It is a long-accepted belief that as we age it is appropriate (and expected) that we will slow down. We may even stop exercising altogether, but research shows that exercise for seniors can have a host of benefits. Here’s what we know and how seniors can get started exercising.

6 benefits of exercise for seniors

The following research studies add to the growing research of the benefits of physical activity at any age, but especially for seniors.

Even light exercise can improve your health

study out of Oregon State University found that older adults who participated in light exercise were an average of 18% healthier than those who did not exercise. The study looked at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES, between 2003 and 2006. This survey is conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics. Because the survey is a nationally representative sample of the U.S. population, widespread conclusions can be extrapolated from it.

Seniors who participated in 300 minutes a week of light exercise, including walking, completing household chores, and playing easy games like table tennis, had lower BMI measurements, smaller waist circumference, and better insulin measures than those who did not. This light intensity movement can include things like walking around while talking on the phone or parking the car far away from entrances to stores.

Lead author Paul Loprinzi, Ph.D. and assistant professor of exercise science and health promotion at the University of Mississippi pointed out that light intensity exercise can be an important part of a wellness program for seniors, saying:

“These findings highlight that, in addition to promoting moderate-intensity physical activity to older adults, we should not neglect the importance of engaging in lower-intensity, movement-based behaviors when the opportunity arises.”

Reduces pain and increases mobility

Not only does exercise help prevent chronic illness, increase overall health, and decrease the fear of falling, it also works to decrease pain and increase mobility.

An eight-week, low-impact exercise program designed and tested by the Hospital for Special Surgery saw dramatic improvements in pain and mobility levels among the seniors who participated regularly. Significantly, seniors in the study improved their ability to climb multiple flights of stairs; carry their groceries; and bend, kneel, or stoop. Ninety-one percent of participants felt less fatigue, and 97% reported less stiffness while completing the program.

Better sense of well-being and long-term health

study found that older adults who continued to exercise into their 60s experienced a better sense of well-being and long-term health than those who did not.

The study was a small-scale study in Liverpool, England. Nurses helped implement a 12-week fitness and exercise intervention program. Twenty-five participants were in the exercise group, and 17 were in the control group (and received no special interventions). Study participants had physical and mental health challenges that included arthritis, dementia, and high cholesterol.

Those patients in the exercise group reported better health and an increased sense of well-being during the study.

They also found gains in strength and endurance, and they were able to stick with their exercise regimen for 12 months after the end of the study where they continued to report gains in power and strength. The exercise group felt more knowledgeable about physical health and activity after the study. They were also motivated to continue exercising. Participants felt that they understood better the benefits of exercise and physical activity after completing the study.

Reduces cancer risk

For women, exercise becomes a crucial part of maintaining a healthy weight and reducing the risk of certain types of cancer. A report published by JAMA Oncology found that 300 minutes of moderate exercise per week was more effective at reducing body mass index (BMI) than a more vigorous 150 minutes, even without dietary changes.

Christine M. Friedenreich, Ph.D., of Alberta Health Services in Canada and the lead author of the study found a greater decrease in total BMI that included a greater loss of both abdominal and subcutaneous fat. Abdominal fat is a risk factor for a number of diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular issues.

Friedenreich pointed out that although any level of exercise is good, for post-menopausal women, 300 minutes is an optimal amount. She noted:

“A probable association between physical activity and post-menopausal breast cancer risk is supported by more than 100 epidemiologic studies, with strong biologic rationale supporting fat loss as an important (though not the only) mediator of this association. Our findings of a dose-response effect of exercise on total fat mass and several other adiposity measures including abdominal fat…provide a basis for encouraging postmenopausal women to exercise at least 300 minutes/week, longer than the minimum recommended for cancer prevention.”

Add strength training for more benefits

Yes, light exercise such as walking is a great way to maintain overall health. Strength training has tremendous benefits as well. It can help prevent frailty, improve balance and coordination, and allow seniors to maintain their independence for longer. One study rising out of a collaboration between the MedUni Vienna, Wiener Hilfswerk and Sportunion Österreich and sponsored by the Vienna Science and Technology Fund found that for independent living, strength training of the hands was key.

In the study, an intervention group worked specifically on building hand strength, increasing their strength by 20% overall. This group also showed an increase in physical activity along with improved cognitive function. Significantly, biologic measures of this increase were also demonstrated. Albumin, a protein in the blood whose absence indicates a higher chance of frailty, was significantly higher in the intervention group. And Dorner indicated that one of the biggest fears among seniors was alleviated among the intervention group, saying:

“…the fear of falls was significantly reduced in the intervention group. This is very important, because the fear of falling leads to frail people moving less, and thus further depleting their muscular strength and increasing the risk of falls.”

Improves mental health

A study out of the University of Illinois found that seniors who exercised not only had a higher volume of white matter in their brains but also displayed greater mental flexibility than those who did not exercise. This finding is a significant piece of the puzzle for those people who would like to maintain their active independence for as long as possible.

