Run at 40, dance at 80: the best ways to exercise in every decade of your life

What is the best sport for you, at different stages of your life? Simple: the one you enjoy. It doesn’t have to be competitive, or have a goal – literal or metaphorical. “Initiatives from Sport England show one factor is key: enjoyment,” says sports scientist Prof John Brewer. “That can come from the environment, camaraderie or friendship as much as the sport itself. What’s important is to find your niche – the thing you enjoy.”

Images from elite sport suggest gymnastic ability vanishes overnight when you hit 20, or that tennis is pointless if you didn’t start it as a child. But if a sport gets your endorphins flowing, it’s right for you, whatever age you take it up. Yet there are ages at which certain sports can have more of an impact, be it social or physiological.

Children: anything and everything

We probably all know a parent who acts as unpaid chauffeur to a sport-obsessed child. But a survey last year from Sport England found only 47% of children get enough exercise. Opportunities and cost are serious barriers. So what’s the best sport for younger kids? Play. Think of it as a change of vocabulary. NHS guidelines tell us children should do 60 minutes of “physical activity” every single day. Which hardly sounds tempting. Fun is a lot more enticing.

At a time when PE provision varies hugely, what matters most is simply exposure to as many sports as possible

“We all need more play in our lives,” says Rick Jenner, chief executive of ParkPlay, which runs free two-hour community play sessions on Saturday mornings in parks across England. “Play is a fun, informal, varied, social activity with no particular goal,” he says. “It’s inclusive and can reach and appeal to those who don’t think of themselves as sporty.” Plans are afoot to expand ParkPlay into Scotland.

At a time when PE provision varies hugely, what matters most is exposure to as many sports as possible – in the most lighthearted way. Jenner quotes Matt Rogan and Kerry Potter’s book All to Play For: “Some will do sport,” they write. “All will play. Competitive sport may be for the few, but play is for everyone.”

Team sports can help teenagers regain their interest in exercise.
Team sports can help teenagers regain their interest in exercise. Photograph: Belinda Jiao/Getty Images

Teenagers: team sports

The benefits of sport for physical and mental wellbeing can be doubly valuable in the teenage years. There’s even a direct correlation between physical fitness and academic performance, not to mention the role it can play in handling the stresses of being a teenager. Yet by this point, many kids have typecast themselves as “sporty” or “not sporty”. It’s particularly difficult for girls – a recent study by Women in Sport found that more than a million girls who had thought of themselves as sporty at primary school had lost interest by their teenage years.

Health benefits aside, team sports also come with a built-in social life. Take basketball: it’s not always offered at school but it’s hugely popular with teens (1.18 million children and young people play weekly) and is also the most diverse sport in the UK. It builds endurance, balance and coordination. A 2020 study found recreational basketball players had higher bone mineral density than swimmers, footballers or volleyballers. It’s also great on a practical level – you can shoot on your own, play with one mate, or many.

Also bear in mind that though teens may seem impervious to your suggestions, they are still influenced by you. If you do no exercise or sport, it’s not surprising if they share that attitude. You may need to lead by sweaty, out-of-breath example.

20s: cardio tennis

Your 20s may be a little late to start dreaming of Centre Court glory, but it’s the perfect time to enjoy a racket sport. Lawn Tennis Association ambassador Emma Wells has been coaching tennis for 20 years: “We’ve actually had a massive influx of beginners in their 20s and 30s,” she says. “I think the meeting new people element is huge, and being outside. Tennis venues in parks have had a much bigger influx of new people than indoor venues.”

Padel – a cross between tennis and squash – is often quoted as being the fastest growing sport in the country

The LTA’s Oliver Scadgell says heagrees: “Those in their 20s and 30s are among the keenest players. Tennis meets the needs of that age group, whether that’s meeting friends for fun, a social hit after work or taking part in a cardio tennis class.”

Wells has seen a surge of interest in cardio tennis, which has all the physical benefits of a brisk game but no competitive element. After warming up, sessions consist of fast-paced drills and games to raise the heart rate, usually to music. It’s more like a Hiit (high-intensity interval training) class than a traditional game.

For those who want an even more social racket sport, padel – a cross between tennis and squash, with underarm serves – is often quoted as being the fastest growing sport in the country, although depending on where you live it may be hard to find a court.

30s: get online

With the average age of UK first-time mothers now about 31 (and 33 for dads) the juggling of childcare, work and family life leaves little time for exercise, especially given the sleep deprivation of the early years. Yet it remains important to exercise if you can: as well as improving fitness, postpartum exercise has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety.

“In the depths of caring responsibilities, you can feel guilty about taking time out for yourself,” says sports psychologist Dr Josie Perry. “The answer is exercise that involves as little faff as possible: online classes, Hiit sessions, or even using the school or work commute to run or cycle. Exercise can also boost cognitive and mental health at this demanding stage.”

