I. Why Exercise Matters For Seniors Who Are Aging in Place

If you’ve made the decision to spend your senior years at home, rather than moving into a senior living community, you may have trouble keeping fit and healthy. If daily exercise hasn’t been part of your regular routine before, starting a senior wellness plan after age 65 brings special challenges. Living on your own at home, you may not feel that you have the support you need to start an exercise plan, or you may have an age-related physical condition that makes it hard to start. You could even believe some of the more common myths about seniors and fitness and let that get in the way of starting a healthy workout program. But you’re never too old to start healthy habits, and there’s plenty of support available to help you get moving and stay active for the rest of your life.

Physical exercise is one of the most important components of living a healthy lifestyle. This is true for anyone, but it’s especially the case for seniors, whose bodies need special attention to stay fit and healthy. The amount of exercise people report getting tends to decline with age. Nearly 27% of seniors aged 65-74 report getting no physical exercise in their free time, and more than 35% of seniors aged 75 and over get similarly little exercise. This is a problem for many seniors because inactivity tends to complicate a number of age-related chronic illnesses, such as stroke, coronary heart disease, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and depressive disorder.

Older adults who live in a residential care facility have help readily available to get the exercise they need. Staff caregivers, physical therapists and nurses are on hand at assisted living, skilled nursing and even memory care facilities to help seniors get the exercise they need. Older adults who are aging in place, however, can easily fall behind in their fitness and exercise goals. Seniors who live independently have only themselves and their personal support groups to help them keep on track and get the exercise they need to stay healthy.

II. Wellness Programs for Seniors Aging in Place

The purpose of a wellness program is to improve your health and overall fitness, mainly through preventive efforts such as daily exercise and a good diet. Businesses frequently put together employee wellness programs for employees, and several insurance companies encourage their policyholders to take part in a program to keep up their general level of fitness. Even after retirement, seniors can still benefit from sticking to a solid wellness program, but it may take more self-motivation than a plan that includes coworkers.

There are a lot of benefits for seniors who adopt a wellness plan that includes regular physical exercise. No matter what level of fitness you’re starting from, any improvement in a daily wellness routine has both physical and mental benefits, some of which can make a major difference in long-term health.

Physical Benefits of Exercise for Seniors

The most obvious improvements seniors get from regular exercise are physical. The physical benefits of exercise cut across several areas of fitness, and some can be surprising. Even gradual improvements in each of these areas can make a major difference in how you feel and how well you manage chronic health conditions. Common physical effects of exercise for seniors aging in place include:

  • Reduced risk of falls and broken bones
  • Increased physical ability and independence
  • Reduced risk of diabetes, colon cancer and heart disease
  • Improved blood pressure, especially for seniors at risk of hypertension
  • Reduced joint swelling and pain caused by arthritis
  • Continued bone, muscle and joint health
  • Improved stamina and physical strength

Mental Benefits of Exercise for Seniors

The positive physical effects of exercise get most of the attention, but adopting a senior wellness program that includes daily exercise has mental health benefits as well. Some of these benefits are especially meaningful for seniors who live on their own and may be struggling with mood and cognitive disorders. Improvements to mental health from regular exercise can include:

  • Reduced anxiety and panic disorders
  • Improved depression symptoms
  • Better mood and feelings of well-being
  • Better cognition and memory, or slower declines in both
  • Improved self-confidence

Debunking Some Common Myths About Seniors and Exercise

There are a lot of myths surrounding seniors and exercise. Some of these have a germ of truth in them, such as the fact seniors have to be extra careful to avoid falls. Other myths are totally false, and belief in them can get in the way of independent seniors who would otherwise start a new fitness regimen with confidence. Below are some of the common myths about seniors and exercise.

Myth: Exercise isn’t safe for seniors.

Reality: While it’s true that seniors may have more difficulty with some activities, such as taking the stairs or jogging on slick pavement, properly managed exercise shouldn’t be more dangerous for seniors than it is for any other adult. Always check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program to make sure your heart, lungs and joints can handle the impact, and take care not to overdo it, especially when you’re just starting out.

Myth: Exercise doesn’t benefit seniors the way it does younger people.

Reality: Seniors’ bodies respond to exercise in much the same way as any other adults, even if there are minor differences. Seniors may burn fewer calories while resting, largely due to the reduced muscle mass that happens with age, but exercise helps make up some of that gap. Older adults who keep up a regular exercise program are likely to lose fat, build or keep muscle and keep up their respiratory and circulatory health better than those who don’t.

