You're never too old to get moving!


In this article:

· Seniors who exercise can better manage chronic diseases and lower their risk of falling.

· If you have underlying health conditions that make it difficult to exercise, talk to your doctor about some adaptive activities you might try.

· While cardiovascular exercise is important, don’t forget strength training and stretching.

If you’re 65 or older, chances are your body doesn’t work quite the same as it used to. Your bones may ache, it could be hard to stand or sit down, and you might have to stop and rest more often when you’re out and about.

The solution to “aging pains”? You have to get moving! That may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to keep your body from shutting down is to do as much as you can with it. You’re never too old to start exercising.

“Physical activity provides benefits for chronic disease management and cardiovascular health,” says Mark Matusak, D.O., a sports medicine doctor at Providence Medical Institute in Torrance, California. “Exercise may be an effective non-medication treatment for osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. Weight-bearing exercises also help prevent decline in bone and muscle health as we get older. Another important aspect of exercise is fall prevention, as we know falls can have devastating effects on the quality of life and well-being of the older adults in the community. If this wasn’t enough, exercise provides benefits for cognitive function and mood!”

If you think physical activity isn’t for you because you’ve never been very active, or because you think you have too many health problems to get moving, think again: Even a walk to the mailbox and back is a good start for an older adult who is inactive.

Here, Dr. Matusak answers a few of the most common questions about physical activity for older adults.

If I have underlying health conditions that make it difficult to move around, how can I be active?

Dr. Matusak: Mobility and pain are two of the many factors that may affect the ability of older people to participate in physical activity. I recommend working with your health care team to find an individualized solution to some of these challenges. A physical or occupational therapist can help you improve mobility, strength and endurance that will allow you to better perform activities of daily living. If pain is limiting you, a non-surgical sports medicine specialist is trained to not only assist high-level athletes get back to the game, but also to help all ages strive for an active lifestyle. You may ask your doctor about pool-based therapy or explore chair-based exercise programs.  

Motivation may be another barrier, and you may find that joining a group class in the community will help you get started. If you are unable to leave your home, in-home physical therapy may be an option to bring help to you. Some Medicare plans may have access to online classes that you can follow along with in the familiar setting of your home.

Do older adults need to achieve a certain heart rate to get any benefit out of physical activity? 

Dr. Matusak: Recommendations for exercise duration and intensity include “moderate-intensity” exercise for 150 minutes per week, or 75 minutes of more “vigorous-intensity” exercise. If you are an older adult looking to begin an exercise program, I do not recommend aiming for a specific heart rate. Rather, you should focus on the process of creating the exercise habit and focusing on the feel of the effort. While any movement — including casual walking — is better than no movement, increasing the intensity to a brisk walk, in which you feel your heart rate and breathing rate rise, has been shown to provide more benefit. “Vigorous-intensity” exercise may be achieved by adding incline or stairs to your walking route — of course, taking caution to avoid any falls. Don’t let a concern about achieving a specific heart rate number prevent you from the health benefits of getting out and moving!  

Should a person talk to their doctor before starting physical activity? 

Dr. Matusak: Yes. Talking to your doctor provides an opportunity for you to discuss any reasons you should be cautious with certain exercises. You can also connect on whole health, preventive medicine, nutrition, and chronic disease management or preventive care. Providence has both excellent primary care physicians and teams of specialists to help coordinate your care.  

What are some good exercises for older adults? 

Dr. Matusak: In addition to the cardiovascular exercise of your choice (such as swimming, cycling or brisk walking), strength and balance exercises are great activities for adults. 

I recommend working toward whole-body strength exercises — thinking about “pushing” and “pulling” with your upper and lower body. Exercise bands are versatile tools you can use to push and pull with your upper body. Simply repeating the process of going from sitting to standing and back to sitting, limiting use of your hands when you are able, is a functional way to work out your lower body. 

Balance is an important aspect to address, and practicing various stances with a nearby chair for safety can be effective. Consider starting with your feet wide, and progressing to your feet together while balancing. If this is too easy, you can stagger one foot in front of the other. A visit to a physical therapist or occupational therapist can go a long way to creating a customized program that includes a focus on muscle strength.

For group classes, yoga, Pilates and tai chi are excellent low-impact options to pursue.  

Additional resources for older adult exercises

If you’re interested in reading more about other regular exercise options for older adults, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. There, you’ll find sample weekly schedules and suggestions for simple stretching and strengthening exercises. 

Contributing caregiver

Mark Matusak, D.O., is a sports medicine doctor at Providence Medical Institute in Torrance, California.

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Related resources

How you can stay at home as you age

Improving mental fitness with meditation as you age

Is a personal trainer right for you?

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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