Fitness for the older generation is a missed investment opportunity

With developed world populations ageing fast, you would think that entrepreneurs would be jumping at the opportunity to find new ways to cash in the silver dollar (pound, or euro, yen, etc).

The Covid-19 pandemic offers a big opportunity to do that – the key is for governments to act to facilitate it.

This opportunity, which so far has been missed, consists of helping these people live healthier lives. This can be achieved largely by making them pay for it themselves, rather than leaving it to the state to cover all the costs.

Some would argue that there are already plenty of businesses out there that fill that gap. Indeed, the internet is full of “anti-aging” products and diets, which promise almost magical results overnight.

However, their sheer number does not prove that this is a lucrative opportunity, only that it is a crowded sector.

But try finding physical activity classes or courses for middle-aged or older adults, and the offer soon shrinks to a handful of options: walking, jogging, cycling, yoga and Pilates. For those who cannot or do not want to do any of these activities, there are few alternatives readily available.

No wonder older people in the UK, for example, suffer from largely preventable health issues such as hypertension, type II diabetes or even heart disease.

With more than 60% of the UK’s population overweight or obese, these issues are likely to become even more severe as the population ages.

A study by Public Health England carried out among adults 65 years of age and older last year highlights the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their state of health, and raises alarm about future problems for the health service because of it.

“Deconditioning – the loss of physical, psychological, and functional capacity due to inactivity – can occur rapidly in older adults, is not straightforward or quick to remedy and, among other health impacts, increases the risk of falls,” the study says.

Higher risk of falls

An increase in the incidence of falling by older adults would increase the demand for medical services and the strain on hospitals due to emergency admissions, as well as health and social care costs.

The study, which was carried out between March and May 2020, at the height of the first lockdown caused by Covid-19 in the UK, found that the percentage of over-65s who did less than 30 minutes of moderate activity per week increased to 32% from 27% in the same period in 2019.

Picture by Gavin Spencer,

In the same period, the average duration of strength and balance activity fell to 77 minutes per week from 126.

As a result of this, the total number of falls could increase by 6.3% for men and 4.4% for women. For each year that the lower levels of strength and balance activity persist, the additional cost to health and social care could be £211 million, the study also shows.

It goes on to recommend targeted remedies for those who have high levels of inactivity, but does not make any recommendations on how to avoid getting in that situation in the first place.

This is where governments should take a more active role. One way to encourage adults to become more active would be to increase the range of choices of activities available to them.

Sports for older adults

Building more sports facilities designed equally for children and adults would be a good start. There are not enough swimming pools, ice skating rinks, roller skating rinks, tennis courts, basketball courts, gymnastics halls, etc. as there are adults wanting to use them.

Children are given priority in these facilities, while parents generally act as drivers to and from sports lessons for their offspring, often grabbing calorie-laden coffees, sandwiches and cakes in the adjacent cafes while waiting for lessons to finish.

Another measure would be encouraging sports teachers and personal trainers to take on middle-aged and older adults – perhaps by offering a tax break for every adult over the age of 45 that they sign up.

A tax break could also be offered to those over 45 years of age who attend regular classes in a sport of their choice, as another incentive.

All these public investments in more sports facilities and tax breaks could seem expensive over the very short term. But over the long term, they could save the public purse a lot of money.

Healthier elderly people would probably be economically active for longer, thus contributing more to the exchequer; even if they did decide to retire, they would put less burden on the health services as they would suffer from fewer chronic illnesses and would fall less often.

Investing in this means taking a long-term view: the returns would only be visible in a few years, potentially even a decade.

But sadly, the current British government is anything but a fan of the long-term view. Hopefully other governments in the developed world will lead the way on this issue.