Myth: Seniors are fragile.

Reality: Muscle mass and bone density decline with advancing age. Over the long term, this can leave seniors vulnerable to broken bones and strained muscles from activities that were never problematic before. That said, the myth that seniors are physically or mentally fragile is largely exaggerated. Even seniors who begin their wellness programs from a position of moderate physical decline can still gradually work up to a better level of fitness and resilience with exercise. Specific exercises that may be too demanding for typical seniors can even be modified to have a lower impact and put less strain on seniors’ bodies.

Myth: Seniors don’t have enough energy to exercise.

Reality: Seniors frequently feel less energetic than they did when they were younger. Even normal physical activities can make seniors feel tired, and getting up and staying active can be daunting at times. Regular exercise, however, can fight those feelings of fatigue and lethargy. Exercise can increase energy at every age, and starting up a regular workout program can help seniors’ bodies use energy more efficiently and do work with less strain.

Myth: There’s no point in getting exercise after a certain age.

Reality: Exercise has benefits at every age, and it’s almost never too late to improve a senior’s level of activity. One marathon runner, Fauja Singh from East London, ran his first marathon in 2000 at the age of 88. He was still competing in distance races in 2013 when he was 101 years old.

Myth: Normal physical activity is enough for most seniors.

Reality: While it’s good to be active throughout the day, there’s really no substitute for having a dedicated period of exercise. Normal walking and other activities are generally positive, but it is especially helpful to raise your heart rate with exercise for at least 30 minutes a day as part of a sustained aerobic exercise program.

III. Guidelines for Seniors' Exercise

Seniors who are just getting started on an exercise program should keep several guidelines in mind. These are not hard-and-fast rules that must be obeyed but rather general principles to aim toward that can help many seniors keep themselves safe as they ramp up their physical activity.

Talk to Your Doctor 

In addition to the good advice a doctor can give you about starting a physical fitness program, ongoing medical consultations can help you keep track of your gains and watch out for signs of trouble. If, for instance, a particular exercise starts to cause pain or induces a muscle strain that gets in the way of keeping up the activity, your doctor can help you work around the difficulty or advise you when to stop a particular workout routine.

Start Slow  

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your stamina and strength. The good news is that it doesn’t take long to notice improvements in how you breathe, how far you walk before tiring, how much you can lift without straining and how far you can reach and twist with ease. Use these markers as a measurement of your success and a sign that it’s time to add more activity to your routine.

Include Cardio, Strength, Flexibility and Balance Training

A balanced approach to exercise is the best approach. Incorporate different types of movements and activities into your routine to prevent overworking the body in one way. For instance, if you only strength train, you may end up with tight, inflexible muscles that could result in frequent strains. And if you only perform aerobic exercise, you may not develop the strength needed to maintain your independence as you age.

Be Consistent 

Per the Center for Disease Control, seniors should move

  • At a moderate intensity for at least 2 ½ hours or 150 minutes a week. Brisk walking, for instance, for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week is recommended.
  • At a vigorous-intensity, as in jogging, aim for 75 minutes per week.

Both strength training and balance training are also suggested 2 – 3 times weekly. If all that seems like a lot, the CDC says, “Keep in mind, some physical activity is better than none at all.” If all you can consistently manage is 30 minutes of exercise three times a week, do that. Add more time and days when you feel ready. Be consistent with your rest days as well. A heart-pumping workout every other day gives your body time to recover from the exertion.

IV. Activities for Older Adults

There’s no end to the variety of exercises seniors can try as part of their normal fitness program as long their health and physical ability allows for it. There are four types of exercise activities:

  • Endurance
  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Balance exercises

Aerobic exercise is good for building up endurance, as it helps the heart and lungs work better and deliver oxygen more efficiently to the body. Strength training builds muscle and helps keep up bone density. Flexibility exercises can improve range of motion and resist the general stiffness that gets more common with age. Balance exercises help reduce the risk of falls and generally work to maintain coordination and control over the body.

Each of these types of exercise has its benefits for seniors, and it’s generally good to incorporate all of them into any wellness program. Always consult with a doctor before starting a new type of exercise. It may be helpful to enlist the help of a physical trainer to learn the safest body mechanics for a new routine.

