Mawlana Hazar Imam has communicated numerous times about the importance of staying fit and healthy. With the incidence of non-communicable disease on the rise, it is now more than necessary to make regular exercise a part of our life.

Getting fit has many benefits ranging from lowering weight and improving energy levels to protecting you from a host of health problems including heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. No matter what your age, gender or current level of fitness, regular exercise has many proven benefit; it can improve your energy levels, help you get a better night’s sleep and prevent you from being dependent on others. 

One key area where fitness can make a real difference is non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Sometimes known as chronic or “lifestyle” diseases, NCDs are not transmissible or infectious from one person to another, but they have a long duration and progress very slowly. They include cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes, chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma, as well as diabetes and cancers. The Global Burden of Disease 2010 data suggests that NCDs and injuries account for 77% of age standardized deaths in Pakistan.

In 1997, Princess Zahra inaugurated a purpose built fitness centre in Karimabad, Karachi, saying, “Based on research, the gentle balance of exercise and a balanced diet could improve-quality of life and even extend the lives of people. Research has shown that daily exercise acts as a prophylactic for such ailments as heart disease, circulatory problems and even certain types of cancer. In many areas of the world, the leading causes of death among members of the Jamat are these lifestyle-related diseases.”

Exercise can have a positive impact on your life no matter what your age. A recent study by Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH) doctors found that over 80% of adolescents had unhealthy diets, and 54% were physically inactive. Being unfit at such a young age lays the ground for health problems in the future. Furthermore studies all over the world have shown that young people who participate in sports are more focused and perform better at school. Sports also help young people with social skills and self esteem.

Many teenage girls in particular diet obsessively but fit is better than skinny. Focusing on fitness actually helps you lose weight more effectively than dieting. When you lose weight without exercise, your body breaks down muscle mass for energy, which results in burning fewer calories. You can prevent a drop in muscle with strength training and exercise. Being active burns calories naturally so that you won't have to cut back on healthy food to lose weight.

With work and home responsibilities it can seem harder to find time to exercise but physical activity is great for relieving stress. Your body is in prime condition during your 20s and 30s and can cope well with intense bursts of exercise. As you get older, exercise becomes even more important.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, our bodies build bone until about 30 years old, which then slowly whittles away in later years.

“As we move out of our 30s and 40s, resistance training becomes increasingly important since we naturally lose muscle mass as hormones shift and lifestyles become less ‘intense,’” says Michele Olson, Ph.D., FACSM, CSCS, professor of exercise science at Auburn University in Alabama.

Studies have shown that your metabolism slows down up to 25% in your forties. This means that even if you make no changes to your diet, you will put on weight. Mozamila Mughal, assistant manager of the Clinical Nutrition section at AKUH says,

“As we age, the metabolic rate at which the body burns food changes. It’s therefore important to modify our eating habits with increasing years, to choose quality foods from natural sources with less sugars , fats and artificial components. In general, we should “eat to live, not live to eat” and do regular exercise in whatever form it is easily tolerated by body.”

Furthermore, the lack of physical activity can make conditions such as arthritis worse and adversely affect your mobility leaving you dependent on others. Princess Zahra also emphasized the importance of fitness for seniors, “Staying active and healthy should be a priority of people of any age, but especially for those who have retired, for individuals whose day contains more time for leisure activities.”

So what if you’ve never been fit or if you haven’t exercised in a long time? We asked Ameen Khan, Head Coach for Taekwondo and Physical and Martial Arts Instructor at the Aga Khan University Sports Centre, about the best way to get fit, no matter what your age.

“Find something you enjoy doing, and start from there. The most important part of any exercise plan is self-motivation and regularity. You can jog, swim or even play cricket – do something that relaxes you and makes you happy.”

Ameen Khan’s Fitness Programme for any age

This exercise plan will help you achieve optimum fitness no matter what your age but don’t worry if it’s beyond your ability when you start. You may modify these exercises if necessary to suit your particular circumstances. Increase or decrease the number of repetitions according to your particular needs and physical ability. When you first start these exercises, correct form is more important than speed. After you become familiar with them, you may increase the speed at which you perform them. Also remember, many gyms run group exercise classes that make working out more social and more fun.

