Exercise in the Later Years

If you haven’t been active for a long time, it’s important to start out at a low level of effort and work your way up slowly. Beginning slowly will help you become more fit without straining your body. For example, you may want to start with walking, biking or swimming at a comfortable pace and then gradually do more, or start strengthening exercises with 1- or 2-pound weights and gradually add heavier weights. You may want to talk with your doctor if you decide to start a vigorous exercise program or significantly increase your physical activity.

Exercise is safe for almost everyone. In fact, studies show that people with arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease benefit from regular exercise and physical activity. In some cases, exercise actually can improve some of these conditions. You may want to talk with your doctor about how your health condition might affect your ability to be active.

Regular physical activity is very important to the health and abilities of older people. In fact, studies show that “taking it easy” is risky. For the most part, when older people lose their ability to do things on their own, it doesn’t happen just because they’ve aged. It’s usually because they’re not active. 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.

The goal is to achieve at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity endurance activity on most or all days of the week. Every day is best, but doing anything is better than doing nothing at all. Try to do all four types of exercises—endurance, balance, flexibility and strength. Try to do strength exercises for all of your major muscle groups on two or more days a week for 30-minute sessions each, but don’t do strength exercises of the same muscle group two days in a row.

We can’t tell you exactly how many pounds to lift or how steep a hill you should climb to reach a moderate or vigorous level of exercise because what’s easy for one person might be difficult for another. You should match your activity to your own needs and abilities. Start from where you are and build up from there. Listen to your body. During moderate activity, for instance, you can sense that you are pushing yourself but that you aren’t near your limit. As you become more fit, gradually make your activities more difficult. Generally, the more vigorous the activity and the more time you spend doing it, the more health benefits you will receive.

Once you start being physically active, you’ll begin to see results in just a few weeks. You may feel stronger and more energetic than before. You may notice that you can do things more easily, faster or for longer than before. As you become more fit, you may need to make your activities more challenging to see additional results.

One way to find out is to keep an activity log. List physical activities you do each day that get your body moving, such as yard work, walking the dog, raking leaves, or climbing stairs. Also include any weight training or exercise classes. There are many ways to be active every day. The log will help you see if you are doing all four of the major types of exercises regularly. Then you can increase your level of effort over time.

Research shows that exercise and physical activity can maintain and even improve your health. For example, exercise and physical activity can help you manage and even prevent diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis.

You’re more likely to keep going if you choose activities you enjoy, if you can fit them into your schedule, if you believe you’ll benefit from them, and if you feel you can do them safely and correctly. Making a contract with a friend or family member also may help you keep your commitment. Setting small, realistic goals, checking your progress and rewarding yourself when you reach your goal also can help. If you can stick with an exercise routine or physical activity for at least six months, it’s a good sign that you’re on your way to making physical activity a regular habit.

There are a number of ways to fit exercise and physical activity into your schedule. For example, exercise first thing in the morning before your day gets too busy, or combine physical activity with a task that’s already part of your day, such as walking the dog or doing household chores. If you don’t have 30 minutes in your daily routine to be active, look for three 10-minute periods.

For many activities, you don’t need any equipment or special clothing. All you need for brisk walking, for example, is a pair of comfortable, non-skid shoes. For strength training, you can make your own weights from unbreakable household items. Many communities offer free or low-cost programs for seniors. Check with your local parks and recreation department or senior center about the facilities and programs in your area. In addition, some local fitness centers may offer senior discounts.

If you miss a few days or weeks of exercise because of an injury or illness, don’t be discouraged. Once you recover, you can start again and be successful. Talk with your doctor about when you can resume your regular routine. When you start again, begin at about half the effort you were putting in when you stopped, then gradually build back up. With a little time, you’ll be back at the same, or a better, fitness level.

Once you become active, you’re likely to have more energy than before. As you do more, you also may notice that you can do things more easily, faster and for longer than before. Regular, moderate physical activity can help reduce fatigue and even help you manage stress.

As your body gets used to a level of exercise, you’ll need to vary your exercise or do more in order to see additional progress. If you are able, do your activities longer, farther or harder. Do the activities more often or add new physical activities to your routine.

Yes, staying active is important throughout life. Regular exercise and physical activity help you stay strong and fit enough to keep doing the things you enjoy. No matter what your age, you can find activities that meet your fitness level and needs.

Look for sensible shoes that support your feet. Make sure they have flat, non-skid soles and are comfortable. Avoid shoes with thick, heavy soles. If tying laces is difficult, look for shoes with Velcro® fasteners. When you buy shoes, try on several pairs so that you’re sure to get a pair that fits well.

Most people tend to focus on one type of exercise or activity and think they’re doing enough. Try to do all four types—endurance, strength, flexibility and balance—because each one has different benefits. Doing one kind also can improve your ability to do the others. In addition, variety helps reduce boredom and risk of injury.

There are many ways to be active. The key is to find activities you truly enjoy. If you prefer individual activities, try swimming, gardening or walking. Dancing or playing tennis may be for you if you enjoy two-person activities. If group activities appeal to you, try a sport such as basketball or join an exercise class. Some people find that going to a gym regularly or working with a fitness trainer helps them stay motivated.

You can do all kinds of physical activities. Try walking, water exercises, dancing or weight lifting. Anything that gets you moving—even for only a few minutes a day in the beginning—is a healthy start. Very large people may face special challenges. For example, you may not be able to bend or move easily, or you may feel self-conscious. Facing these challenges is hard—but it can be done. Feel good about what you can do, and pat yourself on the back for trying. It should get easier.

Eating a nutritious diet and maintaining a healthy weight are only part of a healthy lifestyle. Regular physical activity is important to the physical and mental health of almost everyone, including older adults. Being physically active can help you stay strong and fit enough to keep doing the things you enjoy and to stay independent as you get older. Together, healthy habits such as physical activity, a balanced diet and not smoking will help you achieve the best of health.