YouTube is full of free classes, from the much-loved Yoga With Adriene to 20-minute Hiit at Fitness Blender (the latter also offers postpartum workouts). BodyFit by Amy has specific courses for pre and postpartum, and the UK’s own Joe Wicks Body Coach is a good resource – he also has a paid app offering personalised workouts and dietary advice. The Nike Training Club app has free, clearly explained workouts. It’s really a case of what sticks for you, but it’s worth shopping around – many sites, such as Les Mills, offer free or budget-friendly trials.

Parkrunners at an event in Leeds.
Parkrunners at an event in Leeds. Photograph: Tom Corban/REX/Shutterstock

40s: parkrun

Ah, the cruel reality of your 40s, when your enthusiasm for sport starts to outstrip your ability to recover from it. “Even if we carry on exercising, we will all experience a physiological decline,” says Brewer. “That’s a reduction in aerobic cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength and mass. Exercise can reduce the rate of decline, but it won’t stop it. When you get into your 40s, you will lose your physiological ability to compete against people several years younger.”

And that’s where running comes in: a sport that many people can take up relatively late in life and then continue to improve at. And no, it is not bad for your knees. There are countless studies showing that regular running strengthens the joints, and protects against osteoarthritis later in life.

Another bonus for older runners is age grading, a way of measuring running performance while taking into account your age and sex, giving you a percentage score based on the world record for that distance by someone your age.

The best place to start, for inspiration and a great community spirit, is a parkrun. It could not be more inclusive – parkrun celebrates the fact that the average finishing time for its 5km runs (about 32 minutes) gets slower every year, as people of varying fitness levels join in. You can walk, jog or run in nearly 1,200 places around the UK every Saturday morning.

50s: weightlifting

The usual, cautious advice for over-50s is “low- impact” activities such as cycling or swimming. While those have benefits, weight-bearing activities are crucial, because as we age, muscle mass declines and with it goes strength and, eventually, the ability to perform basic tasks. While weightlifting may seem the preserve of the scarily buff, you don’t need to lift big numbers to feel the benefits, and you don’t have to be strong already – that’s the goal, not the starting point.

Nor are you suddenly going to bulk out. Mimi Bines, who coaches at women-only gym Lift Studio LDN, says: “I’ve been training for 10 years and you probably can’t tell! And it’s a fact that older people who lift weights have better bone density than people a lot younger,” she says. “For women in particular, it’s great to learn performance-based skills after years of weight loss being the only goal.”

If classes or gyms aren’t your thing, YouTube has loads of tutorials. Start slowly, and get used to movements such as squats and deadlifts using only your bodyweight until you feel confident, then you can add light weights and progress from there.

Dozens of studies have shown that even light weights sessions – half an hour, a few times a week – can rebuild muscle tissue in people from 50 to 90. And it can even improve your mood.

60s and 70s: walking football/netball

Between the ages of 65 and 74, sedentary time in men and women increases to 10 hours a day or more. Although plenty of active folk will continue to enjoy running and cycling into their 60s, taking up a whole new sport can be daunting for some.

“It’s really important to do something that involves a bit of impact,” says Brewer. “Though too much can cause problems, higher-impact activities can help maintain bone density. I’d suggest brisk walking uphill and downhill.”

But if walking seems boring, why not try walking sports? Walking football was invented by Chesterfield FC in 2011 to help men over 50 combat loneliness. Today, there are more than 1,000 affiliated clubs, with players in their 70s and 80s. Similarly, Walking Netball is accessible, low-impact and fast-growing. Though there is no running in either, they can still be surprisingly fast and skilful And while they are a fantastic way for those who loved the sports in their earlier years to get back into them, they are also beginner-friendly. Just as team sports bring social benefits, skills and confidence to teens, they can also help later in life.

Stretching exercises can help you retain your core strength.
Stretching exercises can help you retain your core strength. Photograph: BraunS/Getty Images

80s and beyond: balance and core strength

Every July at Bushy Park in south-west London there is a parkrun for walkers and runners in their 80s and 90s. This year, 84 people took part. Age, for some, really is just a number. But if walking or running is too daunting or difficult, focus on the important basics: balance and core strength.

Those in the bottom 10% when it came to daily physical activity were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s

“Group exercise classes are great,” says Brewer, “and good for your mental health.

Exercise is particularly important to retain strength. If you lose strength to get out of a chair or climb stairs, you lose your independence.” You are also more likely to fall. Age UK runs classes around the country, including pilates and yoga, dance and tai chi.

It’s never too late to take it up: a study of people with an average age of 82 found that those in the bottom 10% when it came to daily physical activity were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as those in the top 10%.

“Cardiovascular and strength fitness can help you retain independence, potentially live longer, but also, importantly, have a better quality of life,” says Brewer. “What’s more, repetitive learning of a new skill can stimulate brain cells, whatever your age.”