Keeping fit can help seniors maintain independence and function well in their daily lives – even if they happen to be living in a nursing home or retirement community. And as a plus, scientific studies show that regular exercise can slow the aging process in more ways than one. With this in mind, how much exercise does a senior need to stay healthy and remain independent? Also, how can seniors exercise safely, especially if they have chronic health conditions or take medications that cause dizziness or other side effects? For the answers to these questions about senior exercise programs and more, read on.
Physiological Changes That Occur In Seniors
As we grow age, our bodies undergo many changes. These physiological changes don’t always hit us all at the same time, but little by little they do make it harder for seniors to exercise and can even make certain types of exercise dangerous.
Here are some changes that affect fitness in older adults.
Loss Of Muscle Mass And Strength
Both men and women start to lose muscle mass in their 30s. From age 45, this loss speeds up; by age 80, the average person may have lost about one-third of his or her former muscle mass (9). As a result, seniors tend to be weaker than younger people and the muscles they do have may not work as well. It’s often harder for them to get up from a chair, climb stairs, lift objects, or do other everyday tasks.
The good news is that even small increases in muscle strength can improve an older person’s ability to function. So it’s important to keep exercising – even if you are doing low-impact exercises.
Reduced Joint Mobility
Joints are the areas where two bones meet. They are held together by ligaments, which are strong bands of tissue that connect bone to bone.
Many seniors develop problems with their joints, particularly in the hips and knees. This can make it more difficult for them to walk or move around without pain – and may raise the risk of falls (1).
Also, as you age, the cartilage covering the ends of bones thins and becomes less flexible–a condition called osteoarthritis which can cause your joints to become stiff or swollen. Other forms of arthritis can also develop, including rheumatoid arthritis, which sometimes affects younger people but is more common among seniors. If you have osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, you should talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program, because certain types of exercise may be harmful (2).
Aging also reduces the lubrication in joints and slows down the transmission of nerve impulses. Even if you’ve had a joint replacement, it can still wear out or loosen up over time (2).
As people age, it becomes harder to see things clearly, especially at night. Seniors often have trouble with depth perception, which can make it more likely for them to fall when they are walking or exercising outside. They are also more likely to have cataracts, which cloud the lenses in the eyes and reduce vision (3). To protect your vision, wear sunglasses when you exercise outdoors.
Shortness Of Breath
When you’re breathing, oxygen moves from your lungs through your blood vessels and into your cells. When older adults exercise, it’s harder for their bodies to get enough oxygen to the muscles they are using (6). The good news is that this problem can often be treated with medication and regular aerobic exercise can help improve how well your body gets oxygen to your cells.
Older adults are more likely than younger ones to become dehydrated or under hydrated, which can lead to health problems ranging from mild stomach upset to kidney failure. To reduce the risk of dehydration, drink plenty of fluids – especially on hot days when you’re exercising outside (5). Also, older adults should be mindful when drinking caffeine and alcohol.
Medications You May Be Taking
Older adults often take medications for heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, diabetes, stomach problems, and other conditions.
These drugs may cause side effects such as dizziness or light-headedness when standing up quickly – which can increase the risk of falls. This problem is called orthostatic hypotension (11). Make sure your doctor knows about any exercise program you start so he or she can consider your medication options and adjust dosages if necessary.
Also, certain medications – particularly those used to treat heartburn and stomach problems such as Nexium and Prevacid – may cause an upset stomach (8).
In addition, over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and aspirin can cause a stomach upset too (10). If you’re exercising, try to take your medication at least two hours before or after you exercise, so it won’t interfere with the way your body absorbs the fluid you drink during exercise.
Benefits Of Exercise For Seniors
- Strengthen your heart and lungs
- Lower blood pressure, which reduces the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other problems caused by poor circulation
- Improve your balance and coordination–helping to prevent falls
- Boost levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol and reduce triglycerides, another type of blood fat
- Raise energy levels and make you feel less tired
- Help you control weight, which can lower your risk of heart disease, stroke , high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis , and some types of cancer.
How Much Should A Senior Exercise?
Experts recommend that older adults engage in moderate exercise and strength training each week.
150 Minutes Of Moderate Aerobic Exercise Such As Walking Each Week (12)
This is about 30 minutes a day, five days a week. If you can’t do this much activity all at once, divide the amount into several 10- to 15-minute sessions throughout the day. You can also break up your workouts into shorter periods of vigorous activity .
Muscle-strengthening Exercises At Least Two Days A Week (12)
These can include lifting weights, using resistance bands or other types of equipment, or doing situps and pushups. For help finding an exercise program that’s right for you, contact your doctor or physical therapist. You may also want to talk with a personal trainer who can help you build an exercise program that fits your needs.
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What Exercises Are Good For Seniors?
Due to their unique needs and physical condition, seniors should choose exercises carefully. For example, if you have osteoporosis, your doctor may recommend low-impact activities such as walking and swimming . Low-impact doesn’t mean easy–any exercise is good for you.
Here are some of the best senior exercise programs you can take on:
Aquatic Fitness Programs
If you have arthritis, osteoporosis, or another health condition that limits your physical activity, a pool can be a great place to exercise. It’s low impact and relaxing. Water also helps support your body weight so it’s easier on your joints (17). If you have problems using your legs, try pool running instead of walking.
