Fitness for older adults and seniors

Fitness for older adults and seniors

As we age, regular exercise is incredibly important for staying healthy. It reduces weight gain that would put additional strain on weakening bones. It helps to maintain your sense of balance, reducing the risk of falls and broken bones. And it also keeps your mind active; one study has even shown that higher levels of physical activity correlate to a lower risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia.

So why do so many older adults and seniors remain sedentary? One challenge is that the older you get, the more difficult it is to change your habits. Joyce Klee, a physical therapist in the Physiquality network of experts, says, “Seniors can be resistant to change. They like being comfortable and knowing what to expect.” And if they have never exercised in the past, some feel that it’s pointless to start in their 60s or beyond. This is why Mark Salandra, founder of, likes to remind his older clients that it’s never too late to get into shape, and that without strength or flexibility, they could easily lose their independence.

Older adults also frequently face a variety of health problems, some minor, some severe, that can feel like road blocks on the way to a healthier life. Stefania Della Pia, program director of education for STOTT PILATES®, points out that instructors “are often presented with a number of concurrent concerns that each have their own programming criteria.” The challenge for those working with older populations is to be prepared for a variety of these issues and to have a wide range of adaptations that will allow seniors to exercise, despite such challenges.

Older adults should be wary of high impact exercises. Mark points out that these types of exercises lead to higher rates of injury in older populations with less range of motion. They should talk to their fitness instructors about health limitations or prior injuries. And anyone that hasn’t been exercising regularly should consult with his or her doctor first to discuss potential problems or particular activities to avoid. Total Gym® GRAVITY® Master Trainer Rob Glick also recommends asking the doctor about how their medications might influence fitness; Rob notes that “different medicine can affect training, as well as training responses.”

Walking is one of the easiest ways to ease back into activity.That said, there are many ways to exercise for older adults. For those that may not have been active in recent years, one of the easiest ways to ease back into activity is walking. You can control your pace and distance, gradually increasing both to continually challenge your body. It’s free, although you should consider investing in a good pair of walking (or tennis) shoes. And, depending on your environment, it’s easy to vary your trail so that you don’t get bored by the routine. Numerous recent studies have shown that walking 10,000 steps per day leads to better health, leading to such benefits as lower blood pressure, weight loss and better heart rates. Regular walking has also been shown to improve memory and prevent diabetes.

While walking will help with cardiac health and weight management, older adults should also consider adding strength training to their regimen in order to maintain balance. Mark suggests the following areas in which to build strength and flexibility:

  • Stretch. Stretch before and after exercise. Be sure to lie on the floor while stretching your legs and back to avoid injury.
  • Balance. Stand on one leg and see how long you can keep your balance. Try to build on that time by holding it a little bit longer each day.
  • Core exercises. Such exercises as crunches, bird-dogs and front planks all work the core and strengthen the lower back as well. Tip: If you have problems in the bird-dog lifting both your arm and the opposing leg (i.e., the right arm and left leg) at the same time, you can initially lift the just the arm or leg while building strength.
  • Upper body. To build your arms with minimal resistance, you can do push-ups against a wall or your stairs. Even lifting small hand weights in increments of 1 or 2 pounds will help build arm muscles and make lifting things easier.

Pilates exercises can be adapted for a wide range of students.Pilates is also a great way to strengthen muscles through low-impact exercises. Stefania reminds us that “many Pilates exercises can be adapted to address the specific needs of a wide range of adults, from active Boomers to those with restricted mobility who are better suited to working while seated.” Because most Pilates exercises target the core, they strengthen the muscles necessary for balance and stability, key areas to work on as we age.

