Physical Activities for Seniors: How Much Is Enough?

Movement and maintaining some level of fitness is important throughout the lifecycle. Often, though, exercise will look different as one ages.

Physical activity recommendations for older adults shift from building muscle and achieving leanness to maintaining the functionality of muscles, joints, and bones. So, how much physical activity is enough and what kind should an aging person focus on doing?

Allow this article to serve as a complete guide to mature fitness including activities for seniors and moderate exercise examples.

Physical Activity Shifts

While also dependent on individual health, physical activity recommendations for young adults into their 40s and 50s tend to focus on:

  • Enhancing aerobic fitness for brain and heart health
  • Building or maintaining muscle tissue for metabolic health
  • Burning calories to achieve a healthy weight

Recs also tend to emphasize moderate to high-intensity activity like circuit and strength training, sprinting, and long endurance cardio.

However, the natural aging process induces body changes that make exercising intensely less desirable and oftentimes less possible. Muscles become weaker, joints less mobile, and bones more tender. This increases the risk of injury from intense exercise, which can drastically decrease the quality of life for an older person.

Thus, mature fitness largely focuses on gentle to moderately intense aerobic activity to continue supporting brain and heart health and resistance training to preserve some muscle mass and joint range of motion. This allows older adults and seniors to continue being mobile and enjoy a high quality of life with an agreeable body.

Exercise Recommendations for the Aging

The current physical activity guidelines for adults are to achieve 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise, including 2 days of strength training. For adults 65 years and older, activity recommendations also include improving balance with balance exercises.

While these are generally sound guidelines, they are somewhat nebulous and hardly individualized. In reality, exercise recommendations for the aging and elderly should be based on a variety of factors such as:

  • Current health status
  • Fitness level and abilities
  • Specific disease states (diabetes, heart disease, elevated blood pressure and/or cholesterol, dementia, osteoporosis, osteopenia, previous fractures and injuries)
  • Lifestyle, priorities, and values
  • Weight management
  • Diet

Because the body is likely enduring more as an aging adult, recommendations should consider more factors than general health, which the above recommendations are based upon. Meaning, those guidelines are recommended to achieve a minimal level of health. Rarely do people need less movement than this and often people, even the aging, need more.

However, the aging need not aim to do more high-intensity training like commonly advertised. This is not to say an aging person cannot do intense physical activity (because some 80 olds still run marathons!), but tends to be unnecessary and risky.

Instead, the aging adult should focus on including enough movement to enjoy a full and capable life. For some, this could look like the recommended 30 minutes of activity five days a week and for others, it could mean 45 to 60 minutes on most days of the week.

Nonetheless, the amount of recommended time is less important than incorporating the right kind of exercise. Take a look at suggested forms of activity for aging.

Physical Activities for Seniors (Moderate Exercise Examples)

Physical activity and fitness can be accomplished in many ways. The examples below highlight how older adults can meet moderate exercise recommendations.

  1. Light to moderate walking i.e. brisk walking (20 to 60 minutes most days of the week)
  2. Light jogging (if capable)
  3. Water aerobic workouts (classes or freestyle)
  4. Swimming (laps and/or kickboard drills)
  5. Strength training (every major muscle group once at least once a week)
  6. Flexibility training (dynamic and static stretching 2-7 days/week)
  7. Yoga and/or pilates (avoid intense and hot versions)
  8. Recreational or recumbent biking
  9. Recreational sports like bocce ball, croquet, giant chess, etc.
  10. Low impact fitness classes (dance, step, zumba, jazzercise, etc.)

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Aerobic Activity Examples

Running is a great form of aerobic exercise but not always the best or ideal option. Fortunately, seniors can spend time enjoying other forms of aerobic activity, including these examples.

1. Walking

Putting one foot in front of the other at a light to moderate pace outdoors or on a treadmill is a sustainable way for seniors to maintain some lower body muscle mass and cardiovascular health while also improving memory and cognitive function in general. It also reduces the risk of many chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s and can easily fit into many lifestyles.

Make it more difficult through increased pace, incorporating hills or inclines, and going for longer amounts of time. Reduce intensity by decreasing pace, walking on flat ground, or using assistance such as holding onto the front or sidebars of the treadmill.

2. Elliptical

Ellipticals are a sufficient low-impact way to achieve many of the health benefits described above. They cause even less strain on muscles, joints, and bones than walking, but this also means one tends to need to do it for a longer amount of time to reap the same benefits.

Elliptical machines are great for those who can still imitate the motion of walking but have skeletal muscle problems that prevent the repetitive pounding motion such as with osteoporosis or arthritis.

3. Biking

Similar to the elliptical, recreational biking, stationary cycling, and recumbent biking are great activities that support cardiovascular health and joint range of motion.

Biking is also lower impact than walking, and therefore prudent for those with injuries or pounding impediments. Like the elliptical, one can endure this for longer amounts of time compared to walking or light jogging.

4. Swimming

Thanks to the natural resistance of water, swimming is an effective low impact form of movement. It is also actually considered a higher intensity form because it can burn substantial amounts of energy.

Obviously, swimming faster and for longer amounts of time increases the intensity, but the natural resistance innately increases the cardiovascular impact. There are so many different ways to incorporate swimming, whether through good ole’ laps, kick boarding, treading drills, or aerobics classes.

5. Aerobics Classes

Nowadays, many gyms and studios include classes specifically targeted towards the aging population. They account for decreased intensity and different abilities and also offer additional modifications for all different abilities.

Higher-end classes may also include dynamic stretching to support range of motion and static stretching similar to yoga to promote flexibility.

6. Household Chores/Activities

Many people do not realize the immense benefit of simply moving their bodies. Not in a regimented or planned type of way, but in a general household chore type of way. This less specific type of movement keeps muscles and joints loose, counters the effects of too much sitting, and promotes blood flow to the heart, brain, and muscles.

Focus on emphasizing this kind of movement on light exercise or rest days. Some household activity ideas and examples include vacuuming, laundry, sweeping, cleaning, gardening, and other yard work.

In Summary

Physical activity and recommendations shift as one ages. However, specific guidelines are quite arbitrary, especially for the aging population due to a conglomeration of factors. Thankfully, there are other ways to determine if one is getting enough physical activity.

In summary, objective ways to determine if you are getting enough activity as an aging adult include:

  • Weight is within a healthy range and is easily maintainable
  • Minimal injuries
  • Rarely get sick (like the common cold)
  • Health markers (blood pressure, cholesterol, HbA1c) are within healthy ranges
  • Able to engage in enjoyable activities
  • Can complete daily activities of living like carrying groceries and walking up steps
  • Generally exhibit good moods
  • Have solid memory and concentration

Of course, other lifestyle habits will also contribute to these parameters, but this is a good starting point! Happy moving.