Exercise and the Elderly – Benefits and Recommendations

Everyone benefits from physical activity: young, old, fat, skinny, healthy and sick. While younger individuals tend to ignore health benefits in favor of the aesthetic nature of exercise, physical activity has the potential to greatly improve the quality of life for the elderly population. From increased mobility and independence to decreased depression, physical activity and exercise are crucial in maintaining normal function as we age.

Benefits of Physical Activity in the Elderly

The elderly population is the least active1 yet has the most to gain from benefits associated with exercise. Many elderly individuals remain active well into their retirement years with some participating in competitive long distance runs or sports. There is no reason the elderly cannot remain active or even increase activity levels with age.

Increased Mobility & Independence. As we age, it sometimes becomes harder to move, walk long distances or climb the stairs. While young-ins take these activities for granted, the inability to complete simple tasks reduces independence and increases reliance on others for daily chores.

Decreased movement/mobility is also a risk factor for morbidity, hospitalization, disability and mortality. One study looked at the effects of physical activity on major mobility disability. The researchers defined a major mobility disability as an inability to walk 400 meters. They concluded a moderate-intensity exercise program reduced mobility disability in older adults2.

Increased Cognitive Function. As we age, physical health generally declines. Though exercise is typically associated with physical health, it also improves mental health. One review study found exercise to be a “promising non-pharmaceutical intervention to prevent age-related cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases.3

Improved Memory. Another study looked into the effects aerobic exercise and resistance training had on memory. They split participants into three groups: aerobic exercise, resistance training and a control group. There were three main findings: 1) the aerobic group performed the best in the memory test, 2) both exercise groups performed better than the control group in the spatial memory test, and 3) there was a significant correlation between spacial memory and overall physical capacity. They concluded, “exercise can positively impact cognitive functioning and may represent an effective strategy to improve memory in those who have begun to experience cognitive decline.4

Less Disease. It’s long been settled; exercise makes us healthier. Exercise decreases the risk of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. One review study looked at over 4,000 different studies covering more than 200,000 individuals. The researchers looked into the effect physical activity had on a number of ailments including: obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. After reviewing the data, the researchers concluded, “physical activity appears to have a positive long-term influence on all selected diseases.5

Other Health Benefits for Older Adults6

  • lower risk of early death, stroke, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, cancer
  • improves blood lipid profile
  • prevents weight gain
  • prevents falls and lowers the risk of hip fractures
  • increases bone density
  • improves sleep quality

Types of Physical Activity

There are two main types of physical activity: aerobic and strength training. Each has unique health benefits making it crucial to include both for maximum health returns.

Aerobic Exercise. Aerobic exercise is commonly referred to as cardiovascular exercise (or cardio for short). Cardio is any activity which increases heart rate for a sustained period of time. A few examples of aerobic exercise include: walking, jogging, running, biking, swimming and playing sports. Aerobic exercise improves cardiovascular health.

Strength Training. Strength training is an activity which places a load on the muscle with the use of weights, resistance bands or other objects. Strength training can be performed at a gym with equipment or anywhere else (home, park) with bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups. Strength training also includes less traditional forms of movement not necessarily associated with exercise: digging/lifting as part of gardening, carrying groceries or other objects and some forms of yoga or Tai chi. Strength training increases muscle mass (strength) and bone density.

Physical Activity Recommendations for the Elderly

The CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity has guidelines for adults 65 years of age or older who are generally fit and have no limiting health conditions.

  • 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate intensity (brisk walking) aerobic activity per week AND strength training on two or more days of the week targeting all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms)7 OR
  • 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous intensity (jogging/running) aerobic activity per week AND strength training on two or more days of the week targeting all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms)7OR
  • an equivalent mix of moderate and vigorous intensity of aerobic activity per week AND strength training on two or more days of the week targeting all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms)7

For additional health benefits, older adults should aim for five hours of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week OR 2 hours and 30 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity per week AND strength training on two or more days of the week targeting all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms) per week7.

Moderate vs. Vigorous Intensity Aerobic Activity

Note: generally, vigorous intensity activity counts twice as much as moderate intensity activity (one minute of vigorous intensity activity equals two minutes of moderate intensity activity). Vigorous intensity activity should produce large increases in breathing and heart rate while moderate intensity activity produces a noticeable increase in breathing and heart rate1.

Inactive Older Adults

Inactive older adults looking to increase physical activity levels should not make drastic changes overnight. A quick or instant increase in physical activity increases the risk of injury. Inactive older adults should avoid vigorous intensity activity and focus instead on moderate intensity activity. Rather than increasing activity, increase the number of days in which exercise is performed and increase the duration of these sessions. Once moderate intensity activity becomes easy to perform, begin increasing the intensity level1.

Older adults with chronic conditions should speak to their healthcare provider about increasing physical activity. Generally, adults with chronic conditions benefit from increased exercise8.

The Bottom Line

Physical activity is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. While many see the effects of exercise as skin deep, the health benefits are far more important than improving physical appearance. Exercise plays an important role in overall health; it reduces the risk of injury and disease, increases independence, improves cognitive function, memory and movement and reduces depression. Older adults who incorporate exercise into their lifestyle increase their quality of life.


  1. Chapter 5 Physical Activity Guidelines: Active Older Adults. (2008). Retrieved from http://health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/chapter5.aspx
  2. Pahor, M. (2014). Effect of Structured Physical Activity on Prevention of Major Mobility Disability in Older Adults. Journal of American Medical Association, 311(23), 2387-2396. Retrieved from http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1875328
  3. Bherer, L. (2013). A Review of the Effects of Physical Activity and Exercise on Cognitive and Brain Functions in Older Adults. Journal of Aging Research. Retrieved from http://www.hindawi.com/journals/jar/2013/657508/abs/
  4. Nagamatsu, L. S. (2013). Physical Activity Improves Verbal and Spatial Memory in Older Adults with Probable Mild Cognitive Impairment: A 6-Month Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Aging Research. Retrieved from http://www.hindawi.com/journals/jar/2013/861893/abs/
  5. http://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2458-13-813
  6. Chapter 2 Physical Activity Guidelines: Physical Activity Has Many Health Benefits. (2008). Retrieved from http://health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/chapter2.aspx
  7. Physical Activity is Essential to Healthy Aging. (2015, June 04). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/older_adults/index.htm
  8. Chapter 7 Physical Activity Guidelines: Additional Considerations for Some Adults. (2008). Retrieved from http://health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/chapter7.aspx
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