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  Fitness > Fit Adults >  << Previous|Next >>

You're Never Too Old to Get Fit

It can be difficult for older adults to begin new exercise programs. Often, they fear injury or are alienated by youth-oriented gyms and fitness centers. But exercising can be the single most important thing adults of any age can do to improve their health.

To help older adults get motivated about physical activity, the National Institute on Aging has published a free 100-page exercise guide that gives concrete examples of exercises that improve endurance, strength, balance and flexibility. It also provides activity and progress charts as well as nutrition information.

Aerobics for Seniors
Vigorous aerobic exercise may be the best way for seniors to promote overall health and reduce their risk of heart disease according to a study published in the March 2000 issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. The 53 men and 63 women participants, ages 59 to 77, each engaged in aerobic workouts on stationary bikes for a period of 10 days as researchers gauged their calorie expenditure. Researchers also examined the participants' body compositions and diets once every three days. The men and women were then broken up into groups according to high and low aerobic capacity and high and low calorie burning. The seniors who engaged in the highest levels of physical exertion increased their body's ability to transport and use oxygen, were leaner, and showed significantly lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol and insulin levels. These indicators are strongly linked to heart disease. The researchers believe that aerobically fit seniors are at less risk for heart disease compared with older adults who participate in frequent, moderate activity.

Healthy Lifestyle
A healthy lifestyle is a good choice at any age. Whether you are seven or 70, you can participate in physical activity, and get results. However, as you grow older, factors such as arthritis, decreased aerobic capacity, and high blood pressure may limit your choices in exercise. But, you can modify your workouts. Before you attempt to run the Boston marathon, take up beach volleyball or start any new physical activity, check with your physician. There are risks factors to consider, including:

  • high blood pressure

  • high cholesterol

  • smoking

  • diabetes

  • family history of heart disease.
Other conditions such as back problems, osteoporosis, low blood pressure, and lung diseases may mean that your exercise program requires modification. For seniors, there are some basics to help get you started. First, you have to know what constitutes a well-rounded fitness program. Then you have to know what constitutes enough exercise to maintain your health.

The Program
A balanced exercise program at any age will consist of at least three types of activity -- cardiovascular exercise, resistance exercise, and stretching. Cardiovascular exercise, also known as aerobic exercise, works your heart and uses repetitive motion. Cycling, walking, cross-country skiing, and swimming are examples of this exercise form that uses large muscle groups to raise the heart rate.

Resistance exercise utilizes specific muscle groups and is done for muscular strength and endurance. It can be done using either external weights such as biceps curls with dumbbells or your own body weight and muscular resistance such as push-ups.

Meanwhile, stretching elongates the muscles and helps to improve joint mobility and decrease the risk of injury.

These three elements can be combined in one workout session or done separately. Other points for a proper fitness routine include, the warm-up and the cool-down. With age, you may find that the period for warm-ups and cool-downs needs to be lengthened. These two stages ease your body into a transition from either rest-to-exercise or exercise-to-rest.

Enough is Enough
For any exercise program to be successful, certain minimums have to be achieved. These minimums apply to the frequency of exercise, the duration, and the intensity. For seniors, exercise sessions should occur at least five times per week. It is helpful if physical activity becomes a part of your daily routine. For cardiovascular exercise, the session should last between 20 and 60 minutes depending on the intensity. However, if the individual's constitution is weak, the sessions could be as short as 10 minutes, with repetitions two or three times during the day.

Intensity of exercise or how hard you work can be determined by your training heart rate. The simplest method uses the following formula: 220 - age x .7 (for lower limit) and .85 (for upper limit). For example, if you are 70 years old, your lower limit would be (220-70) x .7 = 105 beats per minute and your upper limit would be (220-70) x .85 = 128 beats per minute. These numbers are just rough guidelines. Listen to your own body first.

Exercising: Your Options
Healthy seniors participate in a variety of activities. However, if you are a beginner leave rock climbing or snowboarding for later. Walking is always a good bet. It is inexpensive, can be done at anytime and at your own pace. Swimming is great because it is easy on your joints. The same goes for water aerobics. Weight lifting can give your muscles a boost at any age, as can good old-fashioned calisthenics. If you are interested in more high-tech stuff, a number of cardio machines at your local gym provide good workouts with low joint stress and support. These machines include recumbent cycles and cardio squat machines. If you are no longer working, you may finally have the time to try Yoga or Tai Chi.

Where to Go/What to Do
As a senior, if you are new to the exercise scene, you may wish to join a gym. The staff can help create your own personal workout program. You can participate in classes or work out alone. Many gyms offer a wide variety of programming, but you should check beforehand to see what they offer for seniors. Some clubs have seniors fitness classes, others do not. You can still participate in other classes, but you may just have to modify some of the moves. Talk to the class instructor for some tips.

Another option is to hire a personal trainer to come into your home and set up a program using the space and equipment that you have at hand. This approach is good in the beginning if you need some help with motivation. Starting an exercise program is easy. Sticking with it requires effort.

Some seniors' groups have walking programs (e.g. Mall Walkers) and other outings (e.g. ballroom dances is making a comeback!). You can socialize, enjoy the company of friends, and get in shape, all at the same time.

Walking Programs
As a senior, one of the easiest and most inexpensive forms of exercise is walking. Not only is it a great aerobic workout, but walking is tremendously beneficial in strengthening the bones, joints and muscles of your legs. Here are some tips to get the most benefit from your walking:

  • A brisk walk is brisk enough to deepen your breathing comfortably and increase your heart rate.
  • Focus on a tall posture, head up with shoulders back and abdomen in.
  • Land on the heel of your foot. Roll forward onto the ball of your foot, then push off from your toes.
  • Take even, comfortable strides.
  • Allow your arms to swing freely and rhythmically.
  • Be sensitive to your breathing! Take full breaths and exhale completely.

Below is a sample walking program that you can use as a guide. Proceed at your own level of fitness. If you feel uncomfortable or tired at one level, stay at that level or move to a lower level until you feel ready to advance.

Start with a minimum five-minute warm-up and end with a 5-10 minute cool-down. Choose at least three strengthening and three flexibility exercises. Vary these to achieve greater benefit.

Remember to use good posture and walking technique, proper breathing, and warm-up/cool-down activities.

Work up to:

  • Exercising at an increased heart rate that is comfortable
  • Exercising at an elevated heart-rate for 15 minutes at a time
  • Exercising at least three times a week
     Suggested walking program
Week Distance
(3 x week)
Approximate duration
one 1/4 mile -
two 1/4 -
three 1/2 -
four 3/4 -
five 1 -
six 1 -
seven 1 (in 20 minutes)
eight 1-1/2 (in 30 minutes)
nine 2 (in 40 minutes)
ten 2 (in 40 minutes)
eleven 2-1/2 (in 50 minutes)
twelve 3 (in 60 minutes)

Reference Source 39,87,88

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