Regular exercise is beneficial for most everyone at any age. When you’re young, exercise helps set a foundation of basic health and creates a good habit of physical activity that carries with you for a lifetime. When you’re older, you might engage in different types of activities, but the benefits are still the same.
At any age, exercise helps keep your body fit and capable, your mind sharp, and lowers the incidence of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Just one hour of activity per week reduces the incidence of Alzheimer’s, according to Dr. Hanh Nguyen, a geriatrician at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco.
There are four basic categories of exercise, and a complete exercise program should include all four, regardless of age:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends incorporating each of these exercise categories on a regular schedule to get to benefits of all of them.
You might not be training for a half-marathon, but regular aerobic exercise can enable you to follow around your grandchildren on trips to the park, keep up with chores in the yard, and explore the beaches and trails on your next vacation trip. Strength training enables you to carry shopping bags from the car into the house, push the lawnmower, and pick up your grandchild for a hug. Flexibility helps you look back when backing up the car, reach for the item on the top shelf at the store, and bend down to clean the hard-to-reach places at home.
The CDC guidelines say we all need at least 2 ½ hours of moderate aerobic activity and two strength training sessions per week. Exercise becomes more important after age 50, since good muscle tone helps to maintain balance and prevent falls. According to the CDC, over one out of three people age 65 or over fall each year, often resulting in bone fractures.
Muscle strength is retained and can be increased well into one’s 60s, 70s, and beyond. A study of 80-year-old women in New Zealand showed a 40 percent reduction in falls with strength and balance training. A study at Tufts University of postmenopausal women showed a 75 percent increase in strength and 13 percent improvement in balance with two days per week of strength training.
If you’re new to exercise or haven’t worked out in a while, your first activity should be a checkup with your physician, says Dr. Marc Leavey, a primary-care specialist. Dr. Leavey also suggests consulting a trainer to ensure you’re picking the right exercises and performing them correctly.
A way to increase motivation is to exercise with others. Join with a friend or three and work out together, or attend a class. A variety of exercises makes working out more interesting, and also keeps your body challenged. Zumba, spinning, swimming, and yoga are different ways to increase aerobic fitness, balance, and flexibility. It also helps to set realistic and attainable goals, enough to keep you challenged but not so high that you become discouraged and quit.
If 2 ½ hours of activity sounds like a lot, you can break it up into chunks throughout the week or even throughout the day. Incorporating physical activity into your everyday life, 10 minutes at a time, can add up to important benefits.
For more information
For detailed exercise plans and suggestions for older adults, visit the CDC’s exercise guidelines page.