Exercise for older people

Expert reviewer, Emmanuel Udomhiaye, Bupa Physiotherapist, and Dr Yasmin Rahman, Bupa GP
Next review due September 2023

Being active is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for everyone, but especially as you get older. As you age, and perhaps begin to have aches and pains, or develop a health condition, you may be put off doing exercise.

But staying active may be the key to keeping healthy, mobile and independent. It can also stop existing health problems getting worst and reduces your risk of developing new ones.

older man resting outdoors

Benefits of exercise for older adults

Getting enough exercise has a whole host of benefits for your physical and mental health. Studies show that people over 65 who regularly exercise are healthier. They are also less likely to get serious long-term health conditions than those who don’t. Doing regular exercise can reduce your risk of getting:  

Exercise can also improve the strength and tone of your muscles. This means you’re less likely to have an accident or a fall and hurt yourself. Regular exercise can also help:

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

How much exercise should older adults do?

You should aim to be as active as possible.

  • Aim for 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate intensity aerobic activity every week, building up gradually from what you do now. During moderate exercise, your breathing and heart rate are faster, and you feel warmer, but you’ll still be able to talk.
  • Do some activities that make your muscles stronger and help with balance and flexibility on at least two days every week.
  • If you spend a lot of your day sitting down, make sure you’re still moving regularly. Get up and walk around the room, or even just stand up and sit down again, especially if you find it difficult to walk.

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 thing is to spend as little time as possible being inactive. Any activity is better than none – more is better still.

If you’re already regularly active, you could try doing 75 minutes of vigorous exercise spread over the week. If you’re doing vigorous exercise, your breathing will be much deeper and quicker, and your heart rate will increase quickly. You’ll find it harder to talk too. Or you could do a combination of moderate and vigorous activity.

Types of exercise

Aerobic activity

Your aerobic fitness shows how healthy your heart and lungs are. As you get older, your aerobic fitness tends to get lower naturally. But you can stop this by doing any activity that increases your heart rate and makes you slightly breathless.

You can do aerobic exercise anywhere and anytime. Whether it’s taking the stairs instead of the lift, going to a gym, exercise class, swimming pool or getting out into the great outdoors. There are also lots of aerobic exercises you can do in the comfort of your own home if you prefer.

You may find it helpful to use a pedometer or step counter to see how active you are and track your progress. This may help you decide whether you could be more active, especially at certain times of the day or on certain days of the week. There are no official rules on how many steps you should do each day, but the more steps you do, the better your fitness and health should be.

Aerobic activities

  • Doing 10,000 steps a day means you’re very active.
  • Doing 5,000 to 10,000 steps a day means you’re moderately active.
  • Doing less than 5,000 steps a day means you’re inactive and could try to walk more if you can.

Here are some ideas to get more aerobic exercise.

  • Ride your bike to the shops.
  • Go for a brisk walk – make it more interesting by listening to an audiobook or podcast while you walk.
  • Go for a swim – try doing more lengths each time you go. Swimming is low-impact, so a good choice if you have hip or knee pain.
  • Aquarobics is a good activity for everyone – water supports your weight while you exercise.
  • Go dancing – this could either be a class, or simply put on some music and dance around your living room.
  • Take on your friends in doubles tennis.
  • Mow the lawn or tackle the weeds – gardening is great exercise.

Strengthening activity

Your muscles lose strength as you get older, but it’s possible to limit how much strength you lose. Try building up your muscles with some strengthening exercises. Keeping them as strong as possible will make it easier for you to carry out daily activities and reduce your risk of falls.

You don’t have to lift heavy weights to strengthen your muscles – everyday activities can help too. 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 work out what suits you best.

Here are some ideas of strengthening activities.

  • Head to a Pilates class – this gentle exercise with slow movements will boost the strength of some of your major muscle groups.
  • Start your day with some tai chi – this gentle, Chinese martial art may boost your flexibility and balance.
  • Join a yoga class. Some types are more demanding than others, so ask your instructor about the different types and classes.
  • Do some push-ups or sit-ups to build up your strength.
  • Try swimming or water aerobics. This type of exercise can help maintain muscle mass and strength, while being low-impact.
  • Carrying the shopping – this chore has the hidden benefit of working your muscles.
  • Do some heavy gardening like digging – get some fresh air and work your muscles at the same time.
  • Go to the gym and lift light weights – an instructor can advise you on what exercises to do.

What if my health is bad?

As you get older, your muscles get weaker. You may get more aches and pains and become more likely to fall and hurt yourself. As with any age group, fitness levels vary from person to person. Some older people run marathons, while others find it hard to get out of a chair without help.

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

Walking is often very safe but if you’re worried about any health conditions, ask your GP about what’s safe for you.

An icon of a DNA helix Smarter living. It’s in your DNA.

Bupa SmartDNA examines your genetic composition to help you eat, move and think smarter. You’ll get help from a health and wellbeing coach to make sense of the science, and build a plan around your body, so that you have the tools you need to live smart. Learn more about SmartDNA >

An icon of a DNA helixSmarter living. It’s in your DNA.

Seated exercises for older people

If you struggle to exercise on your feet due to a long-term illness, it’s even more important to try to exercise when you can. Exercise can boost your mood and help your mental health. And you can do this while you sit in a chair.

