Getting or staying fit is for all ages – gyms may advertise their services with pictures of the youthful and beautiful but the clientele will represent a wide range of ages and body shapes. If a big birthday is looming and it is time to take some health action, have a look at your local gym.

It is only just over a century since the average life expectancy in the UK was fifty years. This was a big improvement from the figures of the 1800s, although the statistics were still being skewed by high infant mortality rates. Nonetheless, anyone reaching their fifties would see themselves as approaching old age. Their children would be long grown up, they would probably be seeing the grandchildren marrying and they might even be meeting great-grandchildren.

How times have changed. Now our attitude is that anyone dying in their early seventies is surprisingly young, and we expect to be active far beyond the point when our grandparents would have been putting their feet up. Meeting that expectation does mean some work to look after ourselves, and there’s no denying that more of that work is needed as we get older.

 Many people are prodded into taking up sport or joining a gym as they realise that they can no longer take the relaxed attitude of earlier years. There is no doubt that it is much easier to gain weight as we age – the dreaded ‘middle-age spread’ is no myth. Busy lives, greater responsibilities and reduced energy levels all conspire to creep up on us, until we start to notice that zips don’t fasten up and a rather rounder face than normal is looking at us from the mirror.

The good news is that even if you are reaching your half-century, it is never too late to be active – and the gym or leisure centre is a great way to start your fitness campaign. Gyms welcome people of all ages and fitness levels, and there will be a wide choice of activities. Even the council leisure centres will be a pleasant surprise if you haven’t visited in a while. Big investment on the back of the Olympics means that many public leisure centres have had expansions and facelifts, and can now rival the small private clubs at considerably lower prices.

If you haven’t done any exercise in a long time, speak to the staff about suitable classes or workouts. It may also be wise to get a check-up at the doctor if one hasn’t been done in a while –a regular ‘health MOT’ is advisable for everyone to detect silent problems such as high blood pressure or possible circulation issues.

Once you are cleared to start exercising, don’t be too ambitious. While fifty is definitely not old, many have come to grief by forgetting that they are no longer twenty five and still behaving as if they were. So be prepared to be take things at a slower pace than the younger or fitter members of the class. No fitness instructor will object if you need to slow down during a workout – don’t stop totally but take it down to gentle pacing on the spot, or use slower movements until you get your breath back. Make sure you arrive on time so that you do the warm up, and even if you have slowed down during part of the class do participate fully in the cool-down and stretches that will come at the end. Your muscles will tell you all about it the next day if you don’t!

If your gym has a swimming pool on the premises, that is also an excellent way for ‘not twenty-five’ exercise. You can just turn up for a few gentle lengths, or join an aqua-exercise class for some more directed effort. If the swimming teacher passed you by at school, there will also be adult beginners’ classes so you can acquire a new skill.

There’s no need to spend lots on new kit. A simple swimsuit for the pool, or a t-shirt and shorts or leggings is all that is needed for the gym. Where a little expenditure may be necessary is for your feet – a decent pair of trainers will protect and cushion your feet. These don’t have to cost a fortune – ask for some advice at a good sports shop or from your instructor as to what is needed.

However unfit you feel, persevere with your exercise, and don’t limit it just to the gym. Recent results from a twelve-year-long Swedish study into the health benefits of exercise are showing that everyday activity really is important at any age. The traditionally ‘older people’ activities of DIY and gardening can cut the risks of heart attack and stroke later in life by as much as 30%.

So if someone asks what you want for that approaching milestone birthday, how about asking for some vouchers or credit for a trip to the gym? It could be the passport to a whole new second life.