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What are exercise recommendations for older adults?

Mark P. Caruso, MD
Internal Medicine
When it comes to exercise guidelines for older adults, keep in mind that some physical activity is better than none at all.

If you’re 65 years of age or older, are generally fit and have no limiting health conditions, you can follow these guidelines, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
  • two hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity such as brisk walking every week and
  • muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms)
Also acceptable, the CDC recommends, is a mix of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, along with muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).

Even just 20 minutes a day is beneficial, especially for those 75 years of age or older. At that age, a little bit of weight gain can start a spiraling process of greater weight gain and muscular-skeletal issues. People 75 and older should exercise every day, 15 to 20 minutes.
As we get older, sometimes our bodies just don’t seem to handle exercise as well as they used to. But the fact is, inactivity over time is to blame for many problems we previously thought were part of a natural aging process. That is to say, exercise can help prevent some aspects of aging!
If you are physically active, you can help prevent problems like a lower maximum heart rate, reduced muscle mass, bone loss, stiffened tendons and ligaments, and some joint or nerve problems. That said, you can’t prevent every health problem, because genetics plays a big part in your health. But physical activity offers many benefits.
As you get older, the same recommendations for physical activity apply to you as for younger adults. But there are some additional guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American Heart Association for older adults who may have some health limitations:
  • When you are unable to reach the recommended amount of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, you should do as much physical activity as you can.
  • Adjust the intensity of your physical activity according to your fitness level. Pick activities that are fun and that you can do year round. Consider walking at the mall.
  • If you are at risk of falling, do exercises that improve balance.
  • If you have chronic health problems, be aware of how your conditions affect your ability to do regular physical activity safely.
  • Wear comfortable clothing and footwear.
  • Find a companion to exercise with you for safety and for a social outlet.
  • Take more time to warm up before and after your activity. Stretch slowly after your activity.
  • Start your activity at a low intensity and progress gradually.
  • If you plan to be active more than 30 minutes, try to drink some water every 15 minutes, especially during hot conditions. As you age, your sense of thirst is decreased; by the time you notice you are thirsty you may already be partially dehydrated. 
Note: Before you increase your level of physical activity, discuss your exercise plan with your physician. He or she can advise you as to safe exercise levels for you based on your health history.

As we age our body begins to have normal physiologic changes, such as decreased balance, muscle strength and muscle coordination. Before beginning any exercise program for an older adult be sure to take a comprehensive health history. This will identify any contraindications or red-flags. During weight training older adults should start slowly and perform many exercises in safe, stable environments. Older adults should start with a low intensity such as 40-50% and gradually work up to his or her goals. During cardiovascular exercise be sure to choose exercises that decrease load on bones, such as cycling or swimming. If using a treadmill, make sure the unit has hand rails and that the emergency shutoff switch is tethered to the client.

Audrey K. Chun, MD
Geriatric Medicine
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults over age 65 should perform resistance exercise or muscle strengthening activities on two or more days a week. Options include resistance bands, hand weights, exercise machines and bodyweight exercises such as push-ups.

You may also want to consider setting up a proper multi-gym at home. These can be useful for helping you progress gradually to lifting heavier weights over a long period of time. They also have the advantage in that they put you in the correct position for lifting weights without straining your muscles. You can keep it as simple as a basic weight bench that you use with dumbbells and/or resistance bands, or a larger multi-gym with different "stations" for a wide range of exercises. These gyms use different forms of resistance, including weight stacks, flexible rods, and cables.

It's worth consulting with a personal trainer about which type of multi-gym might suit you best. As a rule, you need to ensure that the starting weight range isn't too heavy for you, and if you use a walker or wheelchair, make sure the gym can incorporate it or that you can easily transfer yourself to the gym bench. Also consider how easy the gym is to assemble -- you may need help, and you should set aside two to three hours to do it.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.