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Why Exercise Matters for Seniors

Exercise is important in all phases of life, but for seniors, it’s critical to maintaining independence, among other benefits.

When it comes to determining the best exercises for seniors, variety is key. Adults of all ages—but especially people older than 65—should focus on a combination of strength and mobility exercises, as well as balance exercises and aerobic activity. However, the best exercises for seniors are the ones they want to do and will do consistently.

Exercise is important for older adults (age 65+) because being physically active makes it easier to perform activities of daily living (ADLs), including eating, bathing, toileting, dressing, getting into or out of a bed or chair and moving around the house or a neighborhood, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Physically active older adults are also less likely to fall, which can lead to serious injuries.

Exercise improves muscle strength and bone density as well, which is especially important for women since they lose bone density at a faster rate after menopause than men. Meanwhile, the benefits of exercise for the heart and lungs help promote overall health and offset some risks for chronic illnesses and disease.

Best Aerobic Exercises for Seniors

Older adults should do at least 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week, ideally spread out over several days. Moderate-intensity aerobic activity includes brisk walking, cycling, swimming, dancing and nature walks.

Here are some of the best aerobic exercises for seniors:

  • Walking: Walking is one of the best forms of cardio for older adults and can be modified to match the pace, distance or time that feels right for the individual. It requires good balance, but can be effective if a person uses a cane or walker.
  • Cycling: Whether using an outdoor bicycle or a stationary bike, cycling requires the use of larger muscles, including the quadriceps and hamstrings, leading to increased blood flow and demand on the heart and lungs. Like with other forms of cardio, when this demand is repeated, the body adapts by increasing its capacity to tolerate the added load, making the exercise beneficial for the heart and the lungs. Cycling is also a non-impact activity, which can be beneficial for anyone who needs to reduce ground reaction forces during exercise to help with joint or muscle pain or dysfunction.
  • Dancing: Whether you’re into Zumba, line dancing or tango, moving your body (including your hips) with continuous dancing definitely counts as cardio. Dancing not only elevates the heart rate, but also improves balance, strengthens multiple large muscle groups and lifts your spirits. Pair it with a partner or group, and you’ve got yourself a social and physical workout.
  • Nature walks: Whether along a creek, at the beach or on a mountain, walking in nature can challenge the body’s proprioception, or awareness of itself in space. Walking on various terrain can improve strength, agility and balance for safer movement overall. Spending time outside may also lead to positive psychological effects, such as reduced anxiety and improved mood.

Best Strength Training Exercises for Seniors

While some body changes like reduced muscle and bone mass are inevitable the older you get, staying strong and active can delay them to an extent. Incorporating regular resistance training can be accomplished with your bodyweight, free weights and resistance bands.

When it comes to picking the best strength training exercises for seniors, consider activities necessary for daily living. For instance, “one of the best indicators of morbidity and mortality is the ability to stand up from a chair without using your hands to help in any way,” says Heather Mims, a doctor of physical therapy and certified orthopedic specialist at New York City’s Tula PT & Wellness. This test means not pushing on the arms of your chair or pushing against the tops of your thighs with your hands when standing up. The best way to work on this skill is to practice it, as well as use the following strength exercises:

Best Flexibility Exercises for Seniors

Flexibility is important for independence, mobility and the ability to strengthen the body throughout its full range of motion. According to Mims, flexibility is critical for decreasing the energy cost of standing and walking as we get older. Stretches that target the shoulders, hips and legs—body parts that commonly contribute to balance problems and gait compensations—are key.

Begin with the following exercises:

Best Balance Exercises for Seniors

As general health declines with age, falls become more common, leading to fractures, head injuries and other problems that affect both mental and physical health.

Multiple systems work together to help us maintain our balance, including input from vision, the inner ear and touch systems, which are integrated into the brain and then translated into motor output through our musculoskeletal systems. As we age, these systems can function less well, but working to maintain them can help prevent the rate of decline.

Use caution when attempting these exercises, and have a spotter nearby if your fall risk is high.

  • Single Leg Stance With a Stool: Stand at the kitchen sink, holding on to the front edge of the sink, and place one foot on a low stool. Find your balance as you stand tall, hovering your hands just off the surface of the sink and, if steady, lifting the foot up and down from the surface of the stool. For a more advanced move, stand at the kitchen counter on one leg, hovering your hands over the counter to catch yourself if you become unsteady.
  • Tai Chi: According to a systematic review on the effects of tai chi on people with chronic conditions, this ancient exercise form has many health benefits, including improving balance. Tai chi helps the body improve awareness of itself in space, leading to reduced risk of falls.
  • Lower Body Strength Training: Research suggests strengthening the hips and legs can lead to improved balance and reduced risk of falls. Incorporate the sit-to-stand exercise, squats and heel raises (standing and shifting up and down on your toes 10 times twice a day) to maintain strength in your hips, quads and calves.

Pro Tips for Building a Comprehensive Exercise Plan

It is important to include strengthening, stretching and balance activities into your daily routine. Consider using a fitness tracker to monitor your activity levels, and some inexpensive tools like dumbbells and resistance bands.

The best exercise plan is not just one you feel comfortable doing, but one you enjoy and are likely to do regularly. Work with a trainer, physical therapist or occupational therapist to create a plan that’s customized to your physical abilities and preferences. Add variety and make it fun. Schedule daily walks with a friend or partner (or pet). Pair exercise with another part of your routine, such as getting up and down from your chair 10 times before you sit down to eat dinner. So what are you waiting for? Get moving!