  • Try doing a series of repetitive movements when you’re sitting down to improve your posture and balance.
  • Push yourself up from your chair as much as you can and then sit back down.
  • Use resistance bands and hand weights to strengthen your muscles if you feel ready.

Have a chat with a physiotherapist about other exercises that may be right for you.

Being inactive or sitting down for long periods of time is linked to an increased risk in developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT). The following video demonstrates some simple lower leg exercises you can do daily from the comfort of your own home to help prevent DVT.

Advice from our expert

Emmanuel Udomhiaye, Bupa Physiotherapist, gives advice on exercising in situations where you may be worried about doing so.

The problem

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

Emmanuel’s advice

“Sign up to do a yoga or Pilates class on a couple of days each week. This may help to improve your balance and coordination and stop 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 if you have any health problems.

“You could also consider having an assessment with a physiotherapist to work out any areas of weakness. You can then work with them – or a fitness instructor – to strengthen these muscle groups.”

The problem

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

Emmanuel’s advice

“You may be worried that exercise will hurt 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 ease any pain. Research has shown that if you have osteoarthritis in your knee, exercise eases the pain and makes your knee joint work better.

“Research has shown that exercise may help hip pain too, and maybe even help how well your hip joint works. Try swimming to start with because you can exercise your joints without the pressure of your weight on them. You could also try tai chi, which may help to ease the pain from osteoarthritis of your knee.

“It doesn't matter how old you are. Taking some regular exercise will help your arthritis and boost your general health and wellbeing.”

The problem

“I’m too old to start exercising.”

Emmanuel’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 exercising?

If you’re sensible, exercising won’t be harmful. It’s certainly less harmful than not being active at all. If it’s been some time since you exercised, start slowly and see how you get on.

But if you feel pain in your joints or get dizzy while you’re exercising, stop and get medical advice – especially if these symptoms don’t go away when you stop.

Stop exercising and seek medical advice straightaway if you:

  • get any chest pain
  • feel lightheaded
  • find it hard to breathe

Did our information help you?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our health information.

About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. This is because we believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and wellbeing.

Our information has been awarded the PIF TICK for trustworthy health information. It also follows the principles of the The Information Standard.

The Patient Information Forum tick

Learn more about our editorial team and principles >

Related information

Tools and calculators

    • Physical activity guidelines: UK Chief Medical Officers' report. GOV.UK., published 7 September 2019
    • I want to help someone get active. Age UK, last updated September 2019.
    • Taylor D. Physical activity is medicine for older adults. Postgrad Med J 2014; 90:26–32
    • The role of exercise in integrative preventative medicine. Integrative Preventative Medicine. Oxford Medicine Online., published online December 2017
    • Back pain. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised November 2018
    • Guo W, Fensom GK, Reeves GK, et al. Physical activity and breast cancer risk: results from the UK Biobank prospective cohort. Br J Cancer 2020; 122:726–32. doi: 10.1038/s41416-019-0700-6
    • Bergamin M, Ermolao A, Tolomio S, et al. Water versus land-based exercise in elderly subjects: effects on physical performance and body composition. Clin Interv Aging 2013; 8:1109–17. doi:10.2147/CIA.S44198
    • Parkin DM. 9. Cancers attributable to inadequate physical exercise in the UK in 2010. Br J Cancer. 2011; 105:S38–S41. doi:10.1038/bjc.2011.482
    • Falls: applying All Our Health. Introduction. Public Health England., updated January 2020
    • Overview of exercise. MSD Manual – Professional Version., last full review/revision June 2018
    • McPhee JS, French DP, Jackson D, et al. Physical activity in older age: perspectives for healthy ageing and frailty. Biogerontology 2016; 17(3):567–80. doi:10.1007/s10522-016-9641-0
    • Everybody active, every day. Public Health England. GOV.UK, published October 2014
    • Exercise in the elderly. MSD Manuals – Professional Version., last full review/revision July 2018
    • Staying stronger at you get older. Chartered Society of Physiotherapists., last reviewed October 2018
    • Disability in older people. Patient – Professional Reference., last reviewed January 2016
    • Exercise and physical activity. Age UK., last updated June 2020
    • Bergamin M, Gobbo S, Bullo V, et al. Effects of a Pilates exercise program on muscle strength, postural control and body composition: results from a pilot study in a group of post-menopausal women. Age (Dordr) 2015; 37(6):118. doi:10.1007/s11357-015-9852-3
    • Huang ZG, Feng YH, Li YH, et al. Systematic review and meta-analysis: Tai Chi for preventing falls in older adults. BMJ Open. 2017; 7(2):e013661. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2016-013661
    • Walking tips and advice for older people. Age UK., last updated July 2020
    • Getting active when you find exercise difficult. Age UK., last updated July 2020
    • Osteoarthritis. Management approach. BMJ Best Practice., last updated May 2020
    • Osteoarthritis. Treatment and management. Medscape., updated June 2020
  • Reviewed by Sarah Smith, Freelance Health Editor, and Alice Windsor, Specialist Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, September 2020
    Expert reviewer, Emmanuel Udomhiaye, Bupa Physiotherapist, and Dr Yasmin Rahman, Bupa GP
    Next review due September 2023