Best Types of Exercise for Older Adults

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Stay strong, be safe, and maintain your independence by integrating these top fitness options into your training plan.

No matter your age, the best exercise for you is the one you enjoy the most. After all, if you don’t like your workout, how long are you going to stick with it? Still, when sampling any of the countless forms of exercise out there, it’s important to keep in mind exactly what you want and need to get out of your workout. And that’s bound to change throughout the years, says Barbara Bergin, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in Austin, Texas. She explains that, for older adults, the top priority must be maintaining your quality of life outside the gym.

To do that, focus on workouts designed to help you build strength, stay mobile, and improve balance. Also key is considering the requirements of any given fitness option. Are your bones strong enough for high-impact exercises such as running and jumping? Is your balance where it needs to be for fall-free bike rides? How much time to do you realistically have to spend at the gym? Below, experts share the best exercises for older adults. As always, it’s smart to check with your doctor before beginning a new fitness program, especially if you have a chronic condition, balance issues, or injuries. The good news: Assuming your doctor hasn’t said a type of exercise is off-limits, choose whatever you like—they’re all terrific.

1. Swimming

There’s a reason swimming is called the world’s perfect exercise. Whether you’re performing the breaststroke, taking a water aerobics class, or playing Marco Polo with the grandkids, getting in the pool is a great way to increase your cardiovascular fitness while also strengthening your muscles, says Victoria Shin, M.D., a cardiologist at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California. It does all this while putting minimal stress on your bones and joints, which is a major plus for men and women who have arthritis or osteoporosis. As if that isn’t enough reason to jump in, a 2012 study in the Journal of Aging Research suggests that swimming can help older adults keep their minds as sharp as their bodies. Not a swimmer? You can still benefit from water aerobics classes that stay in the shallow end of the pool.

2. Yoga

With a holistic approach to fitness, yoga helps build muscle strength, aerobic fitness, core stability, and total-body mobility—all of which are important for older adults, says David Kruse, M.D., a sports medicine specialist at the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Orange, California. And while yoga is low-impact and gentle on your body’s joints, it’s still weight-bearing, meaning that you have to support your body’s weight with every posture. That’s vital to strengthening not just your muscles, but also your bones.

3. Pilates

Like yoga, Pilates is known for being a low-impact strength program, but its focus on core stability makes it especially great for older adults, Dr. Shin says. One 2014 analysis in the European Review of Aging and Physical Activity concluded that Pilates participation improves balance in older adults.

Most gyms offer Pilates classes designed for first-timers, which is especially important for those interested in classes that rely on the “reformer,” an exercise machine that uses springs, bars, and straps for resistance.

4. Bodyweight Training

One out of every three older adults experiences severe muscle loss, according to an analysis in Age and Ageing. Meanwhile, when it comes to fighting age-related abdominal fat—a marker for overall health— Harvard research shows that strength training is more time-efficient than cardiovascular exercise.

Fortunately, you don’t have to bench press a ton of weight to keep your muscles healthy and prevent fat gain over the years, Dr. Shin says. In fact, she notes, for most older adults, it’s far safer to start small. Simple bodyweight exercises such as chair squats, single-leg stands, wall pushups, and stair climbing will do a great job at keeping your body strong and ready to tackle everyday activities.

5. Resistance Band Workouts

Your gym undoubtedly has an array of resistance bands ready for use, but these inexpensive and beginner-friendly exercise tools are perfect for at-home workouts as well, Dr. Shin says.

In addition, bands can help you challenge your muscles in ways you might not be able to with equipment-free training. For instance, when it comes to strengthening your back and improving your posture, rows and other pulling motions are vital—but hard to do if you don’t have any exercise equipment on hand.

6. Walking

Even if you can’t find the time to perform a structured workout, you likely have time to put one foot in front of the other to get where you need to go, Dr. Shin says. She recommends most people take 10,000 steps per day, even on days they don’t “work out.” Research in PLOS One found that people who increased their activity levels to 10,000 steps per day were 46 percent less likely to die in the following 10 years compared to those who stayed sedentary. For some older adults or people with a chronic condition, 10,000 may not be the right exact number. But the fact remains: Walking is a great, free workout that can have a big impact on your health.

7. Cycling

Another low-impact form of exercise, cycling is ideal for those who want to increase their leg strength, but can’t run or engage in other highimpact sports due to osteoporosis or joint issues, Dr. Shin says. A 2017 analysis in the European Review of Aging and Physical Activity found that cycling also helps improve cardiovascular health, metabolic health, and cognitive performance in adults older than 70. If you have cycling trails near your home, consider scheduling regular bike rides with family or friends. Indoor cycling is another great option for those without access to trails or when weather conditions aren’t ideal. Plus, with a stationary bike, you don’t have to worry about falls or needing to wear a helmet.