Return to Index
Fitness: Elixir for the Ages
Growing older is no picnic…but a regular fitness routine can jump start your memory, your metabolism, and your state of mind.
Paying the Price for Not Exercising
The aging process brings a natural decline in strength caused by the loss of muscle tissue. This promotes frailty and the impaired ability to move about with ease, which is often associated with aging. Decreased strength means less energy to do everyday activities, such as household chores, grocery shopping, and climbing stairs.
Helping to Reverse the Effects of Aging
Now for the good news. Regular, moderate physical activity has been shown to lower the risk of or improve the symptoms of many chronic diseases. Exercise helps build muscle and bone strength and improves balance and flexibility—all of which can protect your body from falls that can cause debilitating fractures. Exercise may also boost the immune system to help fight off colds and the flu, control arthritic symptoms such as joint swelling and pain, improve mood and self-confidence, and enhance a deeper sleep.
Gaining Benefits at Any Age
Even the most frail elderly people benefit from exercise. In one study, 100 nursing home residents ranging in age from 72 to 98 years old were placed on a 10-week strength-training regimen. Most of the residents in the study depended on canes, walkers, or wheelchairs. By the end of the program, not only did they increase their muscle size and strength, but they also moved about with greater ease, even improving their ability to climb stairs—all of which greatly boosted their morale.
Getting Help for Getting Started
Anyone, at any age and with almost any condition, can be physically active to some degree. Before starting an exercise program, talk to your doctor. This is especially important if you:
- Are older
- Have a chronic disease
- Are taking medication
- Are overweight
- Have not exercised regularly in the past few years
Your doctor may have suggestions for an exercise program that meets your particular needs. In some cases, you may be referred to a physical therapist or certified fitness trainer.
Having a Goal in Mind
If your doctor gives you approval to exercise, you'll want to know how long to do so. The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends these exercise guidelines to gain health benefits:
- Throughout the week, aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as walking briskly.
- Or, aim for 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercises throughout the week, such as jogging or running.
- In addition, do strength-training exercises to work the muscles in your legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, and arms. Strength training should be done 2 or more times per week.
- Or, do a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercises, along with the strength training.
To gain even more health benefits, the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends these weekly goals:
- 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise along with two or more days of strength training
- Or, 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise and strength training
- Or, a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercises and strength-training
Remember that it is okay if you exercise for just 10 minutes at a time, spread throughout the day.
Including Some Variety
- Warm up —Warm up for at least 5 minutes. Light activity, such as walking while gently swinging your arms, circulates blood to warm up your muscles. Jumping too quickly into vigorous exercise can shock and injure the muscles.
- Aerobic exercise —Include aerobic activities, such as walking, jogging, bicycling, and dancing most days of the week. These strengthen your heart and lungs by increasing your heart rate and breathing and improving the circulation of blood and oxygen throughout the body. Walking is one of the easiest and most convenient aerobic activities. If you are just beginning to exercise, start with 5 minutes daily, adding a few minutes each week to reach your desired goal. Daily activities count. Walk a few blocks instead driving or skip the elevator and use stairs.
- Strength training —Strength training with hand and ankle weights, resistance bands, or gym equipment is vital for maintaining muscle and bone strength. Bowling, hiking, and tennis are other strength-building activities. Because muscles need a day or two to rest and repair, include these activities only 2-3 times weekly.
- Stretching —Flexibility declines with age but can be regained with consistent stretching exercises. Stretching alleviates joint stiffness, reduces stress, and may prevent falls. Yoga is an excellent activity that incorporates various stretching and balancing poses to keep the body limber. Contact your local YMCA or Council on Aging to find inexpensive yoga classes designed for older adults.
- Cool down—Finally, slow your pace for a cool-down period of at least 5-10 minutes to gradually bring your heart rate back to normal.
Remember that growing older is inevitable—feeling old is not. Keeping active at any age will allow you to enjoy life to its fullest.
National Institute on Aging
NIH Senior Health
Public Health Agency of Canada
Bean JF, Vora A, Frontera WR. Benefits of exercise for community-dwelling older adults. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2004;85(Suppl 3):S33.
Bischoff H, Stahelin H, Dick W, et al. Effects of vitamin D and calcium supplementation on falls: A randomized controlled trial. J Bone Miner Res. 2003;81(2):343-351.
Chapter 5: Active older adults. US Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at: http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/chapter5.aspx. Accessed June 29, 2017.
Degenerative arthritis (list of topics). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T212952/Degenerative-arthritis-list-of-topics. Updated May 21, 2014. Accessed June 29, 2017.
Exercise: How to get started. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/prevention-wellness/exercise-fitness/exercise-basics/exercise-how-to-get-started.html. Updated May 2017. Accessed June 29, 2017.
Fiatarone M, O'Neill E, Ryan N, et al. Exercise training and nutritional supplementation for physical frailty in very elderly people. N Engl J Med. 1994;330(25):1769-1775.
Frankel JE, Bean JF, Frontera WR. Exercise in the elderly: Research and clinical practice. Clin Geriatr Med. 2006; 22(2): 239-256.
How much physical activity do older adults need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/older%5Fadults/index.htm. Updated June 4, 2015. Accessed June 29, 2017.
Matthews CE, Ockene IS, Freedson PS, Rosal MC, Merriam PA, Hebert JR. Moderate to vigorous physical activity and risk of upper-respiratory tract infection. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002;34(8):1242-1248.
Neid R, Franklin B. Promoting and prescribing exercise for the elderly. Am Fam Physician. 20021;65(3):419-427.
- Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
- Review Date: 06/2017
- Update Date: 07/13/2015