Exercise For Seniors: What You Need to Know

Exercising Over 65

Stocksy/Design by Cristina Cianci

There are so many reasons to continue exercising as you get older—not only can it help keep you healthy and feeling strong, but it allows you to maintain mobility and flexibility, too. 

After 65, there are a few things to keep in mind while you workout. While some exercises like walking and functional training are ideal, high-impact exercises might not work for your body anymore.

We asked top trainers for some considerations to keep in mind while working out after 65, the best exercises to try, and how to know you are working out at the correct level for you. 

Meet the Expert

  • Meghan Hayden is a certified personal trainer at 1and1 Life. Based out of Brooklyn, New York, she currently serves as director of training at Ghost Brooklyn.
  • Lara Heimann is a physical therapist and yoga instructor. She is the creator of the LYT Yoga Method, and host of the Redefining Yoga podcast.
  • Chris Higgins is an Oregon-based ACSM certified trainer. He is the founder of calisthenics-gear.com

Four Considerations Seniors Should Keep In Mind While Working Out

  1. Consult your physician: It’s wonderful that you are feeling motivated to start a new exercise routine, but it’s so important to talk to your doctor first, notes Meghan Hayden, certified personal trainer at 1and1 Life. “First thing's first: I recommend consulting your physician,” she says. “Someone over 65 years old is likely taking prescribed medication, and a lot of medications can affect heart rate, blood pressure, and stress response. Therefore, if exercise is not already included in their normal day- to-day, it’s a good idea to understand how the body might respond before starting.” 
  2. Ease in gradually: Once you get the okay to start exercising, be sure to ease in gradually before jumping in, recommends physical therapist and yoga instructor Lara Heimann. “Specific challenges as we age, for those who have been inactive, could include decreased endurance, decreased muscle tone and readiness for the motor neurons to fire, [and] possible sub-optimal posture with decreased joint mobility and connective tissue pliability, affecting overall movement performance,” she says. “All of these challenges require that persons gradually start a fitness program, especially for the 65 years of age and above population because they have had more time to get less fit and more sedentary.” 
  3. Pain doesn’t equal gain: As you get older, you’ll have to rethink some of what you know about exercise, too. For example, as you age, pain doesn’t necessarily mean gain anymore. In fact, pain can be a sign that something is wrong. Instead, focus on working out with proper form. “Pain does not equal gain,” Hayden says. “Injury prevention is one of the most important principles of any training program for 65 [and older]. Begin by gaining an understanding of how each joint works, their individual movement capacity, and the form of each exercise. Consistency and longevity are key here, so moving well and pain-free is essential.” 
  4. Choose functional exercises: Choose functional exercises that will help you in your everyday life, recommends Hayden. “The primary goal for any training program over 65 is to make daily tasks easier,” she says. “Therefore, perform exercises that mimic the movements commonly done throughout the day. This includes squatting, pressing, lunging, single leg balance, getting off the floor, rolling, crawling, and more.”

Best Exercises for Seniors 

Doing a variety of exercises each week is important, notes Heimann. “Start with a plan with a variety of movement, which includes both cardio and strength training. Begin with shorter periods of working out and lighter loads of stress on the muscles,” she says. And don’t forget to add in some functional exercises, adds Hayden. Some of the best cardio and functional exercises for seniors are below.  

Zumba: If you love dancing, you’ll likely enjoy the movements in Zumba. “Zumba is an absolute hit among older adults,” says ACSM-certified trainer Chris Higgins. Plus, it’s also good for staying loose. “The upper body must be loosened up and shoulders must move with your feet,” he says. 

Power walking: Don’t underestimate the benefits of walking, especially as you get older. “As a low impact exercise, power walking integrated with walking sticks can boost your overall fitness by letting you practice your own pace but with longer strides,” Higgins says. “And walking sticks add weight to improve balance as well.” 

Sit-to-stand: “Getting up from a seated position is one of the most common daily tasks, and is most commonly used to test lower body strength in older adults,” notes Hayden. Follow the steps below to try this functional exercise.  

  1. Find a chair about 17 inches off the ground, or knee height. Place feet right in front of the chair between hip and shoulder-width apart. 
  2. Keeping your gaze ahead, bend knees and hips together, lowering yourself to the chair under control.
  3. Press through your feet to stand tall. Shins should stay vertical throughout the movement, and the chest should stay tall, never dropping below the hips.

Floor raises: “Falls are the leading cause of injury-related death among adults over 65,” Hayden says. “The reason being once adults 65 and older fall, they are not able to get up. So, start on the floor in any position (side, back, stomach, etc.) and practice getting back up to a standing position.” 

How to Make Sure You Aren’t Overexerting Yourself 

Over 65, it’s important to never exert yourself to 100 percent, Hayden says. And if you are on medication, such as blood pressure medication, you may need to work out at a lower intensity, too. You can ask your doctor for more information.

“Use the rated perceived exertion (RPE) scale as much as possible rather than a heart rate or blood pressure monitor,” she recommends. “RPE is the rate of perceived exhaustion with a scale of six to 20; a casual walk being scored a six, and the max intensity is 20. Use the scale throughout training to stay between 10-17.”

And if you are hoping to boost your workouts after exercising for a while, Hayden says to first make sure you can increase repetitions without compromising your form. When the end range of repetitions can be performed with correct form, increase resistance by 5 percent,” she says. “This small increment will increase resistance safely while also presenting a challenge, but stop the set immediately when the form breaks.”

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