Exercise is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your health and wellness. No matter how many candles are on your cake, exercise only gets more important as you age.
Making exercise a part of your routine can profoundly affect your balance, mobility and strength. It can also make the difference between relying on others for daily activities or maintaining independence. But your workout routine now may need to look a bit different than it did 20 years ago. There are safe and beneficial exercises for older adults and others you may need to modify.
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Is exercise safe for older adults?
A common misconception among the aging population is that exercise is unsafe and should be avoided. This is untrue and works against older adults achieving and maintaining optimal health. Fitness is key to healthy aging.
An unfortunate fact is that aging increases the risk of many diseases, per the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But regular physical activity helps to reduce the risk of the same conditions, like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and dementia.
Physical activity is safe for older adults when done correctly and is necessary for a healthy life. The need for exercise among the aging population is strongly supported by the CDC, physical therapists and personal trainers across the globe.
Kevin Robinson, DSc, a physical therapist and professor of orthopedics and kinesiology, shared some general guidelines for safe exercising for older adults:
- Focus on minimal-impact activities, like water exercise, recumbent stationary bikes and ellipticals.
- Join SilverSneakers programs often offered at local health clubs. These are usually covered by insurance and are designed specifically for older adults. One benefit of these programs is that you can also make friends, which will help you attend consistently.
- Focus on certain muscle groups like gluteals (butt), quadriceps (thighs), biceps and abdominals, and know your limits.
- Make stretching and balancing exercises part of your regular exercise program.
The best exercises for older adults
The best exercises for you will depend on factors like your current fitness level and any medical conditions that require a limited or modified approach. It’s never too late to begin a good exercise program.
The CDC recommends the following weekly physical activity for adults aged 65 and older:
- 150 minutes a week minimum of moderate aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, like jogging.
- Two days a week minimum of strengthening exercises, like lifting weights.
- Balance improving activities, like balancing on one foot.
Here are some examples of what that exercise routine can look like for older adults.
1. Moderate cardio
The CDC defines moderate aerobic activity, also known as cardio, as a 5 or 6 on a scale of one (sitting still) to 10 (working hard). Some activities that are light cardio for one person may be moderate cardio for another.
Walking is a common form of moderate cardio, especially popular with older adults. “Walking can be a great activity,” Robinson said. “But many people with arthritis cannot tolerate walking for distances. This is because the average ground reaction force going through the knee is 1.2 to 1.5 times the person’s body weight. So, what seems like a minimal impact activity can be too much.”
Robinson recommends water exercise for patients with arthritis in their legs or feet. “This reduces the forces through the knee by 50% to 75% as compared to walking on land,” he said.
Other forms of moderate cardio include hiking, running errands or doing certain chores (like raking leaves), some types of yoga, bike riding and using an elliptical.
2. Light strength exercises
Erin Stimac, personal trainer and group exercise instructor, says functional movements are the foundation for maintaining independence, reducing the risk of injury and enhancing overall quality of life. Erin recommends incorporating strength exercises that cover essential functional movements:
- Squatting (sitting and standing): Squatting exercises are vital for regular daily life and contribute to improved mobility and stability.
- Hinging (bending down): Essential for tasks like picking up objects, hinging exercises strengthen the lower back and promote flexibility.
- Pushing (body weight or objects): Pushing enhances upper body strength and supports activities like getting up from the ground or lifting objects.
- Pulling (toward the body): This strengthens the back muscles and is crucial for maintaining posture and balance.
- Carrying: Life often requires you to carry objects from one point to another. Reduced grip strength has been shown to be closely linked to mortality, predicting risk for early death better than blood pressure.
Some specific CDC-recommended light strength exercises that can incorporate functional movements include weight lifting, using resistance bands, working in a garden, bodyweight exercises like pull-ups or push-ups, and various yoga postures.
3. Exercises to help your balance
It is common for older adults to have issues with balance. Good balance reduces the risk of falls.
“To improve balance, you need to perform balance activities for short periods of time throughout the day, as opposed to 10 to 15 minutes once a day,” said Robinson. He recommends the following balance activities, which can usually be done safely at home:
- Stand on both feet in front of a counter. Let go of the counter to see how long you can maintain your balance without grasping the counter. Repeat this activity three to five times throughout the day until you’ve built up to three 45-second periods. Once you’ve achieved this, move on to the next exercise.
- Repeat the balance exercise above, but this time close your eyes.
Yoga is also a common form of exercise known to improve balance, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Exercises older adults should avoid
Are there specific exercises older adults should avoid entirely? According to Stimac, the answer is generally, no.
“Contrary to common beliefs, there’s no need for older adults to shy away from any specific movements,” Stimac said. “The fear of injury should not deter them from engaging in strength training. Instead of focusing on limitations, we should explore what movements are suitable for each individual.”
If you have a disease, condition or injury that involves physical limitations, you should always follow the guidance of your medical doctor, but you can still find ways to achieve physical fitness. It simply requires modification and guidance.
Stimac says there’s no one-size-fits-all approach and that every aging person deserves a tailored program that enhances strength and ability while considering individual needs. “By embracing personalized plans and debunking myths, we empower older adults to lead active and fulfilling lives,” she said.