How Much Exercise Do Seniors Need?

Jae Gruenke - February 04, 2013 10:10 AM

You've heard by now that the most important thing you can do for your body, your mind, and your quality of life as you grow older is to exercise.  And now you're ready to take action!  But where do you start and how much do you need to do in order to reap the benefits?

The World Health Organization, The American College of Sports Medicine, and the Centers for Disease Control essentially agree on the guidelines for everyone over 65.  They cover four basic types of exercise, telling you how much of each you need every week:

1. Work Your Heart And Lungs: “Cardiovascular Exercise”
Spend the most time on this, since the payoff is big for your heart, your blood pressure, your blood sugar regulation, your cognitive function, your mood, your energy... the list is practically endless.

Do moderate cardiovascular exercise like walking or cycling or swimming for a total of 2 ½ hours or more per week OR do vigorous cardiovascular exercise like running for a total of an hour and 15 minutes or more per week.  

That means you could go for a 30 minute walk 5 days/wk or a 25 minute jog 3 days/wk.  You can also mix the two intensities of exercise and adjust the time appropriately.  For a much bigger health payoff, double the time you spend.

2. Work Your Muscles: “Strength Training”
Challenge all the major muscle groups of your body twice a week with weights or other resistance equipment.  Use enough resistance that you can only do each exercise 8-12 times, no more, or else it won't be challenging enough to really make you stronger.  

You'll probably need to consult a professional for this, but it's worth the investment because it will help keep you from losing strength as you get older, and that makes a big difference in your likelihood of falling.  It also helps you keep from losing bone density.  

3. Work On Your Balance And Coordination: “Neuromotor Exercise”
Also called “functional fitness,” this used to be called balance training but has gotten better and can do much more for you than just standing on one leg.  Do it 2-3 times a week for 20-30 minutes.  Yes, practicing balancing on one leg will be good for you and help you with your balance overall, but neuromotor training also includes gait exercises (such as walking sideways and pretending to walk on a tightrope) and other exercises to improve agility, coordination, and proprioception, or the ability to feel your body and what you're doing.  

Tai Chi, yoga, dance, and the kinds of balance and agility drills athletes do all fit in this category of exercise.  In my opinion, this is the really fun and interesting category, the one that will make you feel awake, alive, and young.  

4. Stretch It Out: “Flexibility Training”
This is pretty basic, just stretch all your major muscle groups 2-3 times per week.  If it hurts you're stretching too hard – make sure you can relax into your stretches.  The most common guideline here is to hold each stretch for 20 seconds and repeat three times, but there are many different kinds of stretches and they all work.  Yoga is a great way to take care of this, or a stretching class or video.  

Any Exercise Is Better Than No Exercise  
If you have a health condition that makes the above guidelines unattainable, the World Health Organization says you “should be as physically active as [your] abilities and conditions allow.”  In my experience, people who have chronic illnesses benefit greatly from however much exercise they can manage.

If you're basically healthy and you're thinking, “I don't have the energy to do that much exercise,” then you're one of the people who needs it the most.  It's backwards to think that you have energy in order to exercise; in fact, the only way to get energy is to exercise!  Begin exercising and, very quickly, the energy will come.  

If you're not doing anything now, start with the cardiovascular exercise – go for a walk or a swim or ride a bike (regular or stationary).  You can exercise in as little as 10 minutes at a time to meet these guidelines, meaning if you can walk for 10 minutes, and work up to doing that 2 times a day every day, you'll be getting 140 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise per week, just a hair shy of what's recommended.  If you're a stickler for numbers, make each walk 11 minutes and you'll surpass the basic recommendation.

Once you're there, you can begin adding in the other types of exercise (consult a fitness professional to learn stretches and get strengthening and balance routines or go to classes) and voila! You will be amazed at how good you feel, and your doctor will be amazed as well when he looks at your blood pressure, blood sugar, and other indicators of your health.  And frankly, wouldn't it be fun to amaze your doctor?

For more examples of how to put these guidelines into practice, go to the CDC's very helpful page:

Jae Gruenke is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner, ACE-Certified Personal Trainer, and owner of Intelligent Exercise LLC. Her staff offers cutting-edge fitness and movement education to seniors in their homes in the NYC area and teaches classes in senior centers and assisted living facilities.  For more resources on senior fitness go to

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