Exercise for Seniors: Starting and Maintaining an Active Lifestyle

Senior Care

At every age, exercise is an essential component of how we care for our bodies. As we grow older, it can feel as though our ability to exercise is shifting, or even declining. This can lead some seniors to believe that they’re “too old” to exercise, but this is a misconception. No one is “too old” to move their body - in fact, a lack of exercise can have negative impacts on seniors’ bodies, like an increased risk of falls, muscle loss, and weight gain in areas that affect heart health, like the midsection.

It’s understandable for inactive seniors to feel some hesitation about starting an exercise routine. Reasons for this hesitation might include a fear of falling, feeling limited by their mobility, or the sense that exercise is pointless since their bodies are only going to continue aging. But there are lots of ways for seniors to tackle these fears and challenges, find motivation, and exercise safely and effectively in order to enjoy both the physical and mental benefits of working out.

Whether you’re looking to start an exercise routine of your own, or you want to help a senior loved one make a plan to stay active, this post is a great place to begin. We’ll discuss how to get started, how to choose and modify exercises, how to stay inspired, and how to build an all-around healthy lifestyle. 

Before Beginning, Check In

Prior to starting an exercise routine, it’s important that seniors check in with their doctors about what forms of exercise it’s safe for them to engage in. Not only can physicians advise seniors as to what activities or movements they should avoid, but they can also suggest certain ways of moving that might be particularly useful in helping seniors feel stronger and healthier. 

It’s also a good idea for seniors to check in with their bodies before establishing an exercise regimen. Checking in with your body can include:

  • Being honest with yourself about your starting point. Seniors who are fairly sedentary will start exercising at a different intensity level than seniors who play badminton four times a week - and that’s completely okay! The important thing is to know where you are, so you can make a realistic plan about where you’re going to go while making sure not to put a strain on your body. 

  • Asking yourself what your strengths are. Perhaps your endurance in aerobic activity is reasonably high, or maybe your balance and flexibility are quite good. It’s possible that some forms of exercise will be easier and more comfortable than others, and you’ll want to keep that in mind as you make a fitness plan. 

  • Record your current activity levels, and use this record to brainstorm ways to increase activity. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) has an activity log worksheet ready to print. 

  • Set goals. The NIA advises setting both short-term and long-term goals when committing to an exercise plan. 

Choose Activities Wisely

We all know that it’s harder to stick to a routine you don’t enjoy. When creating an exercise plan, it’s important to choose forms of movement that are at least tolerable, if not pleasurable. Seniors should aim to choose activities that foster feelings of strength, wellness, and capability, not activities that inspire dread or feelings of defeat.

For some, nearly all types of exercise are uninspiring or unenjoyable. Seniors who feel this way can try to bring more enjoyment to working out by incorporating some form of entertainment into their exercise routines. This may mean listening to music, an audiobook, or a podcast while going for a walk, watching television while working out at home, or conversing while exercising with a friend or family member. This website has a number of other suggestions to help make exercising more interesting and exciting. Another option is to join an exercise class, which will make working out a social activity. 

Fitness trackers like Fitbits can also be a motivational tool for seniors who’d like to have a record of their daily activity. Seniors who aren’t interested in wearable fitness trackers might still wish to keep an activity log using MyFitnessPal or another app that can be used to document exercise. 

Exercise Routines Should Be Well-Rounded

According to the NIA, there are four key types of exercise that everyone should try to engage in: balance, endurance, flexibility, and strength. A good exercise routine should be built with elements of each. 

Activities that focus on balance include yoga and tai chi. The NIA has examples of simple balance exercises that are easy to do at home, as does the Mayo Clinic

Endurance exercise consists of cardiovascular/aerobic activity. According to the NHS , options for endurance exercise seniors might wish to explore include things like jogging or running, dancing, hiking, and swimming. At-home aerobic workouts are also an option and can be completed by following videos - just make sure the video includes activities at an appropriate level. Ideally, look for videos that are specifically for seniors. 

When it comes to flexibility, yoga is a great choice. Seniors may also wish to follow along with this video from the NIA, which demonstrates six different exercises to improve flexibility. Additionally, Eldergym has a comprehensive list of both upper- and lower-body stretches for flexibility. 

Strength training can be done using free weights, kettlebells, or resistance bands - or just bodyweight! If using free weights, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that women begin with 2 pound weights and men begin with 3 pound weights. The CDC also has a comprehensive strength training plan , which includes both exercises that use weights like bicep curls and overhead presses, as well as bodyweight exercises like squats and toe stands. 

It’s crucial that every exercise routine includes both a warm-up and a cool down. Warm ups should be at least ten minutes long - and there’s no reason not to make them longer, especially if you’re just getting back into physical activity after a sedentary period. The Cleveland Clinic recommends “arm and leg swings” and “trunk rotations” as effective, simple warm-ups. Eldergym also has recommendations for warm-up stretches , and walking (briskly, if possible) is always a great way to increase your heart rate. 

Walking is also a good way to begin a cool down. Cool downs should take at least five minutes - longer in warmer weather - and should involve stretching out all the muscles you used while you were active. Many of the stretches you use during warm-ups can also be used during cool downs. 

Modify As Much As Needed

Don’t be afraid to modify exercises to suit your ability. If an exercise video asks you to do ten lunges, and you know that will be difficult for your body, go ahead and do five instead. If balancing exercises are a challenge, start out by doing them while holding onto the back of a chair or placing a hand against a wall. If aerobic activity seems particularly daunting, go out and take a short walk around the block at whatever pace is comfortable for you. You can build up to longer or harder exercises - the most important thing is that you’re moving your body. 

Some seniors, particularly those who struggle with mobility, may feel like exercise just isn’t in the cards for them, but this isn’t true. There are low impact exercise variations, such as chair exercises , which can be performed while seated. Chair exercises include modified traditional exercises as well as some forms of movement specifically designed to be done while sitting. For seniors who find that most activities present difficulty, even with modifications, consulting with their doctor and a physiotherapist can help them build a personalized exercise plan. 

Modifications are also very useful after bouts of illness or injury. It’s unlikely that seniors will be able to jump back into an exercise routine with the same amount of energy, stamina, or strength that they had prior to falling ill or being injured. It’s important to ease back in slowly, and not push your body beyond its limits on any given day. 

No matter what activities you’re doing, remember to listen to your body. Exercise should not cause chest pain/pressure, a sensation like heartburn, or dizziness, according to the NIA

Practice Other Healthy Habits

Exercise is only one of the ways seniors can take care of their bodies. Keeping your body moving will be easier and the benefits you experience will be greater if you engage in other healthy habits, too, like getting enough sleep consistently, eating a balanced diet, cutting back on drinking, and quitting smoking. A well-rested, well-nourished body is able to absorb even more benefits from exercising, like improving the symptoms of chronic illnesses , maintaining a healthy weight , increasing strength, balance, and energy , and improving mental health