Physical Activity for People Age 65 and Older

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Physical Activity for People Age 65 and Older

It's never too late to start getting active. Being fit is important to everyone. You can benefit from physical activity even if you think of yourself as "elderly" or you already have conditions such as osteoarthritis or heart disease. Being more active may improve your quality of life and can prevent or delay disability.

You can work on all three areas of fitness: aerobic fitness, muscle strengthening, and flexibility. Follow these general guidelines:

  • Talk to your doctor before starting a fitness program. You may have health problems that limit what you can do.
  • Don't overdo it! If it hurts, stop. Some minor soreness or stiffness is to be expected at first, but pain is a warning sign to stop.
  • If you have been inactive for years, start with about 5 to 10 minutes of activity at a time, and increase your time as you get more comfortable with the activity.
  • Try to improve only a little bit at a time. Pick one area for improvement first. Set your personal goal in that area and meet the goal before trying another area.

Although many people decrease their exercise as they age, continuing to exercise has definite benefits.

  • Flexibility and stretching, which help provide a full range of motion for muscles and joints, can help you function at home, at work, and socially. Everyday tasks that are difficult—such as tying shoelaces or reaching to a shelf—may become easier. When you stay flexible, you also keep a more natural walking pattern and decrease your chance of falling. Most flexibility that is seemingly lost through aging is caused not by aging but by inactivity or lack of movement.
  • Aerobic exercise strengthens the heart and reduces the risk of coronary artery disease. It can also increase the amount of sleep you get at night and may reduce the time it takes to fall asleep.
  • Strengthening exercises can help you maintain your muscle, strengthen bones, and protect knees and other joints. These exercises can include resistance training, such as lifting weights, and weight-bearing exercise such as walking, jogging, or dancing.
  • Specific balance exercises help you maintain good posture. They can also be helpful to improve coordination and reduce your risk for falls. One type of balance exercise is to stand on one leg for 10 seconds. Stand on a flat surface and use a stable object (such as a heavy chair) for support.

Exercise has specific health benefits for older adults. Exercise:1

  • Improves blood pressure.
  • Decreases risk of coronary artery disease.
  • Improves heart failure symptoms and decreases hospitalization rate.
  • Improves lipid (cholesterol) levels.
  • Decreases risk of diabetes.
  • Helps the body use sugar more efficiently.
  • Decreases bone-density loss in postmenopausal women.
  • Decreases hip and vertebral fractures.
  • Decreases risk of falling.
  • Improves function and decreases pain in osteoarthritis.
  • Improves quality of sleep and reduces fatigue.
  • Improves mental function and short-term memory.
  • Decreases rate of depression.
  • May lower the risk of breast, prostate, and rectal cancers.
  • Decreases risk of obesity.
  • Helps maintain muscle and physical functioning.

Physical activity does not have to be strenuous. Older adults can gain significant health benefits with a moderate amount of physical activity. This can be done in longer sessions of moderately intense activities (such as walking) or in shorter sessions of more vigorous activities (such as fast walking or stair-walking).

Exercise caution signs for older adults

When you exercise, you do experience minor muscle and joint soreness. But other signs may point to something more serious. Stop exercising if you develop:

  • Chest or upper abdominal pain that may spread to the neck, jaw, upper back, shoulder, and arms. Call 911 immediately if this occurs. Chest pain can be a signal of a heart attack.
  • Panting or extreme shortness of breath.
  • Nausea.
  • Persistent pain, joint discomfort, or muscle cramps.


  1. American College of Sports Medicine, et al. (2009). Position stand: Exercise and physical activity for older adults. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 41(7): 1510–1530.
ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAdam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Last RevisedSeptember 17, 2012

Last Revised: September 17, 2012

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