Age and Exercise


Age and exercise is the relationship between growing older, generally starting at age 50, and the benefits of physical fitness.


Exercise and physical activity is just as important for older individuals as it is for younger people. Physical activities are ordinary routines or chores designed to get the body moving, such as gardening, walking the dog, raking leaves, and taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Exercise is a form of physical activity that is specifically planned, structured, and repetitive such as weight training, yoga, or an aerobics class. Regardless of health, ailments, and physical abilities, older adults can gain many health benefits from regular exercise, from walking to weightlifting. Staying fit increases the possibility that older adults will maintain their independence, live longer, and enjoy a good quality of life. Long-term regular exercise can slow the loss of muscle mass and prevent age-associated increases in body fat. Exercise also helps maintain the body's response time (meaning reaction to a stimulus), as well as its ability to deliver and use oxygen efficiently.

Generally, senior adults (age 50 and older) need the same exercise as younger adults. However, there are several areas of the body that tend to weaken as people age. One is neck flexibility, which is important for looking behind, especially while driving. Another is grip strength that makes opening jars and holding heavy objects easier.

For people who have never been physically active, starting exercise at any age, even in their 80s, can improve strength, endurance, and flexibility. It can help seniors increase lifespan, help them live longer on their own, and reduce the chances of getting type 2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and colon cancer. Seniors should start by choosing an enjoyable activity and setting an initial goal they can easily attain, such as walking ten minutes a day three times a week. They should gradually increase the length of time and number of days per week spent exercising. Seniors benefit most from a combination of aerobic, strength, balance, and flexibility exercises or activities, according to the U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The institute also recommends slowly increasing an exercise program to at least 30 minutes every day of moderate aerobic activity (rapid walking, jogging, swimming, tennis, or cycling) and incorporate strength, balance, and flexibility exercises two or three days a week.

Several studies published in 2016 supported the benefits of exercise and physical activity in people as they age, including those older than 65 years. Regular activity, along with other healthy behaviors such as a good diet and not smoking, was shown to extend life for seniors. The studies also found that those who practiced healthy exercise and diet habits had better quality of life and more function in the years before death than those who were inactive.


Exercises for older individuals fall into four basic categories: endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. Some activities fit into more than one category. For example, many endurance activities also build strength, and some strength exercises can help improve balance. Many older adults tend to focus on a single activity or exercise, but incorporating all four into a weekly exercise routine produces maximum benefits and reduces the risk of injury.

Endurance Strength

Strength (resistance) exercises increase the size and strength of muscles. Even light strength training keeps key muscles toned and helps older adults with everyday activities, including climbing stairs, carrying groceries, and doing house and yard work. Strength exercises include lifting free weights (barbells and dumbbells); using a resistance band; and using resistance machines at the gym, fitness club, or at home. Other strengthening exercises include pushups, situps, and pull-ups.


Balance exercises help prevent falls that are common in older adults. Exercises to improve balance include standing on one foot (alternating between feet), walking heel to toe, yoga, and the martial art of tai chi.


Flexibility exercises stretch the muscles and help the body stay limber. Improved flexibility means more freedom of movement, a wider range of motion, and improved ability to do everyday activities. It also can improve posture, enhance coordination, and increase blood circulation. Flexibility exercises include stretching, especially the shoulder, upper arm, and calf muscles, yoga, tai chi, aikido, and chi kung (qigong). It is a good warmup and cooldown routine for other exercises as well.

Role in human health

Regular exercise in older adults can help:

Achilles tendon—
The tendon that connects the heel bone to the calf muscles, also known as tendo calcaneus.
An exercise, sport, or activity that increases breathing and heart rate, including walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, and rowing.
A Japanese martial art of self-defense that uses mainly the arms and hands to immobilize and throw an opponent.
Chi kung—
Also known as qigong, a Chinese system of breathing control and exercises to benefit the body and mind.
Martial arts—
A system of self-defense that uses armed and unarmed forms of combat, first developed 2,000 years ago in Asia.
Tai chi—
A form of Chinese exercise that uses gentle body movements.

Common diseases and disorders

With a growing number of senior citizens participating in competitive and recreational sports and regular exercise programs, the number of sports injuries among older adults is on the rise. Virtually any part of the body can be injured during sports or exercise, but the term sports injury is usually reserved for injuries that involve the musculoskeletal system, which includes the muscles, bones, and associated tissues such as cartilage. The most common sports injuries in older adults affect the ligaments, tendons, and joints.

Sprains and strains

A sprain is a stretch or tear of a ligament, the band of connective tissues that joins the end of one bone with another. Sprains are caused by trauma such as a fall or blow to the body that knocks a joint out of position and, in the worst case, ruptures the supporting ligaments. Sprains can range from first degree (minimally stretched ligament) to third degree (a complete tear). Areas of the body most vulnerable to sprains are ankles, knees, and wrists. A strain is a twist, pull, or tear of a muscle or tendon, a cord of tissue connecting muscle to bone.

Knee injuries
Achilles tendon injuries

Achilles tendon injuries can be sudden and agonizing. Achilles tendon injuries include a stretch, tear, or irritation to the tendon connecting the calf muscle to the back of the heel. Achilles tendon injuries are common in older people who might not exercise regularly or take time to stretch properly before an activity.


When the two bones that come together to form a joint become separated, the joint is described as being dislocated. A dislocated joint is an emergency situation that requires medical treatment. The joints most likely to be dislocated in older adults are the shoulder joints. Other less common dislocations are of the knees, hips, and elbows.


A fracture is a break in the bone that can occur from either a quick, one-time injury to the bone (acute fracture) or from repeated stress to the bone over time (stress fracture). Acute fractures can be simple (a clean break with little damage to the surrounding tissue) or compound (a break in which the bone pierces the skin with little damage to the surrounding tissue). Most acute fractures are emergencies and require quick medical attention. One that breaks the skin is especially dangerous because there is a high risk of infection. Stress fractures occur largely in the feet and legs and are common in sports that require repetitive impact, primarily running/jumping activities such as jogging and basketball. Running creates forces two to three times a person's body weight on the lower limbs. Also, bones are generally more fragile in older adults than younger adults.

See also Fracture ; Senior fitness .



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Chodzko-Zajko, Wojtek. ACSM's Exercise for Older Adults. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2014.


Daum, C. W., et al. “Exercise Interventions for Preserving Physical Function Among Cancer Survivors in Middle to Late Life.” Journal of Frailty and Aging 5, no. 4 (2016): 214–24.

Reynolds, Gretchen. “How Exercise Keeps Us Young.” New York Times (January 7, 2015): Well Section.


American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. “Seniors and Exercise: Starting an Exercise Program.” (accessed November 28, 2016).

National Institute on Aging. “Exercise and Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging.” (accessed November 28, 2016).

Rostein, Gary. “Studies Show People Get More Benefits from Exercise as They Age.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (accessed November 28, 2016).


American Senior Fitness Association, PO Box 2575, New Smyrna Beach, FL, 32170, (386) 423-6634, Fax: (877) 365-3048, (888) 689-6791,, .

Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute, 201-185 Somerset Street West, Ottawa, Canada, ON, K2P 0J2, (613) 233-5528, Fax: (613) 233-5536, .

National Center on Physical Activity and Disability, 1640 W. Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL, 60608-6904, Fax: (312) 355-4058, (800) 900-8086, .

National Institute on Aging, Building 31, Room 5C27, 31 Center Drive, MSC 2292, Bethesda, MD, 20892, (301) 496-1752, Fax: (301) 496-1072, (800) 222-2225,, .

Ken R. Wells
Revised by Teresa G. Odle, BA, ELS

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.