Postdoctoral researcher Agnieszka Burzynska, who led the study with Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, noted that this is an objective measure of how exercise affects the brain and ultimately the quality of a senior’s physical and cognitive health, saying:

“Our study, when viewed in the context of previous studies that have examined behavioral variability in cognitive tasks, suggests that more-fit older adults are more flexible, both cognitively and in terms of brain function, than their less-fit peers.”

Exercise that includes a mix of strength training and low- to medium-intensity activity for at least 300 minutes a week provides the best benefit for seniors in terms of physical and mental wellness.

6 Benefits Of Exercise For Seniors, And How To Get Started |

How does your exercise program measure up?

As we get older, we tend to slow down a bit. Muscles, joints, and bones begin to feel their years of wear, and some days are more achy than others. Many might take these creaks as a sign that they need to be more careful and gentle with their bodies. In fact, staying active and continuing to use the body with exercise is one of the key ways to stay healthier for longer.

No matter your age or physical condition, it’s possible—and healthy—to exercise. Benefits of exercise include increased energy and stamina, improved vitality and enthusiasm for life, reduced depression, and diminished pain.

What are the best types of exercise for seniors?

No two people age in similar ways. The first step to exercising safely is to assess your current physical level. If you’ve been sedentary for a while, or have put on some extra pounds, consider gentle movements like walking.

Other low-impact exercises include swimming and yoga. You can tailor these to your specific fitness level and improve fitness without hurting joints.

Low-impact activities are also wonderful for people with arthritis. Try tai chi, gentle weight training, and bicycling. These exercises get the blood flowing and encourage strength. They also gently, and with support, help the joints to move through a wider range of motion.

Be careful not to push too far if you have arthritis. Be kind to your body and mindful of its limits so you can continue to exercise. Too much of anything is dangerous, and that includes fitness. Begin where you are. Change the exercise to fit your body instead of forcing your body to do things it’s not ready for.

How can I exercise with a chronic condition?

If you’re living with chronic pain and find it difficult to get moving, consider intensifying the energy required for daily activities. If you’re washing clothes, for instance, take a few extra trips up and down the steps while folding laundry. Alternatively, vacuuming and sweeping require physical exertion and are wonderful ways to keep your house clean while improving physical health.

If you are disabled, you’ll need to use a little creativity when finding ways to stay active. Many people focus on those areas of strength they do have. If your legs don’t work well, for example, focus on upper body strength. It may be necessary to visit a physical therapist, doctor, or fitness professional. They can figure out how you can work around the disability to make it safe and beneficial.

How do I start exercising safely?

The key to exercising safely is to start slow and talk to your doctor before starting a program. Consider beginning by walking for five minutes around the block. Walking is generally safe, but see how you feel the next day. Sometimes it takes time for any pain or soreness to set in. Gaining fitness while staying safe requires finding your edge. Go slightly beyond your comfort zone but not so far it causes injury.

Ultimately, it’s better to move too slow than go too fast and injure yourself. Just do what you can. That rule applies for everyone, but especially for seniors, people with chronic pain, or those who haven’t exercised in a while.

Having the right equipment is also important. A good pair of shoes helps to support the foot and leg. If you have knee pain, for example, good shoes are critical. In addition to good footwear, you may want to consider wearing a brace for extra support. Wrist braces may protect against injury while weight lifting or even playing tennis, while knee braces are good for those wanting to walk or jog.

How can I stick with a new exercise program?

Maintaining an exercise regimen is one of the most difficult parts of staying active. One of the most important things to consider is selecting a fitness method that you enjoy. Continuing to participate in fitness is much easier if you enjoy the activity.

For some people, that might mean taking part in a wide variety of exercises. One day you might ride your bike through the neighborhood and another, you might walk through the park. Fortunately, many digital helpers are available to encourage your efforts. Apps like MyFitnessPal, which helps you track progress and set goals, and Spotify, which helps you along with just the right tunes, could make the difference between your sneakers lying lost and lonely in your closet or hitting the pavement to the beat of music.

Get help 

People with chronic pain may have an especially difficult time sticking to a new exercise program. Having bad pain days can make it seem like you’re ruining progress. To counter this frustration, focus on doing what you can when you can. Some days you’ll need to push yourself and exercise anyway, and others you’ll need to rest and continue tomorrow.

Fitness is a lifestyle. Part of this lifestyle is learning to understand your body and what decisions best support your health. That’s how you truly capture the benefits of exercise for seniors.

If you need help managing your pain so you can work towards a healthier lifestyle, it may be time to talk to a pain doctor. You can find a pain doctor in your area by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here:

Find Your Pain Doctor


Weekly updates on conditions, treatments, and news about everything happening inside pain medicine.

You have Successfully Subscribed!