Physically active older people live more independently and reduce the need for social care, argue experts.
The total cost of social care (including the local authority, self-funding, and informal care) is over Ģ100bn, which is similar to the annual amount the UK spends on healthcare, say Scarlett McNally and colleagues.
They argue that the effects of aging are often confused with loss of fitness - and it is actually loss of fitness that increases the risk of needing social care.
Yet they point to evidence showing that middle-aged and older people "can increase their fitness level to that of an average person a decade younger by regular exercise." Furthermore, the evidence is growing that fitness improves cognitive (mental) ability and reduces the risk of dementia.
The prevailing attitude that exercise is for young people while older people should be encouraged to relax "needs to be challenged," they write. "Gyms, walking groups, gardening, cooking clubs, and volunteering have all been shown to improve the health and well-being of people at all ages with long-term conditions."
They also call for changes to environments and expectations "to make exercise possible for middle-aged and older people, including open spaces and facilities for active travel." Health and care professionals need better training and support to recommend physical activity like a medicine, say the authors.
For example, older patients admitted to hospital spend over 80% of their time in a bed and more than 60% reduce their mobility. Yet this can be tackled by a focus on rehabilitation and support to maintain activity by health and care professionals as well as family and friends.
"We need individuals to understand their role in reducing demand for social care by being active," they write. "The gap between the best possible level of ability and actual ability can be reduced at any age, no matter how many long-term conditions the person may have."
The increase in the level of ability "may not only restore the person to the ability they enjoyed 10 years earlier, it may make the crucial difference between living well at home or being dependent on social care or residential care," they conclude.