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Exercises for Older Adults

Fitness Is Ageless

“If the benefits of exercise could be captured in a pill, everyone would take it,” says Cardiologist R. K. Mutharasan, MD, Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

While it’s healthy at any age, exercise becomes more important as you get older.

“Exercise maintains your quality of life and independence as you age,” says Erin Szafranski, physical therapist, Northwestern Medicine River North Outpatient Physical Therapy Clinic. “It combats the musculoskeletal changes that everyone experiences with age and empowers you to spend more time doing the things you love.”

For older adults, exercise can:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduce risk of coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure
  • Help manage symptoms of diabetes
  • Strengthen bones
  • Improve coordination, decreasing risk of falls
  • Improve quality of sleep
  • Improve short-term memory
  • Decrease depression

Benefits aside, it’s tough to take the first steps.

Start Here

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week for cardiovascular health. Keep these guidelines in mind, but tailor your exercise plan to fit your preexisting health conditions and physical abilities.

Szafranski suggests your workout routine include:

1. Moderate-intensity aerobic activity.

“It’s important to define what moderate intensity means for your age and abilities,” she says. “During moderate aerobic activity, you should be able to talk but not sing.”

Examples of moderate aerobic activities for older adults include:

  • A 30-minute walk, five times per week
  • Riding a stationary bicycle
  • Aquatic group exercise

Does it have to be low-impact?

“We typically suggest low-impact exercise for older adults to prevent falls and injury due to lower bone density, but there is no blanket answer because I know 90-year-olds who run marathons,” says Szafranski. “Consult your physician before starting a high-impact exercise routine.”

2. Muscle-strengthening exercises.

“I recommend strength training twice a week for older adults,” says Szafranski. “Use dumbbells or resistance bands, and target all major muscle groups: upper body, lower body and core.”

This could look like:

  • Five upper-body exercises, eight repetitions each
  • Five lower-body exercises, eight repetitions each
  • Two core exercises, eight repetitions each

3. Balance training.

The ability to balance drastically decreases after age 65, putting people in this age group at greater risks for falls.

“Balancing on each foot for one minute per day makes a great impact,” says Szafranski.

Other exercises that help with balance include:

  • Gentle yoga
  • Tai Chi

How to Stay Motivated

Make it easy. Convenience and accessibility are key. There are many gyms and community centers that offer discounts for older adults. Find somewhere that’s easy to get to, so you’re more likely to return.

Set structure. Set a specific place and time for exercise. Structure, like a weekly physical therapy appointment or a group exercise class, will hold you accountable.

Find a community. Locate a fitness center with offerings for older adults, and make friends along the way.

Consult a physician, certified physical therapist or personal trainer to find an exercise routine that works for you and your life.