Type of Exercise Benefits for Seniors How Often Should It Be Performed?
Walking or hiking
  • Basic aerobic exercise
  • Elevated heart rate can improve stroke volume and make circulation more efficient, resulting in a lower resting heart rate
  • Improved muscle tone in the lower body
  • Fresh air and social benefits from walking or hiking with friends
As often as possible. Aim for 75 – 150 minutes per week.
Bicycle riding (stationary or outdoors)
  • Many of the same benefits as walking but at higher impact levels and potentially greater benefit
  • Allows for sustained aerobic exercise with brief rest periods that can improve endurance
At least 30 minutes per session, three sessions a week.
Water aerobics
  • Low-impact/low-strain aerobics that can reduce the risk of injury for beginners and encourage a longer or more demanding performance from experienced senior athletes
  • Helpful for keeping active for seniors recovering from injuries or surgery
As often as desired. Try to supplement regular aerobic exercise with water activities.
Work-based activities, such as yard work or home improvement tasks
  • Improve muscle mass and tone
  • Slow bone density loss
  • Improve cardiac and respiratory health
As needed. Use this as a supplement to a regular exercise program and don’t overdo it.
Lifting weights (upper body)
  • Improved arm, shoulder and core strength
  • Better muscle tone and definition
  • Increased lifting strength
Twice a week, on non-aerobic exercise days. Alternate with lower-body weight training.
Lifting weights (lower body)
  • Stronger muscles in the legs
  • Improved endurance for walking, hiking and bicycling
  • Potentially improved blood flow to the lower extremities and reduction of varicose veins, spider veins and other circulatory issues
Twice a week, on non-aerobic exercise days. Alternate with upper-body weight training.
Resistance training
  • All the benefits of lifting weights
  • Improves seniors’ control over their level of exertion
Include resistance training on days when weight training is not scheduled. Use as a supplement during aerobic exercise days, three times a week.
Push-ups, pull-ups and other isometric exercises
  • Targeted strength and endurance improvements for specific muscle groups
  • Reduced loss of bone density in the target areas
As often as desired. Because these exercises rarely require equipment to perform, they can be done almost anywhere on short notice and are a viable supplement to a standard weight training regimen.
Yoga
  • Increases dexterity and flexibility
  • May improve joint strength and overall health
  • Better mood and motivation for a comprehensive fitness program
As often as is comfortable. Avoid strains caused by overexertion, but otherwise, there is no upper limit to yoga beyond personal comfort.

V. Special Considerations for Seniors With Chronic Health Conditions

Seniors can be active at all levels of health, and this includes those with chronic illnesses and limiting physical disabilities. Some health conditions demand special considerations, and some types of exercise are good for certain age-related conditions. The table below lists several of these, along with some of the most popular exercises for each.

Condition Exercise Type Benefits for the Condition
Recovery from COVID-19 Light aerobic exercise (walking, water aerobics) Exercising gently helps recover respiratory health.
Osteoarthritis Moderate weight training Lifting weights under a doctor or therapist’s supervision can improve joint health and reduce bone density loss.
Type-2 diabetes Aerobic exercise The improved metabolic function that comes with aerobic exercise can reduce the risk of developing diabetes. It can also help the body process sugar and limit the damage high blood sugar causes. Secondary benefits include improved blood flow to the extremities.
Hypertension Aerobic exercise Regular aerobic exercise improves circulation, heart health and metabolism and encourages weight loss for seniors with obesity as a risk factor.
Recovery from cancer Aerobic exercise/strength training/yoga Aerobic exercise promotes a higher general level of health, which may speed recovery from cancer and the effects of its treatment. Regular exercise, including yoga, also improves mood and mental health, which can be serious considerations for people recovering from cancer.
Parkinson’s disease Light aerobic exercise/yoga Aerobic exercise done in moderation and with appropriate supervision can help maintain a high level of health overall, and yoga is helpful for motor control and balance improvements.
Stroke recovery Isometric and strength training The physical effects of a stroke can leave parts of the body weakened or paralyzed. Strength training, often with resistance bands or other isometric exercises, can be part of the physical therapy involved in recovery.
Multiple sclerosis Aerobic exercise/strength training/yoga Because the symptoms of multiple sclerosis are so varied  and they can suddenly affect almost any part of the body, most forms of exercise are helpful in limiting the disability of MS or in helping speed recovery when paralysis passes.
Spinal cord injury Aerobic exercise/isometric exercise Aerobic exercise works the whole body, which encourages nerve transmission in a damaged spinal cord. Isometric exercise tends to target specific areas where nerve damage may be the most pronounced.
Alzheimer’s disease/dementia Light aerobic exercise/yoga Light aerobic exercise and yoga can be social activities that encourage seniors with dementia to interact with other people and their surroundings.

