Senior Exercise

  • Author:
    Richard Weil, MEd, CDE

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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Quick GuideExercise Tips for Seniors

Exercise Tips for Seniors

What happens to bones as we age?

Bones tend to decrease in density as we age, and for some individuals, it can lead to osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a disease of low bone density that can contribute to an increased risk of fracture. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, osteoporosis and low bone mass affect 54 million Americans.

Osteoporosis is responsible for 2 million fractures annually. The good news is that exercise can increase bone density in some older individuals. The precise amount and type of exercise necessary to achieve benefit is unknown, but encouragingly, research shows that weight lifting, and even just walking, can increase bone density in the hip and spine. The reason for this may be that weight lifting causes stress on the bones as the muscles contract (which causes the bones to thicken), and walking also causes stress on the bones, which stimulates them to grow.

In two different studies—one of men 50-70 years of age who lifted weights three times a week for 16 weeks, and the other of women 40-70 years of age who lifted twice a week for one year, bone density in the leg and back was shown to increase. There is also some evidence that walking can increase bone density in the hips and lower back, but the recommendation for frequency and intensity of the walking is not clear. What is clear is that exercise does help build or preserve bone density, and so it is recommended that we stay active for the sake of our bones and overall health.

What happens to our joints as we age?

Many aging adults are susceptible to osteoarthritis (the type of arthritis that affects bones by wearing down the cushion that pads the space between them).

In a large study of 439 adults (aged 60 and older) with osteoarthritis who did either aerobic exercise (walking) or resistance exercise (weight lifting) for 18 months, participants in the aerobic exercise group had a 10% decrease on a physical disability questionnaire, a 12% lower score on a knee pain questionnaire, and outperformed non-exercising individuals in the study on the following tests: a six-minute walk test (they walked further); the time it took them to climb and descend stairs; the time it took them to lift and carry 10 pounds; and the time it took them to get in and out of a car. In the weight-lifting, group, there was an 8% lower score on the physical disability questionnaire, 8% lower pain score, greater distance on the six-minute walk, and faster times on the lifting and carrying task and the car task than in the individuals in the study who did not exercise.

Other studies confirm that exercise can improve function for people with arthritis. Make sure to check out the Arthritis Foundation Web site for more information on exercise and in particular, their PACE program (People with Arthritis Can Exercise). They offer exercise videos and water classes all over the country.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/4/2015

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