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Physical Activity is Essential to Healthy Aging

Senior Health

Physical Activity is Essential to Healthy Aging

Active aging makes the difference. Now is the time. Walk, run, or bike, and embrace life.

As we grow older, we tend to become less active.This is often a slow process that leaves us overweight and out of shape before we know it. Successful aging is largely determined by individual lifestyle choices and not by genetic inheritance. Few factors contribute as much to successful aging as having a physically active lifestyle. Regular physical activity is important for the prevention of many chronic diseases (e.g., coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity), disabling conditions (e.g., osteoporosis, arthritis), and chronic disease risk factors (e.g., high blood pressure, high cholesterol).

Physical Activity is Essential to Healthy Aging

As you age and become older, regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. It can prevent many of the health problems that seem to come with age. It also helps your muscles grow stronger so you can keep doing your day-to-day activities without becoming dependent on others.

Not doing any physical activity can be bad for you, no matter your age or health condition. Keep in mind, some physical activity is better than none at all. Your health benefits will also increase with the more physical activity that you do.

Why is Exercise Important?

A safe, effective exercise program can help reduce some of the aches and pains that are a part of getting older. It can also slow down the progression of conditions associated with aging. For example:

  • Keeping active helps you maintain your ability to walk, which is especially important to maintain your independence.
  • Exercise can improve and maintain balance and posture, reducing your risk of falling.
  • Exercise can improve your strength, endurance and flexibility. It promotes bone strength. Repeated mild stress on our bones helps them maintain their calcium content and structure.
  • Exercise also helps to maintain muscle mass and tone. After age 30 we start losing muscle mass. Exercise stimulates muscle growth and slows this process. Muscles also use more calories than fat tissue. As we increase or maintain our muscle mass we create a better 'metabolic machine' for burning calories.
  • Exercise is also important for joint health. Repetitive motion promotes the body's natural process of lubricating joint surfaces. This may help lessen joint stiffness and achiness.
  • The stronger your muscles are, the more weight and stress they can handle. Stronger muscles protect your joints. As we age, our joints begin to gradually weaken from typical wear and tear. Stronger muscles take weight and stress away from your joints.

How Much Physical Activity Do Older Adults Need?

Exercise and physical activity are good for just about everyone, including older adults. There are four main types and each type is different. Doing them all will give you more benefits.

  • Endurance, or aerobic, activities increase your breathing and heart rate. Examples include brisk walking or jogging, dancing, swimming, and biking.
  • Strength exercises make your muscles stronger. Lifting weights or using a resistance band can build strength.
  • Balance exercises help prevent falls.
  • Flexibility exercises stretch your muscles and can help your body stay limber.

If you are 65 years of age or older, are generally fit, and have no limiting health conditions you can follow the guidelines listed below.

For Important Health Benefits

Older adults need at least:


2 hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity(i.e., brisk walking) every week and

weight training

muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms).



1 hour and 15 minutes (75 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity(i.e., jogging or running) every week and

weight training

muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms).


walking jogging

An equivalent mix of moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity and

weight training

muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms).



What Counts as Moderate-Intensity Aerobic Activity?

Examples of activities that require moderate effort for most people include:

  • Walking fast
  • Doing water aerobics
  • Ballroom and line dancing
  • Riding a bike on level ground or with few hills
  • Playing doubles tennis
  • Pushing a lawn mower
  • Canoeing
  • Volleyball

Important Facts

  • Inactive people get more immediate health benefits from being active again than people who are already fit. Some activity is better than none at all.
  • Moderate-intensity activity will raise your heart rate and make you breathe faster and feel warmer. One way to tell if you're exercising at a moderate intensity is if you can still talk but you can't sing the words to a song.
  • Daily activities, such as shopping, cooking or housework count towards your 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity.
  • It is also important to minimize the amount of time you spend sitting watching TV, reading, or listening to music. Some activity, however light, is better for your health than none at all.

What Counts as Vigorous-Intensity Aerobic Activity?

Examples of activities that require vigorous effort for most people include:

  • Jogging or running
  • Aerobics
  • Swimming fast
  • Riding a bike fast or on hills
  • Playing singles tennis
  • Playing football
  • Hiking uphill
  • Energetic dancing
  • Martial arts

Vigorous-intensity aerobic activity means you're breathing hard and fast, and your heart rate has gone up quite a bit. If you're working at this level, you won't be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.

In general, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity can give similar health benefits to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity.

What Counts as Muscle-Strengthening Activity?

Muscle-strengthening exercises are counted in repetitions and sets. A repetition is one complete movement of an activity, like lifting a weight or doing a sit-up. A set is a group of repetitions.

For each activity, try to do 8 to 12 repetitions in each set. Try to do at least one set of each muscle-strengthening activity. You'll get even more benefits if you do 2 or 3 sets.

To gain health benefits from muscle-strengthening activities, you should do them to the point where you find it hard to complete another repetition.

There are many ways you can strengthen your muscles, whether at home or in the gym. Examples of muscle-strengthening activities include:

  • Carrying or moving heavy loads, such as groceries
  • Activities that involve stepping and jumping, such as dancing
  • Heavy gardening, such as digging or shoveling
  • Exercises that use your body weight for resistance, such as push-ups or sit-ups
  • Yoga
  • Lifting weights

You can do activities that strengthen your muscles on the same day or on different days as your aerobic activity, whatever's best for you.However, muscle-strengthening activities don't count towards your aerobic activity total, so you'll need to do them in addition to your aerobic activity.

Some vigorous-intensity aerobic activities may provide 75 minutes of aerobic activity and sufficient muscle-strengthening activity. Examples include circuit training and sports, such as aerobic dancing or running.

Exercise Safely

  • After an illness, start your exercise program at the beginning again. Do not immediately take up where you left off. Your body needs time to recover and rebuild. Consult your HCP even if your illness is minor.
  • If you have a lung condition, such as asthma or bronchitis, be alert to air quality if you work out at a gymnasium. Exercise at less-crowded times during the cold and flu season. Exercise outdoors whenever weather permits.
  • If you live near an enclosed shopping mall, consider becoming a mall walker. Many malls open before the stores do and allow people to walk around. This allows you to exercise even if the weather is bad.

Being Inactive Can Be Risky

Some older adults are reluctant to exercise. Some are afraid that exercise will be too hard or that physical activity will harm them. Others might think they have to join a gym or have special equipment.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health, inactive people are nearly twice as likely to develop heart disease as those who are more active. Lack of physical activity also can lead to more visits to the doctor, more hospitalizations, and more use of medicines for a variety of illnesses.

Being physically active can also help you stay strong and fit enough to keep doing the things you like to do as you get older. Making exercise and physical activity a regular part of your life can improve your health and help you maintain your independence as you age.


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