Physical Activity in Older Americans

Updated:Apr 30,2014

Exercise in Older AmericansIn general, people become less physically active as they get older. Nearly 40 percent of people over the age of 55 report no leisure-time physical activity. But, the older people become, the more they need regular exercise.

The Benefits:
  • It helps prevent bone loss (reducing the risk of fractures) and reduces the risk of dozens of diseases associated with aging.
  • It increases muscle strength and may improve balance and coordination, which can reduce the likelihood of falling. It also increases the ability for basic living, making it easier to carry grocery bags, get up from a chair and take care of household chores. Being physically active is a real key in maintaining quality of life and independence.
  • Elderly men with high blood pressure can lower their risk of death with even moderate levels of fitness.
  • Studies have shown that increased levels of physical activity are associated with a reduced incidence of coronary heart disease, hypertension, non-insulin-dependent Type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, depression and anxiety.
  • Active people with high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes or other chronic diseases are less likely to die prematurely than inactive people with these conditions.
  • Inactive people lose muscle fiber at a rate of 3 to 5 percent every decade after age 30. That's a 15 percent loss of muscle fiber by age 60!
  • Health experts warn that as a consequence of diminished exercise tolerance, a large and increasing number of elderly people will be living below, at, or just above "thresholds of physical ability." In this condition, a minor illness could make them completely dependent on others for their daily care.
  • Recent studies support the notion that fitness has a positive impact on health regardless of age or the presence of chronic illness.
Exercise Tips:
  • If you have a family history of heart disease, check with your doctor first.  It's a good idea to have a physical examination and take a graded exercise test before you start an exercise program.
  • Pick rhythmic, repetitive activities that challenge the circulatory system, and exercise at an intensity appropriate for you.
  • Pick activities that are fun, suit your needs and that you can do year-round.
  • Wear comfortable clothing and footwear appropriate for the temperature, humidity and activity.
  • If you decide that walking is a great activity for you, choose a place that has a smooth, soft surface; that does not intersect with traffic; and that's well-lighted and safe.  Many older Americans walk at area shopping malls.
  • Find a companion to exercise with you if it will help you stay on a regular schedule and add to your enjoyment.
  • Because muscular adaptation and elasticity generally slows with age, take more time to warm up and cool down while exercising.  Make sure you stretch slowly.
  • Start exercising at a low intensity (especially if you've been mostly sedentary), and progress gradually.
  • If you plan to be active more than 30 minutes, then try to drink some water every 15 minutes, especially when exercising in hot, humid conditions.  As you age, your sense of thirst tends to decrease and you can't completely rely on your internal sense of thirst.
Learn more:

This content was last reviewed on 03/22/2013.

Physical Activity

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