Elder happy people working out with colorful dumbbells

Exercising regularly is very important in staying healthy. It is good for the mind, body and soul. Studies show that people who stay active live longer and feel better. Finding the right exercise or physical activity is key to make it enjoyable. The more fun it is, the more likely you will be motivated to exercise regularly.

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Regular exercise will help protect you from chronic disease, improve your mood and lower your chances of injury. The older you are, the more you have to gain from exercise. All it takes is 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. (Source: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality)

In This Senior Health and Fitness Article:

Why should I exercise?
Why aren’t seniors exercising more?
How can we make exercise fun?
What if I am frail or physically unable to exercise?
What are the benefits of exercise?
Get started
Important things to remember

Why should I exercise?

Are you one of the many seniors out there who knows you should be exercising, but you aren’t sure where to begin? Do the tools of fitness- exercise bikes, nautilus machines, treadmills, exercise balls and free weights- intimidate you? Or maybe you find exercise boring? If any of the above apply to you, you are not alone. Although many older people are well aware of the importance of physical fitness, 85% of seniors do not exercise on a regular basis. Many older people don’t exercise for the same reason that people of all ages resist physical activity – they think of it as too hard, too boring or they are disappointed by the lack of immediate results.

If you are finding it hard to get moving, a reminder of the benefits should spur you to action. Regular physical activity, in addition to making you look and feel good, lowers your risk for a variety of conditions, including Alzheimer’s and dementia, heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, high blood pressure, and obesity. In fact, exercise and strength training can help you look and feel younger. According to Miriam Nelson, a Tufts University scientist and specialist in aging, “Biologically, we can reverse the aging process by 15 to 25 years. We can do that by becoming stronger.” Exercise can also help you maintain your mobility and independence. Regular activity helps keep bones and muscles strong, promotes good balance and combats frailty.

Why aren’t seniors exercising more?

One of the most common reasons seniors (and others) don’t exercise is because they think of exercise as a chore, rather than an enjoyable pastime. If you think of exercise that way, challenge yourself to think differently because it can have a profound effect on all aspects of your life. Recognize that regular physical activity can provide more than just physical benefits. Feeling involved, connected and passionate about things will also help you live a longer and healthier life. Exercise (in all of its many forms) can be just one of the ways that you keep yourself actively engaged in the world and do things that you really love to do. You are more likely to make a lifelong commitment to good fitness if you shift your focus and decide to do things that you enjoy.

How can we make exercise fun?

Exercise can be fun and it doesn’t have to be the traditional walking, swimming or biking. You can try different sports or traditional exercise programs if you wish, or you can take up an active hobby like gardening. Even better, make a regular fitness routine sociable by forming a bird watching/hiking club or a “walking before shopping day,” a time for you and your friends walk the mall for 30 minutes before the stores open. Making sure your activities are fun is the most important step in your decision to be healthy and fit over the long term. Doing a variety of enjoyable activities will enrich all aspects of your life and be easily maintained; the side benefit will be a strong and healthy body.

What if I am frail or physically unable to exercise?

Some seniors are reluctant to exercise because of the mistaken belief that exercise is bad for older people- especially those with various diseases and disabilities- because it puts too much of a strain on your body. As you age, the body does take a little longer to repair itself, but moderate physical activity is good for people of all ages and of all ability levels. In fact, the benefits of exercising regularly far outweigh the risks, as you will see from the section below. Remember that your body was meant for movement, and just like a car or a bike needs to be used to keep working properly, your body needs to be used to function best.

Of course, there are some people whose physical abilities are limited by medical conditions or frailty. If you are one of these people, you may have to go about exercise more carefully than others, but don’t dismiss it entirely. If you have physical limitations, consult your doctor before starting your exercise program. With proper instruction and guidance, you can learn activities and exercises that you can do to improve mobility and reduce frailty. If you are frail, it is particularly important to be careful, but to find a way to move your body because regular exercise greatly reduces the risk of falling and broken bones. Try exercise in a class setting with proper supervision and definitely consider swimming or another form or water exercise as it can be less jarring to the body- the local YMCA or YWCA are good places to start when looking for exercise programs that address special needs.

What are the benefits of exercise?

Just as a proper diet and engaging activities can help you live a more fulfilling life, physical activity will yield a multitude of physical, mental and psychological benefits. Some of the benefits that result from regular exercise:

Feel and look better

Self Confidence Being active and feeling strong will naturally help you feel more self confident and sure of yourself. This improved sense of well-being might help your overall mood and attitude about life.

Contentment– Natural endorphins produced by exercise may actually help you feel better and alleviate sadness or depression.

Social Interaction– If you choose, exercise can be a great way to meet people and socialize. Joining a class or walking with friends should make the exercise more enjoyable and it can also help you stay connected with others.

Sleep Better– People who exercise regularly tend to sleep better than those who don’t. They usually fall asleep more quickly, sleep more deeply and awake less often during the night. Some fitness experts believe that a very short period of moderate activity in the evening, for example a 10 minute walk after dinner, will help you sleep more deeply at night. It is important to note that if you regularly experience problems sleeping, the general recommendation is to exercise early in the day rather than in the evening because exercise can keep you up at night. Having exercised earlier in the day should help you sleep better though.

Mental Acuity (Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention)– New research shows that regular exercise can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Exercise helps encourage regular brain functions and can help keep the brain active. Exercise can also provide numerous benefits for patients of Alzheimer’s including reduced risk of depression and improving memory and circulation.

Maintain or lose weight

Metabolism– Increase your metabolism; as you increase muscle mass you will burn more calories because muscle burns more calories than fat.

Body Composition Body composition refers to the makeup of the body in terms of lean mass (muscle, bone, vital tissue, and organs) and fat mass. An optimal ratio of fat to lean mass is an indication of fitness. The right combination of exercise and healthy eating will help you decrease body fat and increase or maintain muscle mass.