Water also has a natural resistance that can strengthen your muscles. Add flotation belts or other equipment to add more resistance (17).
You should always follow any safety guidelines your pool offers. If you have health problems, check with your doctor before you start a water fitness routine or ask how often and how long you should do these exercises.
Staying strong helps you do everyday tasks without extra strain. It also protects your bones and keeps you independent. Strength training is another good way to lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases (15).
Your doctor may recommend working out with weights at least twice a week for 15 to 30 minutes. You may want to work with a certified physical therapist or an experienced trainer who can show you the proper exercise technique.
Yoga is one of the most popular senior exercise programs. It combines aerobic activity with gentle stretching and strength-building exercises.
Although yoga is generally safe, talk to your doctor before you begin a yoga program. You may need to modify your routine or hold certain poses for only a few seconds if you have heart problems, back issues, or other medical conditions.
The benefits of yoga extend far beyond physical fitness, though. Yoga emphasizes breathing, meditation, and relaxation. It can help relieve pain from arthritis, stiffness from fibromyalgia , and stress from other conditions (7).
If you have problems in a specific area of your body, ask a yoga teacher if there are any poses that would be off limits for you. Many instructors offer private classes so you can work with a teacher who knows your limitations.
Just like yoga, Pilates combines flexibility and strength training. Pilates uses a variety of equipment, such as exercise balls and small hand weights, to help you work different muscle groups at the same time. This can save you time and make it easier for you to do these exercises at home.
Pilates also includes breathing and meditation techniques that can improve your flexibility and concentration (13). If you have trouble doing more strenuous exercise, you can try a gentler version of Pilates that focuses on toning and stretching.
Simple, affordable, and convenient, walking is a great choice for a senior exercise program. It’s also one of the easiest ways to start an exercise routine. If you have balance problems or other limitations that make high-impact activities difficult, try walking.
Start out slow and build up your speed and distance over time. If you become winded easily, take breaks every few minutes to give your body a chance to rest.
An easy way to add variety? Try walking with friends and family members in local parks and around the neighborhood. It’s a great time to catch up while you burn calories and strengthen your heart and muscles.
How To Exercise Safely As You Get Older
Exercise can be safe for seniors at any fitness level–though you may need to increase the intensity, duration, and frequency of your activity gradually over time. Take these steps:
Check With Your Doctor First
Before beginning a new exercise program or increasing your activity, talk to your doctor . Tell him or her how often you’d like to exercise and what type of activities you’re planning. Your doctor may suggest a stress test (a test that measures your heart’s ability to handle physical activity) before you start an exercise program.
Increase The Intensity Gradually
If you haven’t been active for a while, start slowly to avoid getting overtired. Gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts over time.
Do Strength Training Exercises Gradually
Strength-training exercises such as push ups and lifting weights may cause a problem called shoulder impingement in older adults with osteoporosis (14).
Strength training is important to keep your muscles strong and protect them from injury. If you’re older, talk with your doctor or physical therapist about which strength exercises are best for you.
Drink Plenty Of Water Before, During, And After Exercise
Dehydration can occur in seniors who aren’t active often because they might not sense the need to urinate (pee) often (5). You can avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of water before, during, and after exercise.
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Cool Down And Stretch
Just as you warm up your body before starting to exercise , it’s important to cool down and stretch after a workout. This will help keep your muscles from getting too stiff or sore. For example, sit on the edge of your chair with one leg extended in front of you. Reach forward to touch your toes, holding for five seconds. Repeat with the other leg.
Protect Your Skin
Exercise can make older adults sweat more than they’re used to. This can lead to a loss of moisture and cause you to become overheated, increasing the risk of heatstroke (4). To avoid overheating, stay in a cooler environment during exercise, drink extra fluids before and after your workout, and take frequent breaks if you’re going to be exercising for more than 10 minutes.
The Bottom Line
As you grow older, exercise can help you maintain your physical abilities and independence for as long as possible. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the benefits, risks, and side effects of any medications you’re taking before starting an exercise routine . They may be able to suggest lower-impact activities that are safe for your age and health status.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Age-related mobility loss is joint-specific: an analysis from 6000 Flexist results (2013, nih.gov)
- Aging and Osteoarthritis (2012, nih.gov)
- Common Causes of Vision Loss in ELderly Patients (1999, aafp.org)
- Dehydration and Heat Stroke (n.d., hopkinsmedicine.org)
- Dehydration Risks for Seniors (2018, clevelandclinic.org)
- Exercise, ageing and the lung (2016, ersjournals.com)
- Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life (2011, nih.gov)
- Heartburn Drugs May Cause Diarrhea (2005, webmd.com)
- Muscle tissue changes with aging (2010, nih.gov)
- NSAIDs and Gastrointestinal Side Effects: What Patients Need to Know (2019, creakyjoints.org)
- Orthostatic Hypertension (2020, ahajournals.org)
- Physical activity is medicine for older adults (n.d., bmj.com)
- Pilates: how does it work and who needs it? (2011, nih.gov)
- Progressive resistance strength training and the related injuries in older adults: the susceptibility of the shoulder (2013, pubmed.gov)
- Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health (2012, pubmed.gov)
- The Importance of Physical Activity Exercise among Older People (2018, nih.gov)
- The water exercise improves health-related quality of frail elderly people at day service facility (2007, pubmed.gov)