Healthy Aging Column – Benefits of Exercise for Seniors

What do seniors and teenagers have in common? Both age groups need to exercise regularly to stay healthy. Seniors and teenagers can’t do the same types of exercises, of course, but both can benefit from regular physical activity. Remember the days before riding mowers and washing machines when many parts of daily living required us to burn calories and keep our heart rate in the target range for at least 20 minutes? Now we have to plan ways to include physical activity in our busy schedules.

Why should seniors bother to exercise? Shouldn’t the elderly be taking it easy? Many experts on senior health, including the American Heart Association, say that moderate physical activity can help improve health in several ways. Some activities improve flexibility, build muscular strength and increase endurance. Activities involving the large muscles in the arms and legs benefit the heart by making it work more efficiently during exercise and at rest.

Physical activity builds healthy bones, muscles and joints and reduces the risk of many types of cancer. Moderate physical activity decreases LDL (bad) cholesterol and increases HDL (good) levels. Because exercise produces endorphins, which give the feeling of well-being, any type of exercise can decrease feelings of sadness. Something as simple as walking for 30 minutes at a brisk pace can promote a feeling of well-being and decrease depression and anxiety.

Many seniors don’t exercise because they feel like they can’t do it or that it’s too hard. Maybe your reason for not exercising is one of the following: "Exercise is for young people – it is not good for seniors;" "It takes too much time;" "Exercise makes you sore;" "It takes too much energy to exercise, and I am already too tired;" "Exercise costs too much money."

Exercise doesn’t have to be hard work. Brisk walking and dancing are examples of aerobic exercises that increase endurance and are fun. If walking is a problem, exercise can even be done while sitting in or holding on to a chair. Exercise is for all ages.

Doctors say that regular physical activity can:

  • slow the aging process and help you look and feel better;
  • increase your energy;
  • strengthen your bones and help fight osteoporosis;
  • improve muscle tone, strength and endurance;
  • keep joints, tendons and ligaments more flexible and promote easy, unrestricted movement; and
  • increase the efficiency of your heart and lungs.

When done properly, exercise should not cause soreness. If soreness is a problem, the activity was too much or was done for too long. A certified fitness instructor can recommend a type and duration of exercise that will produce benefits without causing soreness.

But, it is recommended that senior adults never begin an exercise plan without first visiting a doctor.

Exercise alone has many benefits, but exercise combined with acceptable nutrition practices can help you feel and look younger and stronger. In addition, the results will happen faster. Being or becoming healthy usually requires lifestyle changes. The effects of short-term, quick-fix diets don’t last. Usually we gain back whatever was lost and more. That is why it is time to look at making changes in eating and exercise habits that will last a lifetime.

If you are convinced that it is time to start a habit of regular exercise, here are some hints to help get started and to keep going. Many people start a physical activity program with good intentions but become frustrated and quit a few weeks later.

First, and probably the most important way to keep motivated, is to choose something that you enjoy doing and start slowly.

Second, be patient and set weekly goals that you know you will be able to reach. A good goal to set might be to perform the activity you have chosen at least three times a week. Tell yourself you are going to do it for at least two months before you ever start. If you stay with it that long, you will be pleasantly surprised with the results. Don’t start an exercise program just to lose weight. Decide you want to be healthy and your ideal weight will follow.

Third, schedule a time for exercise that fits your routine. If you are not a morning person, don’t plan to get up early to exercise. If you don’t like to swim, don’t take a water aerobics class. You’re more likely to stick to your program if you have a regular time for it and if you have a partner to exercise with, someone who will enjoy doing what you have chosen to do and who will help you get going when you don’t feel like it.

Each of us has more control over our health than we realize or are willing to admit. The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure also applies to health. Successful aging requires individuals to work with their physicians and take responsibility for their own health and work toward getting healthier and staying that way.

Regular exercise and adequate nutrition are at the top of the list of ways to stay healthy for every age group. Take control of your health. Get a partner and make a lifestyle change that will improve the quality of the rest of your life.

For more information about this topic, contact the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in your county. Additional articles on Healthy Aging are available from Colorado State University by visiting the Web at and clicking on Info Online, then on Consumer, then scrolling to Healthy Aging.