Fitness & Excercise

Exercise and Seniors

The first director of the National Institute on Aging, Robert Butler, says, “If exercise could be packed into a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed, and beneficial, medicine in the nation.” At age 74, Dr. Butler works more than 60 hours a week and exercises daily.

Exercise, if performed properly with the correct frequency and intensity, greatly benefits health. It improves cardiovascular fitness, reduces susceptibility to heart attacks and strokes, enhances carbohydrate metabolism, delays age-related deterioration of some muscles and bones, and improves brain function.

Contrary to what was previously believed, current research indicates that seniors do not need more rest than younger people. In fact, many studies have shown that prolonged bed rest, especially among frail elders, results in physical problems. Inactivity, long known to exacerbate problems, contributes to disease and disability. Some physiological changes commonly attributed to aging are, in reality, cause by reduced activity. As such, physician-guided activity and exercise can dramatically improve seniors’ overall health.

Studies show that no group in our population benefits more from exercise than seniors. Physiologically, a senior’s muscles are just as responsive to weight lifting as those of younger people. As in a younger body, stretching increases flexibility, coordination, and agility to expand the body’s freedom of movement. It also relaxes the body, both mentally and physically.

Unfortunately, many seniors avoid exercise because of mental obstacles. Among those most commonly cited are embarrassment, humiliation, self deprecation, confusion, self-doubt, and vanity. Some wrestle with unresolved psychological issues involving health and exercise. Medical practice, social customs, and more were radically different when seniors were born – they often cannot identify with the “exercise revolution.”

Facts about Exercise

  • Exercise makes us feel better and enjoy life more
  • Most adults do not get enough exercise
  • Lack of physical activity and poor diet, together, are the second largest underlying cause of death in the United States
  • Regular exercise can lessen the symptoms of certain underlying diseases and disabilities.
  • Exercise improves mood and relieves depression.
  • Staying physically active on a regular, permanent basis can help prevent or delay certain diseases (cancer, heart disease, diabetes) and disabilities.
  • Physical activity reduces incidence of constipation.

According to physicians, physical activity should be part of every senior’s daily routine. Norm Bouchard, CSA faculty member and former weight loss counselor, insists that a fitness regimen requires two qualities to help ensure seniors will persist at it:

  1. It needs to be attainable.
  2. It needs to be pleasurable.

Steps to Feeling Fit for Life

Almost everyone, regardless of age, should exercise. With few exceptions, nearly everyone can participate in some sort of activity that leads to improvements in health. Seniors who are not currently involved in exercise programs should consult with their physicians prior to undertaking new activities. Furthermore, seniors should seek exercise or activity programs that are specifically designed for them and are guided by instructors who are knowledgeable about aging and will protect frail muscles, tendons, and joints and make sure that their senior participants don’t fall.

Endurance Activities

Endurance Activityis defined as at least 30 minutes of daily activity that increases breathing and builds stamina, which supports independence and enjoyment of activities. The aerobic activities mentioned earlier – walking, biking, dancing, and the exercycle – are good examples of endurance activities. Using a treadmill in inclement weather and swimming to take pressure off the joints are also popular choices. Endurance activities can not only prevent or delay many age-related diseases, but may help fight chronic diseases and lessen their symptoms.

Lift Weights to Lift Aging Metabolism

A study conducted at Tufts University sheds light on why metabolism slows as people age. The findings show that the gradual loss of body cells, especially energy-consuming muscle cells, results in seniors burning fewer calories while at rest, which can lead to weight gain (Roubenoff et al., 2000). The study, published in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, showed a direct associated between metabolic rate and cell mass, also known as lean or fat-free mass. This result means that seniors may regain some of their youthful resting metabolic rate and help avoid obesity with regular muscle-building exercises (Roubenoff et al).

Keep Muscles Moving

Remember the old adage “Use it or lose it”? If not used, muscles waste away. Humans lose 20 to 40 percent of their muscle as they age. With this loss comes a loss of strength. Studies who that having sufficient muscle mass may mean the difference between seniors’ ability to get up from a chair and having to wait for someone to help them get up. Strong muscles reduce the risk of serious injuries such as falls that cause broken hips and other disabilities. In short, lack of muscle strength can greatly affect seniors’ ability to live independently.

Developing and Maintaining Good Balance

Balance is critical to seniors’ overall safety as they conduct their activities of daily living. Exercise programs geared specifically for seniors typically incorporate exercises to build balance.


Research shows that gentle stretching preserves flexibility, a vital factor in performing activities such as dressing, bathing, driving, and various household chores.

Functional Fitness

Functional fitness refers to the ability to successfully carry out specific, fundamental activities of daily living. Functional fitness relates to physical independence in terms of:

  • Mobility (standing, walking propelling a wheelchair).
  • Self-care (bathing, dressing, eating, etc.).
  • Maintaining a living environment (preparing meals, doing necessary housework, driving, reaching and lifting needed objects, etc.).
  • Pursuing life interests (gardening, caring for pets, playing with grandchildren, and recreational activities).

Beginning a functional fitness program before detectable disabilities set in can help seniors postpone or entirely avoid limitations. Even after functional losses begin, a fitness program can help seniors recover or partially recover certain capabilities. It may even halt or slow further declines. Functional fitness training is invaluable when it succeeds in lowering seniors’ risks for accidental falls.

Human balance involves visual, auditory, and other sensory receptors. It also relies upon body alignment (posture), strength, and flexibility. Many seniors have compromised balance, which may reduce their sense of security, comfort, and confidence when using exercise equipment. When choosing equipment to use, seniors should consider whether it is likely that they would work beyond their safe range of motion, which is the normal distance and direction through which a joint can move. This is especially important for participants who have arthritis or other joint-related problems. Some machines can be adjusted to accommodate varying ranges. For example, certain types of equipment include minimum-maximum adjustments so the subject’s range can be controlled as needed. Some manufacturers offer equipment specifically designed for senior and/or impaired adults.

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.