If you’re not sure where to start, take a look around your community to see what types of classes are available. Perhaps a local physical therapy clinic offers a fitness class targeted at older adults; Joyce’s clinic, Clinton Physical Therapy Center, offers several senior classes through their Take Charge Fitness Program, including Silver Sneaker training, an Arthritis Foundation aquatics class, and yoga for seniors. Use the zip code search on to find Physiquality programs in your area. Physiquality offers you and your family a range of health and wellness services, all provided or supervised by a network of clinically trained, carefully screened physical therapists. Physiquality therapists are the medical community’s leading experts in helping people improve the way their bodies work, feel and move. You can rely on the Physiquality name as a “seal of approval” for health and wellness services that are safer, more effective and more fun than you’ll find elsewhere.

You can also start at home, as many fitness programs are available on DVD. Stefania suggests looking at the STOTT PILATES® Back Care series, for gentle core strengthening, or the Active Aging series, with exercises done while seated. Total Gym has also released a new GRAVITY® Boomers on the Move DVD, designed to help older adults become more active and improve their health.

If you work out at home, rather than in a class, consider asking a friend to work out with you. Both Joyce and Rob underscore the importance of social connections made in group classes for older adults. Glick loves watching his older students “encourage each other, which makes for a very fun and motivating environment.” Working out with a friend can also help a person set goals, whether they are as large as weight loss or as simple as being able to lean over to tie shoes without difficulty. It’s even been shown that people who repeatedly work out with the same crowd are more likely to stick to their exercise regimen.

So tie on a good pair of shoes, grab a friend, and get moving. As Rob notes, “If we move more, we improve our health and feel better — a couple of vital reasons why exercise is so important for people of any age.”

Joyce Klee, PT, is a physical therapist and a co-owner of Clinton Physical Therapy Center, a Physiquality network physical therapy clinic, as well as Take Charge Fitness Program, both in Clinton, Tennessee.

Stefania Della Pia is the Program Director of Education, as well as a Master Instructor Trainer, for STOTT PILATES®, one of Physiquality’s partner programs. Stephania is certified as an ACE personal trainer and a Can-Fit Pro personal trainer specialist.

Rob Glick is a Master Trainer for GRAVITY® and developed the GRAVITYGroup fitness program. GRAVITY is part of Physiquality’s portfolio of wellness services. Rob holds a B.S. in exercise science and is certified as a trainer by both ACE and the AFAA.

Mark Salandra, CSCS, is the founder of, another of Physiquality’s partner programs. Mark educates and trains athletes young and old in strength and conditioning, with the goals of better fitness and lower rates of injury.

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For further reading, look through our selection of articles on aging well, in addition to the below links:

Warren, Ellen. Walking counts as exercise. Chicago Tribune, May 25, 2011.

Stein, Jeannine. Balance doesn’t have to slip away. Los Angeles Times, May 2, 2011.

Glick, Rob. Trainer tip: Bodyweight training for Baby Boomers. GRAVITY Clubhouse, April 25, 2011.

Fell, James S. For best exercise, don’t be lonely or late: Activities done in groups and early in the day seems to show the best success rates. Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2011.

Span, Paula. A walk to remember? Study says yes. New York Times, February 7, 2011.

Roan, Shari. Walking 10,000 steps per day may prevent diabetes. Los Angeles Times, January 13, 2011.

Brown, Kerrie Lee. Being active for life. Can-Fit Pro, January/February 2011.

Stein, Jeannine. Aerobics may have more health benefits than walking, but don’t discount 10,000 steps. Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2010.

Jeffrey, Susan. Mediterranean diet, physical activity linked to lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Medscape, August 13, 2009.
Note: Requires free registration.

Middle age ‘key for exercising:’ Increasing activity levels in middle age can prolong life as much as giving up smoking, a study suggests. BBC News, March 6, 2009.

Rae-Dupree, Janet. Can you become a creature of new habits? New York Times, May 4, 2008.

Freytag, Chris. Am I too old to exercise? Prevention, January 25, 2007.

Merrithew, Moira. Armchair Pilates. (PDF) The Journal for Active Aging, August 2005.

Bird-dog. ACE Fitness Exercise Library.

The material and information contained on this Web site is for information only and is not intended to serve as medical advice or consultation.

Consult your personal physician before beginning any exercise program or self-treatment.