whatever the reason, think about practical ways to overcome these difficulties and obstacles.

  • 'I don’t have the time' - make physical activity a priority and plan to do something at a certain time each day.
  • 'I’m too tired' - you may be surprised that once you start, you will have more energy, be less tired and more relaxed.
  • 'I’m getting old' - it’s never too late to start and you will still feel the benefits. 
  • 'My health isn’t good enough' - if in doubt, ask your doctor for advice on what sort of activity would be best for you.
  • 'It’s too expensive' - many everyday activities such as walking are free and some local groups and classes will offer discount rates.
  • 'I might injure myself' - start and continue at your own pace. It’s very unlikely that you will get injured with moderate activities.

If you make a start and then stop, don’t give up. Try again, it might not have been the best time to start, or you may want to try something different or more interesting. Making a change and becoming active can take time.

Staying safe

Feeling safe is important during daily physical activity. Here are some ideas that will help.

  • Increase physical activity gradually - both the amount of time spent doing the activity and the intensity. Progress at a comfortable pace.
  • If out walking, keep to well populated and well lit areas and avoid walking alone at night.
  • Wear comfortable clothes and shoes, appropriate for the weather and season.
  • Carry a mobile phone, autism alert card, travel pass or anything else that will help you feel secure if anything unplanned occurs.
  • Don’t take part in any activity with a high temperature, or if feeling unwell.
  • Stop any activity if there are feelings of pain, signs of dizziness, or if feeling unwell or tired.

Most health problems can be helped by regular physical activity, but if you are unsure about being active, are taking medicines or have any concerns about your health or fitness, tell your GP about activities you are planning to do. They will help you with your choice and the amount and type of physical activity that is suitable. Otherwise, being older is not a reason to be inactive.

Other ways of maintaining good health and well-being

In additional to becoming physically active there are other things you can do as you age to maintain your health and well-being.

Good nutrition and hydration

No single food contains everything you need to stay healthy so the best advice is to eat a variety of foods each day including at least five portions of fruit and vegetables. Drink six to eight glasses of water each day to avoid getting dehydrated.

Sensible drinking

Many people enjoy an alcoholic drink sometimes. However, it is not advisable to use alcohol to lift your mood, as it can increase depression. You should avoid alcohol when taking certain medicines.

 

Smoking

Most people know how unhealthy smoking is, but it can be difficult to give up. However, if you do give up, even after many years of smoking, older people adults can expect to gain benefits.

More information about physical activity can be found on the following websites.

More information about health and well-being can be found on the following websites.