Staying in Shape as You Age

Rerun image Will you be active in your golden years or dependent on others for physical assistance? The answer greatly depends on how physically active you are.

Many older Americans do not get enough exercise to maintain good health. This presents a problem as the normal aging process slowly takes its toll. With each passing decade after age 50, we lose muscle strength and heart function. These losses come from a combination of factors, like poor nutrition, hormonal changes, and declining muscle and nerve cells. But the main cause of dwindling independence as we age is usually a sedentary lifestyle.

The good news is that, no matter what age you are, you can still make gains in cardiovascular and musculoskeletal fitness. So, it is never too late to start reaping the rewards of more exercise.

Many Benefits From Exercise

At any age or level of ability our bodies need regular physical activity to function well. Here are just a few of the major benefits of exercise:

  • Increased muscle mass, strength, and flexibility
  • Lower body fat, especially in the abdomen
  • Higher metabolic rate and less tendency to gain weight
  • Improved ability to do everyday tasks
  • Better balance and less risk of falls or fractures
  • Increased joint mobility and less arthritic pain
  • Decreased risk of many chronic diseases, including:
  • Increased longevity
  • Improved quality of life

Recommendations for Getting Fit

Exactly how much exercise do older adults need to achieve good health? The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the American Heart Association (AHA) and the US Department of Health & Human Services makes the following general recommendations on the types and amounts of exercise for healthy adults aged 65 and older:

  • Do moderately-intense exercise (raises your heart rate, but you are still able to have a conversation) for 150 minutes a week or do more vigorous exercise for 75 minutes a week. Remember that if you exercise more, you will get more benefits. If you are unable to meet the activity guidelines, strive to be as active as you can be.
  • Do a strength training routine at least twice a week.
  • Do activities that promote flexibility.
  • Do balance exercises to reduce your risk of falling.

Also, if you have a chronic condition, work with your doctor to find out how you can safely incorporate exercise into your life.

Precautions Before You Begin

Since physical activities can stress your body and heart, check with your doctor before starting a program. For sedentary or minimally active older adults who plan to start a vigorous exercise program, some experts advise an exercise stress test. But many doctors reserve exercise tests for people with chest pain or major risk factors for heart disease.

Besides getting your doctor’s advice, it is wise to do what you can to guard against injury. Here are some simple safety measures you can take while exercising:

  • Start slowly, gradually increasing your time and intensity. Experts generally recommend a low-to-moderate level of low-impact exercise, such as walking, biking, or swimming for older adults.
  • Do low-intensity warm-up and cool-down activities. This allows time for your body to adjust. It also helps prevent your blood pressure from dropping, which can happen if you suddenly stop exercising.
  • Pace yourself so you can still talk comfortably during exercise. Or learn to check your pulse rate—or electronic monitoring device if you have one.
  • Drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after exercising.
  • Stop your activity and consult a doctor right away if you have chest pain or pressure, lightheadedness, nausea, abnormal heartbeats, trouble with breathing or balance, or other unusual symptoms.

If you take sensible precautions to avoid injury, exercise can give you the strength and energy to do the things you enjoy as you age.


American Heart Association
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute
Public Health Agency of Canada


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Last reviewed November 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 1/31/2014

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