Before you begin, remember the following:

  1. The best exercise routine consists of three components: aerobics, strength training and flexibility and stretching. If you’re older, the pace will be gentler and strength training and flexibility will be more important than aerobic exercise but all three are necessary no matter what your age.
  2. Before starting any exercise program, get yourself assessed by a trained professional. If you are very overweight, consult your doctor and follow their advice.
  3. Extreme exercise after prolonged periods of inactivity is never recommended, even if you used to be fit, as it can lead to injury or excessive stress on your cardiovascular system. Instead build your activity slowly over time – even if this means starting with just a five-minute walk.
  4. Don’t be afraid of bulking up. Many women in particular forgo strength training because they think weights will cause them to bulk up. In fact, lifting weights can help you be slimmer because building muscle helps you burn more calories.
  5. Hydration is key, particularly in hot weather and especially as we get older. Drink water before, take small sips during and drink deeply after exercise, adding electrolytes when it’s hot. Don’t forget to watch your diet too, making sure you get balanced portions of proteins and carbohydrates. Take care to add some potassium-rich foods and at least 25 grams of fiber daily, which is found in fruit, daals, leafy greens and whole-grain breads. These will help you feel full while aiding in digestion.


Children Age 10+

To prevent injury, it is important for your child to warm up before exercising. This should include about five to ten minutes of light activity, such as walking, jumping jacks, bending, knee lifts and stretching. Recommended exercises for this age group include Jumping Jacks, Slalom Jumps, Squat thrusts with a push, Stair Climbers and Shuttle Runs. As a teen, you should get at least one hour of exercise daily. This might involve walking in the morning , taking a dance fitness class, riding your bike or playing sports; experiment with different types of exercise to find the types you enjoy most. School sports are a great way for adolescents to stay fit but after-school sports clubs are also a great idea. There are so many sports that young people can try – from Taekwondo to hiking to swimming. At the very least, you can grab a cricket bat and some stumps and head out for a match with your friends every weekend.

The 20s

In your 20s, you have a wonderful ability to execute intense, heavy, frequent exercise - don’t blow the opportunity to build your power as opposed to simple strength. Power is a function of strength and speed working in concert while muscular strength, by contrast, consists of force with no regard to time. When you’re in your 20s, your training should also include jumping exercises, or explosive movements. Jumps allow strength to be converted to power - jumps train mainly your nerves, while weights train your muscles. In fact, along with helping you gain speed and power, doing jumping exercises also builds new muscle.

The 30s

In your 30’s, adjust the strength segment of your workout to focus on body-weight exercises that develop endurance and coordination. This means replacing high-weight, low-rep lifts with lower-weight, higher-rep sets, and doing some exercises on one leg. As you grow older, you should begin to decrease spinal loading. Lifting higher reps with a lighter load still yields benefit, but with less structural stress.

The 40s

Your 40s mark the decade when you shift to caring for your body in the gym, instead of punishing it. Your joints need sustained attention. Your heart beats more slowly, cutting down the blood flow that delivers nutrients to and removes waste from joints and muscle while you're losing about 0.5 percent of your muscle mass a year. To reverse these processes and stretch peak performance, your workouts should now emphasize flexibility.

50s and beyond

Physical activity may be the most effective prescription physicians can dispense for the purposes of promoting successful aging. The evidence keeps accumulating: Exercise protects your heart, relaxes your arteries, builds muscle, strengthens your bones, fights cancer, boosts your immune system, and perhaps most inspiring, it's one of the best ways to rewire your brain. If you don't exercise, it's like your brain is in a cast - your brain cells and networks get active benefit from the increased blood flow from exercise.

Fight Age with Muscle

After 50, the sedentary person's muscle loss speeds up and they then lose about 10 percent of their muscle mass every decade, which leads directly to osteoporosis. If you've been lifting weights, keep it up. If you haven't, start now-it's not too late.

While Ameen’s programme is challenging, remember the human body is a miracle. No matter how unfit you may think you are, regular exercise will have a remarkable impact on your fitness levels. You can start with as little as a gentle five-minute walk and basic stretches. Weight training can be as simple as lifting ½ kg weights to begin with. Even people who have never been sporty can find themselves fit and active at any age if they stick to a good regime.