Exercise and Physical Activity for Older Adults

Physical activity is good for your health at every age. If you have never been active, starting regular physical activity now may improve your endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. Being active may help you live on your own for a longer time and keep you healthy.

Being active can be hard if you have limited mobility or if you have serious health problems. You can still find activities to meet your needs. Slowly raising your arms or legs, for example, may help you when done on a regular, repeated basis.

Healthy older adults should do four types of activities regularly: aerobic (or endurance) exercise and activities to strengthen muscles, improve balance, and increase flexibility.

When doing aerobic activity, you should be able to speak several words in a row but not be able to have a long conversation. You should aim to do 150 minutes of medium intensity aerobic activity every week. To add more aerobic activity to your life, you can

  • Go for a brisk walk.
  • Do heavy housework or gardening.
  • Take part in a group activity, like a water aerobics or tennis class for seniors. Your local community center or senior center may offer free or discounted classes.

Activities that strengthen your muscles make you push or pull against something. You can use hand-held weights, exercise bands, or even soup cans. Strength training can help increase your strength, independence, and balance. It may even reduce your need for a cane! You should try to do strength exercises at least 2 days a week. Strength training exercises include

  • Raising and lowering your arms for a certain number of counts. You can do this when you’re seated.
  •  Climbing stairs in your house or a mall if you can do it safely. You can use a cane if needed.
  •  Digging in the garden, raking, or pushing a lawn mower.

Activities to improve your balance can help you stay steady on your feet and reduce the risk of a fall or injury. You should try to do these exercises at least 3 days a week. Balance improving exercises include

  • Walking heel to toe in a straight line.
  • Standing on one foot if you are able.
  • Standing up from a chair and sitting down again without using your hands.

Activities that increase flexibility can help you keep the full range of motion in your muscles and joints and prevent stiffness. You should try to do flexibility exercises at least 3 days a week. Flexibility exercises include

  • Stretching all muscle groups.
  • Taking a yoga class or practicing yoga with a video.

If you are just starting any new physical activity, start slowly and work up to your goal. To track your progress and stay motivated, keep a daily diary of what you do and how long you do it.

How to Become More Physically Active

  • Pick an activity you enjoy and start with small, specific goals, such as "I will take three 10-minute walks this week." Slowly increase the total amount of time and number of days you are active.
  • If you live in an assisted living or retirement facility, ask if the fitness center offers a free health checkup and fitness program.
  • Start a walking group with one or more friends where you live or through your place of worship.

Safety is very important as you become physically active! Safety tips for older adults include

  • Asking your health care provider about ways you can safely increase the amount of physical activity you do now. If you have an illness or other health issue, you should ask your health care provider if there are any limits to the types of exercises you can do. They can help suggest a type and amount of exercise that’s right for you.
  • Taking time to warm up and cool down.
  • Starting slowly and build up to more intense activity.
  • Wearing a sturdy pair of shoes.
  • Stopping if you have pain, become dizzy, or feel short of breath.
  • Drinking water.

You can start slowly and increase your goals as you build your strength over time. For example, you can do many arm and leg exercises without weights to get started. As you progress, you can add hand-held weights, like soup cans, to improve your strength.

For more ways to add exercise and physical activity into your lifestyle, see these Health Tips for Older Adults from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.