Finding Your Fitness Niche

Understand Your Exercise Needs for Increased Health, Independence in the Golden Years

Senior lady with arm weight

Exercising in the golden years might seem counterintuitive. After all, older adults typically trade in their busy schedules and overflowing to-do lists for a more relaxed way of life. But getting an appropriate amount of exercise is important to ensure that you keep going strong, regardless of your current pace.

For one thing, exercise helps improve immunity, cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory function (including lowering the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure), bone density, gastrointestinal function, and chronic conditions such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, obesity and arthritis—just to name a few—according to Amy Rauworth, director of policy and public affairs at Lakeshore Foundation and associate director for operations and exercise physiology research at the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability in Birmingham, Ala.

“Physical activity can decrease or prevent many of the health issues that are associated with aging and help to maintain independence in daily living,” Rauworth says.

Focus on Functional Fitness

When it comes to exercise for seniors, all movements are not created equal. In fact, Rauworth says she often designs exercise programs that emphasize improving function in everyday living.

“At times even older adults may not be ready for structured exercise. So it is important to look at the big picture of activity throughout the day,” she says. “For example, I have often encouraged people to go to the mailbox five times if they have five letters or to practice functional skills like putting away clothes one at a time, or standing on one foot while doing dishes and holding onto the counter if needed for balance support.”

Rauworth also uses this strategy when setting goals. “The goals should be … linked to important life skills such as climbing several stairs to enter the home of their grandchildren,” she explains.

When developing an exercise plan, cardiovascular exercises such as seated aerobics and ergometry (exercises performed on treadmills, recumbent bicycles and rowing machines, many of which are wheelchair accessible) are important. But Rauworth says strength and flexibility are also areas of focus for older adults with mobility conditions.


Strength training should include exercises such as squats, leg presses, lat pulldowns, rows, leg flexion and leg extensions. Rauworth says that targeting the lower body helps increase mobility, improve balance and prevent falls, while strengthening the upper body improves grip and helps increase functional independence.

“If fatigue is an issue, intermittent bouts of exercise if done at the same intensity can be beneficial,” Rauworth says. “For example if you do 10-minute bouts of exercise three times a day at the appropriate intensity, you can still gain the same type of benefits that you would performing the exercise in a continuous 30-minute bout.”

For seniors who use wheelchairs, building upper-body strength is paramount. By targeting the upper back and shoulders, with exercises such as pulling and rowing, seniors can counteract overuse of the muscles used to propel a wheelchair and improve sitting posture and balance. Exercises that emphasize pushing and pressing, such as the bench press and overhead press, help strengthen muscles used for wheeling and transferring. Rauworth says to start with lighter weights and aim for three sets of eight to 12 repetitions.


Targeting the hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, back, chest and arms with exercises that improve flexibility and balance can help prevent falls and improve mobility, Rauworth says. Rauworth recommends that seniors hold each stretch for 10-30 seconds and repeat up to three times. However, she says to avoid stretching cold muscles.

“These stretches should be performed after a workout or hot bath to ensure that the muscles are warm and loosened,” Rauworth advises. “I often explain to clients that your muscles are like honey or molasses. If you put it in the refrigerator, it becomes more solid and less fluid. If you take it out at room temperature, the consistency changes to become more fluid, and if you heat it up, even more so.”

Are You Getting Enough Movement?

How much exercise do you need? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults should meet the following physical activity guidelines:

  • 2 hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as brisk walking) every week AND muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups (that is, the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms) on two or more days a week – OR –
  • 1 hour and 15 minutes (75 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (such as jogging or running) every week AND muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week – OR –
  • An equivalent mix of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity AND muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week.

Weigh the Risks

If you’ve ever popped a workout video into the DVD player, you’ve probably seen the warning about consulting your physician before beginning a new workout plan. According to Rauworth, that warning is something to be heeded, especially for people who have a heart condition.

“An individual who has known metabolic, cardiovascular or pulmonary disease and has been sedentary for a prolonged period of time should seek physician guidance before beginning an exercise routine,” she says.

If you’re unsure whether you should ask your doctor, take the Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR-Q). Answering yes to one or more of these questions means you should consult your doctor.

Also consider the American College of Sports Medicine cardiovascular risk factors to determine if you are at moderate (two or more risk factors) or high risk (known cardiovascular, pulmonary or metabolic disease and one or more risk factors) for coronary artery disease.

