Exercise Tips for Seniors

Reviewed on 7/27/2016

Successful Aging

Back view of a senior couple sitting on the beach.

We can't help getting older, but we can age successfully. The more active, healthy, and fit you are now, the better you will feel as you get older.

The Aging Population

A group of happy seniors.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging estimates that by 2030 there will be 72.1 million people over the age of 65 – 19% of the population. By 2040, the number of people 85 and older is expected to reach 14.1 million!

It's Never Too Late to Start Exercising

A senior couple exercises in the park.

Exercise is an important key to aging successfully. It's never too late to start. In the following slides we will look at how our bodies age, the benefits of exercising into old age, and tips to get started on your fitness journey.

What Happens to Muscles As We Age?

A senior man works out with weights in the gym.

As we age, muscle mass decreases. Between the third and eighth decades of life, we lose up to 15% of our lean muscle mass, which contributes to a lower metabolic rate, as we get older. Maintaining muscle strength and mass helps burn calories to maintain a healthy weight, strengthens bones, and restores balance.

Is It Ever Too Late to Build Muscle?

A senior woman and man work out with weights.

It's never too late to exercise and build muscle. The body is responsive to strength training at any age. Strength training can help reduce symptoms of some common problems we encounter as we age including arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity, back pain, and depression.

Can I Get Stronger Without Building Big Muscles?

A senior man weight training with a personal trainer.

Strength doesn't just involve building large muscles. Lifting weights just two or three times a week can increase strength by building lean muscle. Studies have shown that even this small an amount of strength training can increase bone density, overall strength, and balance. It can also reduce the risk of falls that can lead to fractures.

What Happens to Endurance As We Age?

A senior couple on a walk through the countryside.

Just as muscle mass declines with age, so does endurance. The good news is that the body also responds to endurance fitness training such as walking. Any activity that increases heart rate and breathing for an extended period is considered endurance exercise. In addition to walking, swimming, cycling, dancing, and tennis are all endurance activities.

What Happens to Flexibility As We Age?

A senior woman does stretching exercises on the floor.

Along with muscle mass and endurance, flexibility also decreases as we age. But like strength and endurance, flexibility too can be improved. Increased flexibility allows for more freedom of movement and greater range of motion. Areas to pay attention to are the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, and ankles.

What Happens to Balance As We Age?

A woman balances and practices Tai Chi.

As we age, balance decreases and falls can lead to fractures. The National Institutes of Health estimates more than one-third of people over the age of 65 fall each year, often resulting in injuries such as hip fractures which are a major cause of surgeries and disability among the elderly. Balance and strength exercises can help maintain balance and reduce the risk of falling.

What Happens to Bones As We Age?

Illustration shows normal bone density and weakened bone affected by osteoporosis.

As we age, bone density decreases as well and can lead to osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become fragile and weak, and are more prone to fractures. More than 40 million Americans have or are at risk for osteoporosis, and it is more common in women than in men. Exercise can increase bone strength and density. Weight-bearing activity in particular is useful as this causes the bones to work harder. Strength training as well strengthens muscles and helps strengthen bones.

What Happens to Our Joints As We Age?

An illustration showing the differences between a normal, healthy joint, a joint affected by osteoarthritis, and one affected by rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis becomes more common as we age – about 27 million people in the U.S. have osteoarthritis, a condition in which the cartilage between the joints breaks down, causing stiffness, pain, and loss of movement in the joints. One of the best ways to manage osteoarthritis is to stay active and maintain a healthy weight. Lack of movement contributes to stiffness and weak joints. Exercises include those for range of motion and flexibility, endurance, and strength.

Does Exercise Help Cognitive Function?

A healthy senior woman with raised arms expresses positive energy in the pool.

Exercise helps with cognitive function. Studies have shown that regular physical activity can slow declines in memory and protect against dementia.

Can Exercise Improve Mood?

Senior couple enjoys a bike ride.

Exercise has been shown to improve mood. Depression is common in older adults, and exercise can have an antidepressant effect. It is thought that exercise may increase serotonin in the brain, which leads to better moods and less depression.

How Much Exercise Do I Need to Do for Health and Fitness?

Senior Guidelines for Physical Activity Chart

The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association recommends exercise for older adults. See the chart for suggested guidelines for physical activity.

How Do I Get Started?

A doctor checks the results of a senior man exercising on a treadmill.

Before starting any exercise program, talk to your doctor to find out what activities are right for you. It's important to start slowly, and build gradually. Doing too much, too soon can result in injury. Even a five-to-ten minute walk is a good starting place, and you can build from there. Motivate yourself with goals.

Make a Weekly Exercise Plan

Personal exercise planner

Schedule your exercise and you will be more likely to stick with it. Be consistent, and find the times and days that work best for you to get started. It doesn't matter how much you do in the beginning – just get out there and do it!

Endurance and Aerobic Exercises

Seniors performing walking, biking and swimming exercises.

Any activity that increases heart rate and breathing for an extended period is considered endurance exercise. Endurance and aerobic exercises are good for your heart, lungs, and the circulatory system. Endurance gives you stamina for daily tasks, and can prevent many aging-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Walking, running, cycling, swimming, aerobics classes, and tennis are all types of endurance exercise. Many gyms and senior centers offer exercise classes for seniors. Endurance exercise does not have to be strenuous to be beneficial.

Strength and Resistance Exercises

A senior woman exercises with weights and resistance bands.

Strength exercises will make you not only stronger, they will help you remain able to perform daily tasks, and they can increase metabolism allowing you to maintain a healthy weight. Strength exercises also play a role in keeping blood sugar levels healthy, which is important in preventing diabetes and obesity. Strength and resistance training may also help prevent osteoporosis by helping you maintain strong bones.

Resistance bands are an easy and inexpensive way to perform strength exercises at home. You can also use free weights, or machines at the gym.

Flexibility Exercises

Senior couple performing stretching exercises.

Exercises for flexibility help stretch muscles and surrounding connecting tissues. Stretching can prevent injuries and may help prevent falls. Yoga is an excellent way to improve flexibility. There are many different types of yoga so you can find one that suits your needs. Yoga studios, gyms, and the "Y" offer classes, and you can also do yoga at home with the help of DVDs, books, or apps for your phone.

Balance Exercises

Senior women taking a balance exercise class.

Stability and balance is important to prevent falls, which are a major cause of broken hips and disability in the elderly. When doing balance exercises, hold on to a table or chair to support yourself or have someone nearby who can support you if you lose your balance. Many senior centers offer classes on balance and your doctor can recommend exercises that are right for you.

Go for It!

A senior man jumps in the air.

No matter what your age, exercise is good for you. It's never too late to start, and you can benefit from strength and resistance training, stretching and flexibility exercise, and endurance and aerobic exercises. Find exercise that you enjoy that fits into your schedule and get started!

Exercise Tips for Seniors

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This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information: Disclaimer

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