What are the best exercises for older people?

profile picture of Jasmine Ward
MSK Physiotherapist at Bupa UK
30 August 2023
Next review due August 2026

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 worse, and reduces your risk of developing new ones. Here, I give some tips on how to get the most out of exercising as you get older.

two elderly people running in the park

What are the benefits of exercise for older adults?

Getting enough exercise can benefit your physical and mental health. Doing regular exercise can reduce your risk of getting:

Exercise can also improve the strength of your muscles and stability of your joints. 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
  • how well your brain works and your memory
  • to boost your feelings 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, at least two days every week.

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.

What is the most appropriate exercise for older adults?

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 may find it helpful to use a pedometer or step counter. This can help you decide whether you could be more active, especially at certain times of the day or on certain days of the week.You can do as many steps as you want but the more the better.

  • 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.

  • Bike ride to the shops.
  • Brisk walking – make it more interesting by listening to an audiobook or podcast while you walk.
  • Swimming – 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.
  • Dancing – this could either be a class, or simply put on some music and dance in your house if you have space.
  • Gardening which you might enjoy and 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 prevent falls.

You can strengthen your muscles with everyday activities .

Here are some ideas of strengthening activities.

  • Pilates - this gentle exercise with slow movements will boost the strength of some of your major muscle groups.
  • Tai chi – this gentle, Chinese martial art may boost your flexibility and balance. Yoga - some types are more demanding than others, so ask your instructor about the different types and classes.
  • Swimming or water aerobics. This type of exercise can help maintain muscle mass and strength, while being low-impact.
  • Carrying shopping – this has the hidden benefit of working your muscles.
  • Heavy gardening like digging – gives fresh air and work your muscles at the same time.
  • Going to the gym and lift light weights – an instructor can advise you on what exercises to do.
  • Balance exercises – balance is very important for maintaining health as you get older. Studies should that if you can balance on one leg for 10 seconds it is associated with lower risk of premature death. Try dancing or bowls for improving balance.

How do I exercise 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.

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.

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. Here some ways to get exercise 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). Watch our video for some simple lower leg exercises you can do daily from the comfort of your own home to help prevent DVT.

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

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.

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health and a view of any future health risks. You'll receive a personal lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a happier, healthier you.

profile picture of Jasmine Ward
Jasmine Ward (she/her)
MSK Physiotherapist at Bupa UK



Rasheda Begum, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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