Age Men, 45 or older; women, 55 or older
Family history Myocardial infarction, coronary revascularization, or sudden death of father/other first-degree male relative before age 55 or mother/other first-degree female relative before age 65
Cigarette smoking Current or quit less than 6 months ago
Hypertension 140/90 mm Hg or higher blood pressure observed on two separate occasions or taking antihypertensive medication
High Cholesterol High-density lipoprotein (HDL) 40 mg/dL or higher, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) 130 mg/dL or higher, total serum cholesterol 200 mg/dL or higher, or taking lipid-lowering medication
Prediabetes Fasting plasma glucose 100 mg/dL or higher but less than 126 mg/dL on two separate occasions
Obesity Body mass index 30 kg/m2 or more or waist girth more than 102 cm in men and 88 cm in women
Sedentary lifestyle Not meeting 30 minutes moderate physical activity three or more days of the week for three or more months

Information provided by Amy Rauworth, National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability

“Having a disability and being healthy is not an oxymoron. We are all on a continuum of health, and it is up to us to kick the tires around and change the oil every once in a while to ensure that our body is in the best shape it can be because this is the only one you're going to get.” –Amy Rauworth, National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCPAD)

Even without the risk factors outlined above, older adults encounter some hazards when exercising. For example, the risk of falling is increased in this population. Therefore, seniors must be vigilant about safety while using equipment and performing exercises, such as staying in well-lit areas and choosing user-friendly equipment.

In addition, older adults cannot adapt to temperature changes as quickly as younger adults. “So proper clothing must be worn to adjust to different situations,” Rauworth says. “Factors such as decreased muscle mass, loss of subcutaneous fat, inadequate vasoconstriction (or narrowing of the blood vessels) or effects of medications increase a senior’s susceptibility to cold injuries.”

Loss of sensation, especially in the feet, can inhibit the ability to detect blisters and friction injuries as well, Rauworth says.

Learn to Adapt

But what if you have mobility challenges, such as using a wheelchair to get around?

“Having a disability and being healthy is not an oxymoron,” Rauworth explains. “We are all on a continuum of health, and it is up to us to kick the tires around and change the oil every once in a while to ensure that our body is in the best shape it can be because this is the only one you're going to get.”

And complaining about difficulty getting around is no excuse for missing a trip to the gym.

“If you think it is difficult now to be active, just wait for another 5 to 10 years, and maintaining the level of independence you wish to achieve may not be possible,” says Rauworth.

Today’s technology lends itself to more exercise options for people with mobility conditions than ever before. Activity gloves, mitts, ankle straps and cuffs can be used to strap an affected limb to an exercise machine, such as a recumbent bike, says Rauworth. These devices can also help when performing resistance exercises when handgrip strength or function is an issue. Resistance bands or Thera-bands can be used to strap legs together when using recumbent machines.

Rauworth cautions that it’s important to understand the flexibility of a joint before attaching a limb to a machine. Moving a joint through an inappropriate range might cause injury.

Many exercises can also be done in a seated position using resistance bands or free weights. These exercises include the bicep curl, triceps kickback and overhead extension, shoulder shrug, front raise, overhead shoulder press, upright row, seated row and chest fly, Rauworth says.

Choose a Workout Plan

Senior man on treadmill

Now it’s time to get moving. Don’t know the difference between a tricep kickback and a shoulder fly? Turn to these online resources for step-by-step workout plans, illustrations and videos—all of which are suited for older adults and those with limited mobility. Also consider consulting a physical trainer to help you get into the exercise habit.

CDC Strength Training Exercise Plan – a guide for strength training using minimal equipment; targeted to older adults

Exercise Videos for Older Adults and Seniors – videos for seniors including yoga, a balance and fall prevention workout, and senior splash

Seated Exercise Videos – videos for exercises that can be done from the comfort of your wheelchair or chair, including a video from Richard Simmons

Thera-Band Exercises – strengthening and flexibility exercises using the Therap-band resistance band; click “Next Section” to scroll through directions and illustrations for nearly 20 exercises

Study to Examine Exercise in Older Adults With Osteoarthritis

What can $3 million help uncover about community-based health promotion programs for older adults with osteoarthritis? Thanks to a new grant from the National Institute on Aging, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) is determined to find out.

UIC researchers will compare Fit and Strong!, an evidence-based physical activity and health behavior change program, with Fit and Strong! Plus, the traditional program with an added weight management/dietary component.

While the traditional program has been very successful, "we felt that we needed to address the underlying weight issues that cause or exacerbate lower extremity osteoarthritis," said Susan Hughes, co-principal investigator of the project and co-director of the Center for Research on Health and Aging at UIC’s Institute for Health Research and Policy.

Four hundred adults 60 and older with lower extremity osteoarthritis and a body mass index of between 25 and 50 will be enrolled in the study, divided evenly between the Fit and Strong! and Fit and Strong! Plus programs.

Participants in Fit and Strong! Plus will participate in the traditional program and receive dietary and weight loss interactive sessions. The goal will be to reduce overall weight by a minimum of 5 percent by encouraging participants to eat more fruits and vegetables and reduce overall calorie consumption.

All participants will be evaluated at two, six, 12, 18 and 24 months. The study will assess dietary changes, weight loss, exercise participation, osteoarthritis symptoms, anxiety and depression. In addition, researchers will analyze Medicare claims data for participants before and after the intervention to evaluate healthcare use and cost.

Find out more about Fit and Strong!