The importance of exercise as you get older

Physical activity and exercise can help you stay healthy, energetic and independent as you get older.

Many adults aged 65 and over spend on average 10 hours or more each day sitting or lying down, making them the most sedentary age group.

They're paying a high price for their inactivity, with higher rates of falls, obesity, heart disease and early death compared with the general population.

As you get older, it becomes even more important to you remain active if you want to stay healthy and maintain your independence.

If you don't stay active, all the things you’ve always enjoyed doing and taken for granted may start to become that little bit harder.

You may struggle to pursue simple pleasures, such as playing with the grandchildren, walking to the shops, leisure activities and meeting up with friends.

You might start to get aches and pains that you never had before, and have less energy to go out. You may also be more vulnerable to falling. 

This can all lead to being less able to look after yourself and do the things you enjoy.

Strong evidence

There's strong scientific evidence that people who are active have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, depression and dementia.

What doesn’t count?

While they do contribute to reducing sedentary time, daily chores such as shopping, cooking or housework don't count towards your 150 minutes because the effort isn’t hard enough to increase your heart rate.

If you want to stay pain-free, reduce your risk of mental illness, and be able to go out and stay independent well into old age, you are advised to keep moving.

It’s that simple. There are lots of ways you can get active, and it’s not just about exercising.

“As people get older and their bodies decline in function, physical activity helps to slow that decline,” says Dr Nick Cavill, a health promotion consultant. “It’s important they remain active or even increase their activity as they get older.”

Most people as they get older want to keep in touch with society – their community, friends and neighbours – and being active is a way to ensure that they can keep doing that.

What is physical activity?

Physical activity is anything that gets your body moving. It can include anything from walking to recreational sport.

The first thing to bear in mind as you get older is to keep moving. On a basic level, that means making sure you don’t spend hours on end sitting down during the day.

This means avoiding long periods of TV viewing, computer use, driving, and sitting to read, talk or listen to music. 

In addition to reducing sedentary time, you are advised to do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week.

Try to do something every day, preferably in bouts of 10 minutes of activity or more. The more you do, the greater the health gains.

One way of achieving your weekly physical activity target is to do 30 minutes on at least five days a week.

On at least two days a week, activities should include those that strengthen muscles and bones, such as weight training, carrying heavy loads and heavy gardening.

Examples of moderate-intensity aerobic activities include:

  • walking fast
  • doing water aerobics
  • riding a bike on level ground or with few hills
  • playing doubles tennis
  • pushing a lawn mower

Daily chores such as shopping, cooking or housework don't count towards your 150 minutes because the effort isn’t hard enough to raise your heart rate although they do help break up sedentary time.

Find out more about how much activity older adults need to do to keep healthy.

Getting started

What you do will depend on your own circumstances, but as a guiding principle, it's a good idea to do activities that you enjoy.

Healthy weight

  • Adults who are overweight can improve their health by meeting the activity guidelines, even if they don’t lose weight.
  • To lose weight, you're likely to need to do more than 150 minutes a week and make changes to your diet.
  • Start by gradually building up towards 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week.

If you're already active, you may find it useful to know that you can reap the same health benefits from 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, such as running or singles tennis.

As a rule of thumb, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity can give similar health benefits as 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity.

Research shows that it’s never too late to adopt and reap the health benefits from a more active lifestyle. For example, older adults who are active will reduce their risk of heart disease and stroke to a similar level as younger people who are active.

If you've been inactive for a while, you don't have to rush into exercising. You can build up activity gradually to reach recommended levels.

You will still be improving your health in the process, and you'll reduce your risk of falls and other ailments.

“The biggest benefits come to those who start from scratch,” says Dr Cavill. “It’s moving from a sedentary lifestyle to a moderately active one that makes the biggest difference to your health. The more you do, the greater the health benefits.”

Click on the links below for more ideas on raising your activity levels:

Page last reviewed: 11/07/2013

Next review due: 11/07/2015


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The 4 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

elsfield43 said on 13 January 2014

Whoever wrote the above article, needs to be reminded that when you get to 70 years, the last thing you will take is a bossy attitude.

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nakedphil said on 14 July 2013

Is walking fast before or after knee replacement?
before or after lumber spine has magically repaired itself? said to be that of a 90 year old. I'm 62

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thegoldenestateindia said on 02 July 2013

An interesting article which gives us a brief overview of what is required by the elderly; however, a bit more detail would be helpful. Considering that most of our seniors would not be aware of some of the new but essential facts mentioned in the post. We must to do everything in our power to ensure that our seniors have a life of dignity and these become the golden years of their life.

The Golden Estate
Privileged Living for Senior Citizens

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echinides said on 10 June 2013

This doesn't add up.Even if you do 30 minutes exercise a day it is still possible to be generally sedentary.If you sleep for 8 hours and watch 1 hour of tv and sit down for three meals you would easily exceed the 10 hours you suggest adults " aged 65 and over spend on average " .The true figures for the whole population are probably many more hours each day watching tv and using pcs and Smartphones.

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