How to Start and Sustain an Exercise Routine as an Older Adult

When you see advertisements for fitness products, equipment, and attire, how often do you see older adults incorporated into these ads? You are much more likely to see young, fit, happy adults engaging in exercise. Meanwhile, it seems as if older adults are left out of the conversation altogether.

Despite these biases, the health benefits of exercise for older adults is paramount to both their well-being, and their experience with the aging process. Maintaining a workout regimen as an older adult can help decrease incidences of chronic illness, lessen the severity of chronic disease symptoms, improve mental health, and even serve as a hobby that promotes social interaction.

In this article, I will focus on a series of key points relating to these benefits, including:

  • Outlining the physical and mental health benefits to exercise that are specifically geared toward the senior population
  • How to choose an exercise regimen based on your needs, goals, and lifestyle
  • Exploring the various types of fitness routines geared toward seniors with a focus on low impact workouts
  • How to maintain motivation and a sense of community when exercising

As always, be sure to check with your healthcare provider before starting or increasing the intensity of your exercise regimen.

Physical Benefits of Exercise

Evidence-based physical benefits of exercise are well known and can include weight loss, increased flexibility and muscle tone, reduction of chronic disease, and improved skin tone and health. However, for many people, the impetus behind why they begin a workout routine is usually to improve their physical appearance.

Just ask Marjorie Jaffe, the owner of Back in Shape, a training studio geared toward older adults based in midtown Manhattan. She is an expert in working with the older population. Jaffe has been operating the business since 1980.

When asked how working with older adults differs from younger adults, Jaffe mentions the difference between aesthetics versus function. “When I work with young people, they want their arms and butts tight. Just because the clients I’m working with are older, doesn’t mean they don’t want to look good,” she said.

The key to engaging in regular, recommended levels of exercise is to find activities you enjoy, and to vary your routine when things get boring. This can mean that you try a new activity every week, every month, or every quarter—there is no shortage of fitness activities such as walking, jogging, running, swimming, biking, yoga, Pilates, barre, weightlifting, and working out in a gym. Below, I will outline the main physical benefits of working out.

Helping with Strength, Balance and Flexibility

Physical exercise can help seniors increase their strength, balance and flexibility. To increase strength, engage in weightlifting and other types of bodyweight exercises, which I’ll discuss in more detail in the next section. For increasing balance and range of motion, simple stretches can be beneficial. The “tree pose” in yoga, when you stand on one leg with your other leg resting on your ankle or calf and your hands together in prayer, can help with improving balance. In addition, walking heel to toe trying to stay in as straight of a line as possible can also help you increase your balance. Dancing can also be a fun and low-impact way to increase balance, and build coordination that can often be lost with age. Finally, to increase flexibility, look to yoga and Pilates. The benefits of these types of workouts are that they are as much low impact and relaxing as they can be challenging. The mind/body element will help ground you, and make you feel more at ease. To find more exercises to help you with strength, balance and flexibility, click here.

Preventing Osteoporosis

For older people, exercise has some particularly notable benefits. Engaging in regular exercise can help prevent osteoporosis—a condition in which the density and quality of the bone is reduced. Bones become more porous and fragile, which can lead to fractures of the spine, wrist and hip (International Osteoporosis Foundation, 2017). From birth until young adulthood, our bones are developing and getting stronger. During our early 20s, bones are at their most dense, which is called “peak bone mass” (International Osteoporosis Foundation, 2017). However, as we age, there is a natural reduction in bone density. For individuals with osteoporosis, the bone loss surpasses the new bone growth.

In addition to consuming food products that contain calcium (such as milk, yogurt, cheese, kale, tofu, almonds, broccoli, chia seeds, and navy beans), older adults can engage in specific types of exercise to build bone density. Research shows that lifting weights and other types of strength training can aid in building bone density. Furthermore, strength training can also help people manage their weight, enhance balance, reduce risk of falls, and manage chronic conditions like arthritis and back pain (Mayo Clinic, 2019). Strength training can be as simple as body weight exercises, such as pushups, pull-ups, squats and planks. Using resistance bands or tubes is also an option. Finally, using free weights or weight machines at the gym (or in your home gym) makes it convenient to build strength training into your existing exercise regimen.

For younger people, weightlifting and strength training can actually help prevent osteoporosis as you get older. Children and young adults should engage in some form of physical activity for at least 40 minutes per day (International Osteoporosis Foundation, 2017). From the ages of 8 to 16, it is important for young people to build their bone mass and density. By engaging in regular weight-bearing exercises, you can maintain bone health throughout your lifespan.

Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

How does having more energy sound? Engaging in regular exercise can increase energy levels, which is especially important for those with chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease, and various types of cancer. Furthermore, exercise can be used as a prevention strategy to protect against these types of chronic conditions (Booth, Roberts, & Laye, 2012). For those who have already been diagnosed with a chronic condition, exercise can help with pain management, and reduce the severity of the symptoms associated with these conditions.

Physical exercise can also help improve brain health and memory, and protect against cognitive decline that occurs with age. Studies have shown that people who exercise have a larger prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex than people who don’t exercise. These are the areas of the brain responsible for thinking and memory (Godman, 2018).

If you’re looking to reduce anxiety and depression, incorporating more physical fitness into your daily routine is also a good option. Exercise induces an increase in blood circulation to the brain, causing mood improvements. Exercise also improves self-esteem and confidence, and if you’re taking a group class, it can also decrease feelings of social withdrawal (Sharma, Madaan, & Petty, 2006). Additionally, exercise can help you sleep better and more deeply and increase your interest in sexual activity.

Getting Started with an Exercise Regimen

Now that you’re well aware of the physical and mental health benefits, it’s time to find the right fitness routine to suit your needs. It’s important to take into account factors such as your age, any prior injuries or sensitive body parts, how much money you are willing or able to spend on fitness, and the amount of time you have available to devote to an exercise routine, to name a few.

I recommend that people set an intention when they begin an exercise routine, or even at the beginning of starting your fitness activity. Many yoga teachers have students set an intention at the beginning of a class, which can be a powerful tool in helping us feel connected to ourselves, our health, our bodies, and our commitment to self-care.

If you are just getting into working out or are returning after sustaining an injury, experts advise you to take it slow and build up over time. Low-impact exercises such as brisk walking, jogging, dancing or swimming can be a great (and safe) way to jump back into working out. Weight-bearing workouts like yoga and barre can also help with building strength.

“Exercise for older adults is important because it is can make a major difference when it comes to aging while maintaining a high quality of life. For seniors that want to be and stay active, it is important that they first start with recognizing their strengths and weaknesses,” said Active Aging Specialist Eric Daw, who is founder of Omni-Fitt. Omni-Fitt is a Toronto-based fitness company that was designed to help the senior population improve quality of life, maintain independence, and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

“Seniors should answer these questions: Can I get off the ground? How is my balance? Are there any movements or activities that I can’t do based on my ability or physical limitations? The exercises seniors should focus on are ones that involve balance, coordination, strength, flexibility and posture.  Once someone is active, they should vary their exercises so their improvements don’t become stagnant.  In doing a regular exercise program, I have seen how seniors have not only improved physically but mentally,” Daw added.

After finding an activity you enjoy, make sure you carve the time out of your calendar to devote to exercise. Just as you schedule your dental and doctor’s appointments, you can schedule your workouts. You may have heard the phrase, “exercise is the appointment you make with yourself.” You wouldn’t cancel an appointment with a colleague or a friend, so why flake on your exercise? Sure, life happens – your children, spouse or pet may get sick, you have to work or fix something around the house – but try to work around these events and keep sacred the exercise appointments and time you make with yourself.

Low-Impact Exercises

Incorporating low-impact exercise into your fitness routine can be a great way to increase your activity levels without increasing your risk of injury. Examples of such exercises include walking, swimming, jogging, biking, gardening, and more.

At the beginning of each exercise, you should engage in some warm-ups and stretching to prepare your muscles and joints. “Gravity pulls everything down. You have to keep your head up,” Jaffe said. She recommends doing shoulder circles to stretch out the chest, and has a word of caution for seniors. “I tell my older adult clients to never stiffen a joint like the knees or elbows.”

Once you have sufficiently warmed up, it’s very easy to get started with walking. All you’ll need is a good pair of shoes and to engage in some stretching before and after to get your muscles warmed up. While walking, it’s important to be mindful of your posture. Older adults who are new to walking should start by walking short distances and increase until you are able to walk comfortably for 30 to 60-minutes at a time (Striepe, 2019).

Another type of low impact exercise is called Low Intensity Steady State cardio, or LISS. If you are familiar with High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT, LISS can be thought of as the opposite. During HIIT, you focus on short bursts of high intensity cardio followed by a period of rest – for example, sprinting at top speed on a treadmill or on a track, then resting, then starting back up again. The purpose of engaging in HIIT is to rapidly raise heart rate and reach the “after burn effect,” which is when the body continues to burn fat even after the person stops exercising.

LISS is a great way for older adults to engage in fitness because it is easy to get started with, is great for recovery, and helps burn fat. Ideally, combining both high and low intensity workouts into your routine will help you achieve the most optimal results, but for those with injuries or physical limitations, LISS can be an easier way to incorporate more movement into your daily life and increase your overall activity levels. For guidance on additional low-impact exercises, click here.

