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Exercise for older people

Being active is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for everybody. But as you get older, you may hit some health problems that could put you off exercise. Yet staying active may be the key to maintaining your health and independence.

Older lady leaning on side of swimming pool


  • Why do I need to exercise? Why do I need to exercise?

    Studies show that older people who regularly exercise are healthier and less likely to develop serious long-term conditions than those who don’t. Regular exercise can reduce your risk of developing:

    Exercise can also improve your muscle strength and tone. This means you’re less likely to have an accident or a fall that could lead to an injury. As well as these benefits, regular exercise can help:

    • your ability to continue with everyday activities and be independent
    • how well your brain works, including your memory
    • your sense of wellbeing and self-esteem

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  • How much exercise should I do? How much exercise should I do?

    Aim to do about 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, along with a bit of muscle strengthening. During moderate exercise your breathing and heart rate are faster and you feel warmer. Don’t be put off if this seems a lot! If you’re just getting started, take it easy at first and gradually increase how much activity you do to build up your fitness. The most important point is to spend as little time as possible being inactive.

  • Types of exercise Types of exercise

    Aerobic activity

    Your aerobic fitness is a measure of how healthy your heart and lungs are. As you get older, your aerobic fitness tends to decrease naturally. But you can keep fit by doing any activity that raises your heart rate and makes you slightly breathless.

    Strengthening activity

    Your muscles lose strength as you age but it’s definitely possible to reduce how much is lost. You can build up your muscles with strengthening exercises. Keeping them as strong as possible will make it easier to carry out daily activities and reduce your risk of falls.

    We’ve put together some suggestions of activities to build up both your aerobic fitness and strength. Doing some balance and stretching exercises will help you reap even more benefits. Have a go at a few things until you find what suits you.

    Aerobic actvities Strengthening activities
    Take a bike ride to the shops. Head to a Pilates class – this gentle, non-impact exercise will improve your posture, circulation and balance.
    Go for a brisk walk – make it more interesting by listening to an audiobook or podcast while you walk. Start your day with some tai chi – this gentle, Chinese martial art is a great way to improve your strength, balance and posture.
    Go for a swim – try racing with your grandchildren. Join a yoga class. Some types are more demanding than others but Viniyoga is a good option for beginners. This focuses on coordinating your breathing with movement.
    Aquarobics is a good activity for everybody – water supports your weight while you exercise. Gyrotonic – this is a mix of swimming, ballet, gymnastics, Pilates and yoga.
    Go dancing – it doesn’t have to be a formal class, put some music on and dance around the living room. Carrying the shopping – this chore has the hidden benefit of working your muscles.
    Take on your friends in doubles tennis. Gardening – get some fresh air and work your muscles at the same time.
    Mow the lawn – pushing that lawnmower will get your heart racing. Go to the gym and lift light weights – an instructor can advise you on what exercises to do.
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  • What if my health is bad? What if my health is bad?

    As you get older, your muscles get weaker, you tend to get more aches and pains and you become more prone to falls and injuries. As with any age group, the level of fitness of adults over 65 varies from person to person. Some people run marathons, whereas others find it difficult to get out of a chair without help.

    If you have a health condition or are recovering from an illness, it may affect how much you can do. But don’t assume it will stop you from being active altogether. It may be more important than ever to exercise to help you to get better.

  • Advice from our expert Advice from our expert

    Dr Pippa Bennett, Bupa Lead MSK Physician, gives advice on exercising in situations where you might be anxious to do so.

    The problem

    “I had a bad fall last year and since then I’ve been reluctant to exercise because I’m worried I’ll have another one.”

    Pippa's advice

    “Sign up to do a yoga or Pilates class a couple of days a week. It may help to improve your balance and coordination and prevent you having any more falls. You could pick a class that’s especially for older people or join any group and just do what you can. Make sure you tell your instructor about any health concerns.”

    The problem

    “I have arthritis in my knee and it’s so painful at times I can hardly move.”

    Pippa's advice

    “You might worry that exercise will harm your knee but the opposite is true. If you keep moving and do some exercise, it can help to keep your joints working well and lessen pain. Research has shown that if you have osteoarthritis in your knee, exercise reduces pain and improves how well your knee joint works. Try swimming to start with because you can exercise your joints without the pressure of your weight on them. Another activity you might like to try is tai chi, which may also help to reduce the pain from osteoarthritis of the knee.”

    The problem

    “I’m pretty much chair-bound from a long-term illness.”

    Pippa's advice

    “If you can’t move around easily, it’s even more important to try to exercise. It can improve your whole outlook on life and is really beneficial for your mental health. One exercise you could try is chair aerobics. In this, you do a series of repetitive movements while sitting down that will raise your heart rate and help you burn calories. Have a chat with your GP about other exercises that may be suitable for you.”

    The problem

    “I’m too old to start exercising.”

    Pippa's advice

    “You’re never too old to exercise! Start with some gentle walks and build up your fitness gradually. Once you get your confidence up, try having a go at other activities.”

  • When should I stop? When should I stop?

    If you go about it sensibly, exercising has very few risks, and certainly fewer than result from not being active. If it’s been some time since you exercised, start slowly and see how you get on.

    If you get any of the symptoms listed here while you’re exercising, stop and get medical advice – particularly if they don’t go away when you stop.

    • Chest pain.
    • Pain in your joints.
    • Dizziness.
    • Shortness of breath.
    • A strong heartbeat (palpitations).
  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    Age UK
    0800 169 6565
    Age UK has a range of information about how you can keep active as you get older. This includes guidance on strength and balance exercises to help prevent falls and advice about how to stay steady on your feet.
    Walking for Health
    020 7339 8541
    Walking for Health is a network of walking schemes in England. They aim to help people live a more active lifestyle by organising weekly walks across the country. These are run by volunteers and are open to everyone, no matter how active or inactive you are.


    • Physical activity: encouraging activity in all people in contact with the NHS. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), March 2015.
    • Start active, stay active: a report on physical activity from the four home countries’ chief medical officers. Department of Health., published 2011
    • Physical activity guidelines for adults (19–64 years). Department of Health., published July 2011
    • Physical activity guidelines for older adults (65+ years). Department of Health., published July 2011
    • Disability in older people. PatientPlus., reviewed 22 June 2011
    • How much physical activity do older adults need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., published 1 December 2011
    • Getting moving. Age UK., accessed 11 June 2015
    • Measuring physical activity intensity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., published 4 February 2015
    • Gillespie LD, Robertson MC, Gillespie WJ, et al. Interventions for preventing falls in older people living in the community. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 9. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD007146.pub3
    • Osteoarthritis. BMJ Best Practice., published 24 September 2014
    • Osteoarthritis. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), February 2014.
    • Map of Medicine. Osteoarthritis. International View. London: Map of Medicine; 2014 (Issue 3)
    • Fransen M, McConnell S, Hernandez-Molina G, et al. Exercise for osteoarthritis of the hip. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 4. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD007912.pub2
    • Osteoarthritis. Medscape., published 27 March 2015
    • Kang JW, Lee MS, Posadzki P, et al. T'ai chi for the treatment of osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open 2011; 1(1):e000035. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2010-000035
    • Chair exercises and limited mobility fitness., published April 2015
    • Exercise and physical activity: your everyday guide from the National Institute on Aging. Chapter 2: get set. National Institute on Aging., published 28 May 2015
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    Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Content Team, August 2015.

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