Exercise for the elderly | The importance of staying active as we age

As we get older, it’s important we don’t give up exercise and physical activity completely. Research suggests that regular exercise and maintaining a healthy amount of movement throughout life can significantly mitigate the negative impact of these changes.

Key takeaways

  • On average people between the ages of 55 and 64 spent 22.4% of their time sedentary
  • This increases to 27.9% for those aged 85 and over
  • Staying active in our fifties and sixties helps ensure we have the mobility to enjoy old age
  • You can commit to getting active at any time, no matter what your mobility level or ability
  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that people of all ages should aim to get out of their chairs and have at least 150 active minutes each week.

Slowing down as you age

A study by the British Heart Foundation recently found that the older we get the more time we spend sedentary (not moving), for instance watching TV or reading.

A sedentary lifestyle has been linked to an increased risk of heart failure, the onset of joint pain, and the development of chronic health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and high blood pressure. Furthermore, the less time we spend moving, the more likely we are to experience a heart attack, stroke, or pulmonary embolism.

Aside from heart health, our joints and muscles want to keep active. When we don’t exercise or move around, our joints can become stiff and sore. This can lead to the onset of conditions like arthritis and drastically reduce flexibility and our range of motion.

How regular activity can help

If you’re worried about the health implications of getting older, getting up and active in middle age can help offset some of the health problems you could expect to experience later in life. These include:

Can you start exercising again in old age?

Picking up any level of activity becomes increasingly difficult the older you get. The best thing you can do is to continue to maintain an active lifestyle in the decades leading up to retirement. This means when you retire, you aren’t riddled with joint pain issues and chronic pain from years of sedentary living.

There are exercises that are specifically geared to the elderly. For instance, swimming is a great low impact exercise that is kind on the joints. The resistance of the water makes for a great workout and spending time in warm water is proven to help alleviate symptoms of fatigue and muscle pain.

What's the right amount of movement?

For people of all ages, gauging how much exercise we need to get can be difficult. The amount of physical exercise you should aim for depends on several factors, including your overall physical health and your activity level and fitness throughout life.

If you’re a recently retired triathlete, you can expect to maintain a higher activity level than someone who’s had recently had a hip replacement and been diagnosed with diabetes for example.

So where do I start?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends people of all ages should aim for around 150 active minutes each week. This works out at just over 20 minutes a day. When aiming for this, we recommend you choose an activity based on your interests and fitness level. This can be anything from walking a round of golf to an intense game of squash.

If this sounds too much, don’t worry. This number should be something to aim for, not a figure to beat yourself with if you don’t meet it. Remember that easing into a new routine and starting small is a great first step, even if that means a walk around the block once a day to start with.

Which activities are best for older adults?

If you’re retired or looking to get back into exercise, you might feel limited by your mobility and fitness levels. Thankfully, there are several low-impact exercises and sports out there that are engaging and fun to do.

  • Walking: the NHS advise you should aim to walk 10,000 steps every day. If this isn’t achievable, you can set a goal that works for you. The steps soon add up to an activity that’s low-impact and sustainable all year round
  • Swimming: swimming is a low-impact exercise that uses water resistance to slowly build muscle. Swimming is a social activity and a lot of pools will have senior swim times where older adults can swim in a fun and inclusive environment
  • Bowls: bowls are the sport of choice for a lot of older adults. Great for maintaining range of motion and flexibility, lawn bowls are a fun and friendly social activity for the summer
  • Resistance bands: using the lightest level of band as a stretching aid helps you maintain a good range of motion and flexibility as you age
  • Cricket: a number of cricket clubs have senior teams where the pace of play is slower. Cricket is a social game that’s great for maintaining flexibility and a good range of motion into old age
  • Yoga: yoga is great because it allows you to take everything at your own pace. Perfect for at home on the living room carpet, yoga is all about flexibility and maintaining a good range of motion and movement
  • Dancing: if you’re looking for a couples activity, or to meet new people, dancing is a great way to do it. Seniors and themed nights are all held regularly up and down the country, providing a fun way to stay limber and flex your hips
  • Golf: golf is great for seniors because it incorporates flexibility focused movements with a long walk and a competitive game element.

What if I can’t take part?

Playing sports and getting involved in social physical activity is not possible for everyone. Thankfully, the benefits of simply getting up and moving around the house greatly offset the health implications of sitting still all day.

Take a look below to see what you can do more regularly to improve flexibility and circulation at home:

  • Get up to make a cup of tea
  • Walk around your home
  • Cleaning and dusting
  • Take stretching breaks from the sofa
  • Stand up to cook
  • Climb the stairs regularly
  • Vacuuming
  • Make the bed

Home exercises for older adults

See below for some gentle exercises you can do at home to help preserve mobility and get your body moving.

The stork

Chair assisted squat

5-minute beginner Pilates

5-minute beginner yoga

Exercises to avoid for seniors

Certain exercises and activities are more harmful to our joints than others. As we age, we should be thinking about replacing high-impact activities with lower, more gentle movement because it puts less pressure on the body.

  • Squatting with weight
  • Long distance running and cycling
  • Heavy weight lifting
  • HIIT
  • Intense cardio
  • Deadlifts

Can older adults still build muscle?

Absolutely. Whilst it may become more difficult as we age, there’s nothing stopping you from improving your fitness and building muscle as you age. The body maintains its ability to improve cardiovascular function, build muscle and gain flexibility long into old age.

Can a personal trainer help me?

Absolutely. If you’re nervous or worried about returning or using the gym for the first time, our professional and friendly personal trainers are there to put your mind at ease.

A personal trainer can schedule a session with you to sit down and listen to you. Together, you can find out what exercises are right for you and your body and learn about our first-class onsite equipment.

Last updated Monday 30 October 2023

First published on Monday 2 May 2016