How Exercise can help you Build Community

Exercise can foster a sense of belonging and bring people together. For active seniors, this can have effects that go far beyond the physical. Studies show that as we age, we inherently become more isolated. Older adults may lack the social support their younger counterparts may enjoy – perhaps because they don’t have easy access to the same social situations. For example, social support may be more abundant for someone who is in a lively workplace, or someone who is part of a school, church or community group. A lack of social support may foster feelings of loneliness and depression among older adults, which are associated with negative physical and mental health outcomes (Tomas, Pinazo-Hernandis, Oliver, Donio-Bellegarde, & Tomas-Aguirre, 2019). Increased isolation among seniors can also increase the risk for mortality and puts them at a greater risk for heart disease, stroke, depression and more (Steptoe, Shankar, Demakakos, & Wardle, 2013).

In addition to helping mitigate the negative effects of isolation and loneliness, maintaining a social group can make you healthier emotionally and physically. Forming a supportive, active community can also help keep us accountable for our goals. Whether you have a weight loss goal or are just trying to take a certain number of steps each day, our friends, family, colleagues and neighbors can help us get there.

Finding the Right Exercise Regimen for you

When it comes to finding what type of exercise you’re actually interested in, think about what you did (and enjoyed) as a child. Not what your parents wanted you to do, but what kind of physical activities you genuinely enjoyed. Presumably, if you spent time learning karate or swimming as a child, getting back into a familiar hobby is a good way to ease back into working out.

As an alternative suggestion, it can also be exciting to try a totally different fitness activity. There are classes to meet every need, like hot yoga, hula hoop classes, and more. For those who prefer taking their workouts outside, hiking or walking on trails can also be a great activity.

Finally, sustaining interest in an activity can be challenging, but not impossible. Establishing the time into your schedule, finding an activity you enjoy, and making exercise a social affair can be immensely helpful when it comes to sticking with it long-term.

“If you begin to see the benefits, you also feel better and people will say you look terrific. That’s motivational. That’s really how anyone sticks with exercise,” Jaffe said.

Making fitness part of your everyday life can help you stay healthier for longer, assist with managing chronic disease, and is something you can use as a social activity. Getting started with most exercise routines can be relatively easy and low-cost. Making sure to vary your workouts to prevent boredom is essential to ensuring you feel fulfilled and challenged in your exercise regimen.

 

By Nicki Karimipour, PhD

Dr. Nicki Karimipour is a communications expert and experienced researcher. She obtained her master’s degree and Ph.D. in Health Communications from the University of Florida. She obtained her bachelor’s degrees from Florida State University.

Dr. Nicki Karimipour is a communications expert and experienced researcher. She obtained her master’s degree and Ph.D. in Health Communications from the University of Florida. She obtained her bachelor’s degrees from Florida State University.

Dr. Karimipour has previous experience in writing and editing for both print and online publications, and in teaching journalism, health writing, and public relations at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Her research-related experience ranges from collaborating with medical researchers and consulting on clinical trials, to clinical research program management. Her own research focuses on a variety of health topics, such as effects of social media use on female body image, football and concussions, and e-cigarette use among youth. Her research has been published in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Research, the Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, and the Journal of Sports Media.

She is based in Los Angeles, California and currently works at the University of Southern California in clinical trial operations. Follow her on Twitter: @NickiKPhD

References

Booth, F.W., Roberts, C.K., & Laye, M.J. (2012). Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases. Comprehensive Physiology, 2(2), 1143-1211. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?cmd=link&linkname=pubmed_pubmed&uid=23798298&log$=relatedarticles&logdbfrom=pmc

Godman, H. (2018). Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110

International Osteoporosis Foundation, 2017. “Exercise.” Retrieved from https://www.iofbonehealth.org/exercise

International Osteoporosis Foundation, 2017. “What is Osteoporosis?” Retrieved from https://www.iofbonehealth.org/what-is-osteoporosis

Mayo Clinic, 2019. “Strength training: Get stringer, leaner, healthier.” Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/strength-training/art-20046670

Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F.D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary Care Companion, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 8(2), 106. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/

Steptoe, A., Shankar, A., Demakakos, P., & Wardle, J. (2013). Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/110/15/5797.full

Tomas, J.M., Pinazo-Hernandis, S., Oliver, A., Donio-Bellegarde, M., & Tomas-Aguirre, F. (2019). Loneliness and social support: Differential predictive power on depression and satisfaction in senior citizens. Journal of Community Psychology. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/jcop.22184

Striepe, B. (2019). 10 low-impact exercises for seniors. Retrieved from https://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/aging/senior-health-lifestyle/10-low-impact-exercises-for-seniors1.htm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.