Increase mobility, flexibility and balance

Balance and Flexibility– Balance and flexibility will improve when you exercise on a regular basis. Improved strength, flexibility and posture will help with balance and reduce your risk of falling. Greater flexibility should also reduce the pain of arthritis.

Mobility– If you do a variety of exercise, you will naturally increase your coordination. You should be better able to navigate your regular chores and activities.

Muscular Strength and Endurance– Exercise will improve your ability to use your muscles over a brief period of time as well as sustain your strength for repeated use or over a longer period. Greater muscle strength helps improve your ability to balance and increases you ability to perform everyday tasks without straining your muscles. On average, men and women over 40 lose one-quarter to one-third of a pound of muscle each year which is replaced by fat. This gradual loss results in a one to two percent loss of strength each year causing movement to become more difficult and contributing to a reduction in activity and exercise. Strength training, which can be achieved in a variety of ways, is particularly important for counteracting this damaging loss of muscle. Research at Tufts University has shown that strength training is one of the most important ways to slow down the process of aging and protect all of the body’s functions. The research has also indicated that strength training can dramatically improve arthritis pain and stiffness as well as decrease depression.

Reduce risk of disease, sickness and injury (by strengthening muscles and bones)

Immune Function– A healthy, strong body fights off infection and sickness more easily and more quickly. Rather than sapping your energy reserves entirely, recovery from illness should be less strenuous.

Cardio-Respiratory and Cardiovascular Function– Regular physical activity lowers your risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. If you have hypertension, exercise will lower your blood pressure.

Bone Density/Osteoporosis– Exercise protects against loss in bone mass. Better bone density will reduce the risk of osteoporosis and lowers risk of falling and broken bones. Post-menopausal women can lose as much as 2 percent bone mass each year and men also lose bone mass as they age. Research done at Tufts University shows that strength training can dramatically reduce the loss of bone mass, help restore bones, and contribute to better balance and less fractures.

Gastrointestinal Function– Regular exercise promotes the efficient elimination of waste and encourages your digestive health.

Chronic Conditions and Cancer– Regular physical activity lowers risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis and colon cancer, to name just a few. It also helps in the management of high cholesterol and arthritis pain.

Good physical fitness improves the way the body works, and enables the body to rebound much more quickly from sickness or injury. These physical benefits along with the natural endorphins produced by exercise may also naturally lead to an improved mood and help decrease depression. Physical fitness and a physically active lifestyle may be one of the most important contributions to healthy aging. So start now.

To get started:

Often the hardest part of a new endeavor is getting started. You can do it. At first, pace yourself and move slowly. Work on making exercise a regular part of your day, regardless of time and intensity. As it becomes a habit, it will become easier to build on your routine.

Remember to create a schedule that includes a variety of activity and a mix of both traditional and non-traditional exercise. Exercise doesn’t have to be grueling or boring – gardening, walking your dog, and dancing are all good ways to get in your daily exercise. You could also combine exercise with social activity – you could walk with friends, for example, or join a hiking club, or a swimming class. Or, investigate the sports listed below and try to find one that you enjoy. If you are having fun, it will be better for you overall (physically, mentally and emotionally), and it will be much easier to maintain.


Get Clearance First – Before you begin, have a check-up and talk with your doctor or healthcare practitioner about any special conditions you might have.

IF SOMETHING HURTS, STOP DOING IT– If you have a persistent pain when you exercise, take a break. If you are sick, you should go easy or skip a few days. When you resume, start slowly again. Know that there are some warning signs that mean you should stop what you are doing and consult a doctor:
- Chest pain or pressure
- Breathing trouble or excessive shortness of breath
- Persistent or sharp muscle or joint pain.
- Nausea
- Unusual balance difficulty
- Severe illness.


Start Slowly– Start with 10 minutes a couple times a day if you can. Go slow and be consistent.

Be Comfortable– Wear comfortable, non-restrictive clothing, supportive shoes and layers so that you can adjust as your body temperature rises.

Keep It Easy– Moderation is key, don’t overexert yourself.

Breathe– Remember to breathe consistently throughout your exercise.

Hydrate– Drink plenty of water before, during and after your activity.

Warm Up & Cool Down– Always ease your body into and out of exercise. Walk slowly or stretch for at least 5 minutes.

Build Up– Gradually increase the time and intensity of your activity. It will become easier as you exercise consistently.

Mix It Up– Vary the type of activity you do. Try a new sport or take a tai chi or yoga class for variation. Doing new things will help you remain interested.

Make It Fun– Get active with friends, listen to music or take up an active hobby to keep it fun and interesting.

Be Consistent– If you can do a little bit every day, it will eventually become part of your routine and you will automatically include it. If you only do a lot occasionally, it will be difficult to keep it up and you won’t realize any of the benefits.

Keep an Activity Log– Write down what types of activity you do everyday. As the days go on, it will be easier to keep up the pace when you look at all of the progress you are making.

Wear a Pedometer– Some fitness plans advise wearing a pedometer and making sure you walk at least 10,000 steps a day. This can be kind of a fun challenge and may inspire you to get moving and keep moving.

Know Your Calories– Calories aren’t everything, but knowing how many calories you are burning when you are exercising and performing simple everyday tasks might also motivate you to keep moving. It is also good to recognize that traditional exercise isn’t the only way you burn calories. Some sample calorie counts for different activities are below:


Type of Exercise

Calories burned per 15 minutes

Calories burned per 30 minutes

Circuit Training



Cycling (6mph)



Dancing (swing)



Eliptical trainer



Golf (walking & carrying clubs)



Hiking (average incline)






Tennis (singles)



Walking (3.5 mph)







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Source: http://www.helpguide.org