Exercise for the Elderly


The benefits of exercise throughout life are often touted. But is it safe for seniors older than 65 years to exercise? Absolutely. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, almost all older people can benefit from additional physical activity. Regular exercise prevents chronic disease, improves mood and lowers chances of injury.

With age, the body does take a little longer to repair itself, but moderate physical activity is good for people of all ages and ability levels. In fact, the benefits of your elderly parents exercising regularly far outweigh the risks. Even elderly people with chronic illnesses can exercise safely. Many medical conditions are improved with exercise, including Alzheimer's and dementia, heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, high blood pressure and obesity.

Regular exercise provides a myriad of health benefits, including improvements in blood pressure, diabetes, lipid profile, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and neuro-cognitive function.

Regular exercise improves the following:

  • Immune Function. A healthy, strong body fights off infection and sickness more easily and more quickly. Rather than sapping energy reserves entirely, recovery from an illness will take less of a toll on the body if the person exercises regularly.
  • Cardio-Respiratory and Cardiovascular Function. Frequent physical activity lowers the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. If the elderly person has hypertension, exercise will help lower their blood pressure.
  • Bone Density and Risk of Osteoporosis. Exercise protects against loss in bone mass. Better bone density will reduce the risk of osteoporosis, lower the risk of falling and prevent broken bones. Post-menopausal women can lose as much as 2 percent bone mass each year, and men also lose bone mass as they age. Research done at Tufts University shows that strength training can dramatically reduce this loss, help restore bones, and contribute to better balance and less fractures.
  • Gastrointestinal Function. Regular exercise helps boost your metabolism and promotes the efficient elimination of waste and encourages digestive health.
  • Chronic Conditions and Cancer. Physical activity lowers risk of serious conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis and colon cancer, to name a few. It also helps in the management of high cholesterol and arthritis pain.

A consistent exercise schedule is also associated with decreased mortality and age-related morbidity in older adults. In addition, a study by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society examined exercise in the elderly and found that training led to improvements in functional reach and balance and reduced the participants' fear of falling.

What Exercises Can Seniors Do?

Often, frail elderly people are unable to tolerate aerobic exercise routines on a regular basis due to lack of endurance. But while age-related changes in the cardiovascular system have significant effects on performance, it has been estimated that 50% of endurance loss can be related to decreased muscle mass. The ideal senior exercise regimen consists of three components:

  1. Aerobic and Endurance Exercises
    Physicians recommend 30 minutes of cardiorespiratory endurance exercise each day for your elderly mom or dad. This means getting their heart rate up and breathing faster. Walking, cycling and swimming are all examples of cardio/endurance exercises. If the person tires easily, especially those who are resuming a routine or just starting to exercise, it is perfectly acceptable to do three 10-minute periods of exercise daily.
    Cardiorespiratory endurance exercise increases the body's ability to deliver oxygen and nutrients to tissues and remove waste over sustained periods of time. After exercising consistently for a few weeks, there will likely be an improvement in the person's ability to exercise and ability to perform everyday tasks without getting winded and tired.
  2. Strength and Resistance Training
    Strength training uses and ruilds muscles with repetitive motion exercises. Your elderly parent can do strength training with weights, resistance bands, nautilus machines or by using walls, the floor and furniture for resistance. Bodyweight exercises or calisthenics such as lunges, sit-ups and leg raises are also convenient options since they do not require any specialized equipment. Two to three strength/resistance training workouts a week will provide the greatest benefits. Exercise all muscle groups by doing 1 to 2 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions at moderate intensity. Individuals can progressively increase the size of weights used during workouts as their strength builds.
    Strength training helps prevent loss of bone mass and improves balance. Both of these things will help seniors avoid falls and broken bones.
  3. Stretching and Flexibility Exercises
    Stretching is vital to an exercise regimen. This helps muscles warm up and cool down gradually and improves and maintains flexibility, prevents injury, and reduces muscle soreness and stiffness.
    Stretching can also function as a time for meditation and a time to appreciate how your body is feeling. Body and muscle awareness are useful skills that assist in safe mobility and physical activities.
    Activities like yoga or Pilates can provide both useful stretches and strength training because they focus on isolating and developing different muscle groups. A number of exercise programs focus on developing a strong ‘core,' a term which refers to the set of muscles connecting the inner stomach to the lower back and spine. Because the core muscles provide the foundation for all movement and strength, having a strong core can help with all movement, encourage better posture and reduce allover muscle pain.

Of course, there are some people whose physical abilities are limited by medical conditions or general frailty. These seniors have to go about exercise more carefully than others, but they do not have to dismiss it entirely. With proper instruction and guidance, the elderly can learn activities and exercises that improve mobility and strength. Exercise is even more important for frail individuals since they are the most prone to falling and broken bones.

Try activities in a class setting with proper supervision by a trained professional. Consider swimming or other water exercises that are low-impact and less jarring to the body. The local YMCA or YWCA are good places to start when looking for exercise programs that address special needs.

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My Mom is also exercise averse. She nees to; it's absolutely essential for her to continue living, period. She'll do the exercises only if I do them with her, the full list she is supposed to do as per her physical therapist. With her, it's all about company. She doesn't really care about the benefits (!!!), she just wants the company. She is capable of doing these herself.
I'm considering getting her involved in a senior group that offers exercise clases, and I think that this could work, provided she finds others in the class toi be companions to her. The companionship is the essential thing. I'm working on it. But, whatever you do get them exercising. And, yes, at first, use small steps then work up to greater exercises as they improve, and they will. It's not a futile effort.
I'm 67 and I can still ride 100K per day when I have the time to fully condition (which I miss so very much right now). Right now, I can crank 20-30 miles without much conditioning. So, exericse does work. When I'm confined, I do Pilates in the basement. There are young kids in my neighborhood that can't keep up with me riding. After a couple of miles, they are puffing and panting. Dismal! They go to schoole, sit on the butts all day, then go home and sit in front of a TV or computer. Dismal!
The "Fountain of Youth"? It's exercise. Enough cheer-leading :)
My mother used a walker to get around. We never allowed her to use a wheelchair because we did not want her to get dependent. She loved to dance but was afraid to fall. We would crank up the oldies and she would dance in her chair. Every now and then we got her dancing outside of her chair. She loved going out and traveling but that got harder to do. It was very sad watching her get older and not able to be as active. She finally passed at the age of 83 and I am sure she is dancing with my dad in heaven. mjl