Notes About Exercising With Chronic Conditions

Older adults frequently have to manage age-related chronic health conditions. Many of these conditions can get in the way of starting or sticking to an exercise program. Several of these conditions require special accommodations for exercises to be safe and effective. Some of the more common health issues seniors may have to work around include the following.

Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias

Alzheimer’s disease develops over time and generally becomes more severe as it progresses. Seniors with mild or early-stage dementia may not have to take any special measures to keep up an exercise program while seniors with advanced dementia may not be able to exercise on their own at all. Between these points on the spectrum, seniors can balance their exercise needs against a range of limitations.

Sticking to a workout routine can be hard for seniors with impaired memories. Working out with a partner, or under the supervision of a caregiver or physical therapist, can help with workout reminders and safe exercise routines. Physical limitations caused by Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or other dementias may force modifications of regular exercises, such as substituting crunches for sit-ups or using a stationary bicycle instead of riding alone on a trail.

Arthritis

The stiffness and joint pain that comes with arthritis are unfortunately common among seniors. Roughly 1 in 4 American adults has some degree of arthritis, with more than 43% of seniors living with some limitations caused by the disease. Arthritis gradually damages the joints and causes pain that can prevent seniors from getting enough exercise.

Exercising with arthritis can be difficult. Seniors working around the disease’s physical limitations may have to switch to a lower-impact set of exercises. Consider walking as an alternative to jogging or investing in a powered bike rather than struggling with a pedal-powered one on difficult trails. Swimming and weight training are also beneficial low-impact exercises that can help reduce inflammation in the joints.

COPD

COPD results from damage to the lungs and may limit a senior’s ability to get enough air for exercise. Struggling to keep up a good breathing rate makes most aerobic exercise difficult, and it’s likely to limit the intensity and time you can keep up a workout.

Seniors with COPD may be able to manage mild symptoms by using a prescription inhaler during exercise. More severe symptoms may require seniors to work out in shorter sessions, such as two 15-minute bouts with a rest in between, instead of longer blocks of sustained effort. Some seniors can get relief while exercising by carrying along an oxygen A-cylinder in a sling or harness that doesn’t get in the way of walking and conditioning exercises.

Diabetes

More than 29% of seniors (or nearly 16 million people) have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. This disease affects the body’s sensitivity to the digestive enzyme insulin, which normally breaks down sugar and helps produce energy for an exercising body. Diabetes is a manageable chronic condition, but left untreated, it can restrict blood flow and cause system-wide health problems, especially for seniors.

If your diabetes can be controlled with diet, exercise and medication, you may not have to take any special measures to keep up your workouts with the disease. If the condition is not under control, any changes to diet or exercise should be under the direction of your doctor, who can help you plan a healthy, safe way to improve blood sugar and metabolism through some combination of strategies. If diabetes has caused physical damage, such as restricted blood flow to the extremities, peripheral neuralgia or loss of a limb, a physical therapist can help devise exercises tailored to the specific limitations you’re dealing with.

Heart Disease

Heart disease is a leading cause of death among American adults, and physical inactivity is a leading cause of preventable heart disease. It is important to keep up a regular program of aerobic exercise to manage the symptoms and progression of coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure and other common cardiac conditions.

Because exercise elevates the heart rate and this can be dangerous for adults with partially blocked coronary arteries, consulting with a doctor about starting an exercise plan is more important than it is with many other chronic health conditions. Before starting a new exercise program or changing the program you’re already on, see either your primary care doctor or a cardiologist for a heart stress test and physical agility testing. Discuss the exercises you plan to start doing, and ask for advice for how to limit the impact of exercise on your heart. Your doctor may recommend lower-impact aerobic exercises and limited weight training to keep down the strain.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a common age-related disease that sees gradually decreasing bone density all over the body, especially in the joints. While the condition usually starts slowly, the gradual loss of calcium can weaken bones and make exercise physically dangerous.

