Exercise for older people

Expert reviewer, Ashley Oliver, Senior Physiotherapist, Bupa Health Clinics
Next review due February 2021

Being active is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for everybody, particularly for staying healthy into old age. If you have an age-related health problem, you may be put off exercise. But staying active may actually be the key to maintaining your health and independence.

Older lady leaning on side of swimming pool

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 and less likely to develop serious long-term health conditions than those who don’t. Doing regular exercise can reduce your risk of developing:

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 injure yourself. As well as these benefits, regular exercise can 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?

Aim to accumulate 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate intensity aerobic activity, along with some muscle strengthening activities, building up gradually from what you currently do. 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 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. This is the type of activity where your breathing is much deeper and rapid, and your heart rate increases quickly. Or you could do a combination of moderate and vigorous activity. 

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 prevent this by doing any activity that raises your heart rate and makes you slightly breathless.

Aerobic exercise can be done 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.

Aerobic activities

  • Take a bike ride 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.
  • Aquarobics is a good activity for everybody – water supports your weight while you exercise.
  • Go dancing – it doesn’t have to be a formal class, put some music on and dance around the living room.
  • Take on your friends in doubles tennis.
  • Mow the lawn – pushing that lawnmower will get your heart racing.

Strengthening activity

Your muscles lose strength as you age, but it’s possible to reduce how much is lost. Try building up your muscles with some 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. 

Strengthening activities

  • Head to a Pilates class – this gentle exercise with slow movements will improve the strength of some of your major muscle groups.
  • Start your day with some tai chi – this gentle, Chinese martial art may improve 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 your strength.
  • 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, and you may tend to get more aches and pains and become more prone to falls and injuries. As with any age group, the level of fitness among your peers 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. Walking is often very safe but if you have specific concerns about any health conditions, ask your GP about what’s safe for you.

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Seated exercises for older people

If you struggle to exercise on your feet due to a long-term illness, for example, it’s even more important to try to exercise. Exercise can improve your mood and is really beneficial for your mental health. And you can do this while you sit in a chair. Try doing a series of repetitive movements while sitting down that will improve your posture and balance. You can also 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 suitable for you.

Advice from our expert

Ashley Oliver, Senior Physiotherapist, Bupa Health Clinics, gives advice on exercising in situations where you might be anxious about doing 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.”

Ashley’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.”

Ashley’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 the pain and improves how well your knee joint works. Research has also shown that exercise might help with hip pain too, and possibly with 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. Another activity you might like to try is tai chi, which may also help to reduce the pain from osteoarthritis of the knee.”

“It doesn't matter if you're young or older, taking some regular exercise will help your arthritis and improve your general health and wellbeing.”

The problem

“I’m too old to start exercising.”

Ashley’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?

If you go about it sensibly, exercising has very few risks, and certainly fewer than could result from not being active. 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 become dizzy while you’re exercising, stop and get medical advice – particularly if these symptoms don’t go away when you stop.

If you feel any chest pain or unexpected shortness of breath when you’re exercising, it’s important to stop and seek medical advice immediately by calling 999.

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Related information

Tools and calculators

    • Age UK
      0800 055 6112
      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.
    • Start active, stay active. GOV.UK., last updated 11 March 2016
    • Physical activity benefits infographic for adults and older people. GOV.UK., last updated 29 June 2017
    • Disability in older people. PatientPlus., last checked 28 January 2016
    • Older people. Oxford handbook of sport and exercise medicine (online). Oxford Medicine Online., published November 2012
    • Exercise and physical activity. Age UK., last updated 17 October 2017
    • How much physical activity do older adults need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., page last reviewed 4 June 2015
    • Measuring physical activity intensity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., page last reviewed 4 June 2015
    • Osteoarthritis. BMJ Best Practice., last reviewed January 2018
    • Osteoarthritis. Medscape., updated 31 October 2017
    • Exercise and physical activity. National Institute on Aging., accessed January 2013
  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, February 2018
    Expert reviewer, Ashley Oliver, Senior Physiotherapist, Bupa Health Clinics
    Next review due February 2021