If you have osteoporosis, consider reducing the strain on your bones with lower-impact aerobic exercise and lifting lighter weights during strength training. Avoid sudden loading of bones with too much weight, including the weight of your own body as you jog or play sports. Check regularly with your doctor for bone density assessments to make sure you can safely keep up the level of activity you’re used to.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain can be a mysterious condition that doesn’t have an obvious cause. Sometimes, it can be caused by nerve damage, either from injury or another chronic condition such as diabetes. Seniors who live with pain may find it almost impossible to perform even limited physical activities. Apart from the pain itself, some of the medications most commonly prescribed to manage chronic pain can cause lethargy, a lack of motivation or even a loss of balance and other negative side effects.

Exercising around chronic pain is often a matter of keeping a flexible schedule to get exercise in when the pain is at its least severe or modifying normal exercises to keep from exacerbating the pain. Physical and occupational therapists may be able to help you devise your own exercise methods to get around the pain, and you may be able to work out during periods that are relatively pain free. Consult with your doctor if exercise makes your pain any worse.

Mobility Limitations

Nearly 14% of American seniors have some degree of mobility loss that rises to the level of a disability. The limits this puts on physical activities are fairly obvious, but higher levels of disability can make it hard to get any meaningful exercise at all. Many mobility-impaired seniors need a wheelchair or other assistive device to get around, for example, which makes walking, jogging and other aerobic exercise hard to manage.

There are a lot of senior chair exercises for older adults with limited mobility, and several government and nonprofit organizations exist to help seniors learn about them and plan a wellness program around them. In addition to sitting chair exercises, seniors with a limited ability to walk can try water aerobics and other alternatives to jogging, such as a hand-powered bicycle or even a pedal-powered wheelchair for seniors with less than total leg disabilities.

VI. Tips for Starting an Exercise Program

There’s a lot more to starting a senior exercise program than just knowing the right exercises to do. Studies have found that up to 50% of adults who start an exercise program stop doing it within 18 months, with numbers even higher for seniors starting their first wellness program. Any major shift in lifestyle requires determination and persistence to succeed. Knowing this and applying any combination of senior exercise strategies can improve the odds that your new exercise program can be sustained over the long term and become a regular part of your daily routine.

Enlist Support From Your Network

Many people are reluctant to tell others about starting a new exercise routine for fear they won’t be able to stick to it. Before you start a program of regular aerobic exercise, try telling your family and friends about your intentions and asking them to help you keep it up. They can do this by asking you about your program when they see you or even by following you on any one of a number of downloadable apps that share your fitness results with friends to keep you accountable.

Work With a Therapist 

Physical  and occupational therapists are health professionals who can teach you safe exercise techniques and help you find your current ability level. They can also usually recommend equipment, such as free weights and resistance bands, you can use to get the most out of your ability level. Many also have tips for keeping activity logs you can consult to see how much progress you’ve made.

Start at Home

If you’re uncomfortable exercising around others, start at home with movements such as calisthenics and stretching. Practice movements at your comfort level, and take breaks as needed. Rest for a day afterwards to let your body adjust to your new routine. As you become more confident and comfortable, consider working out outside of your home and even with others for additional benefits.

Exercise With Others

The support you get from others doesn’t have to be passive. Consider asking friends to join you for scheduled morning walks or jogs or setting up a regular meetup at the local pool. Having a partner you don’t want to let down can help motivate you to get going on days when you’re tempted to skip the exercise. Workout partners are also good to have for fitness challenges, which can motivate you to keep making progress in your workout routine. Aside from keeping you company and building friendships around a shared interest, exercising with others can improve the safety of your workout.

Join a Gym

Buying a new set of weights or exercise equipment can be prohibitively expensive for seniors on a fixed income. It is also too easy to skip a workout when you’re at home with nobody to encourage you. You can get around both of these issues in the beginning by joining a gym. Public workout centers usually have more exercise equipment than you can reasonably get for yourself, and the energy you get from being around others can help motivate you during your sessions. Many gyms also offer senior discounts, which helps with finding space in the budget for exercise. Some Medicare Advantage insurance plans may also help pay for a gym membership.

Take a Class

There are several types of classes you can sign up for that may help you get into a regular exercise routine. Senior dance, tai chi, and strength training, other related activities bring you together with a skilled instructor and a peer group interested in many of the same goals. Check out your local senior center to see what they offer.

Track Your Progress

Seeing the progress your workout is making for you is a great motivator. Consider keeping a journal or use a fitness tracking device or app to record your progress and encourage you to keep at it.