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Exercise Routines for Older People

By Andrea Cespedes

Exercise helps older adults maintain their independence and mitigates the symptoms of disease, including arthritis, heart disease, diabetes and depression. Workouts do not need to be intense or complicated, but should address specific aspects of physical fitness, particularly cardiovascular stamina, muscle maintenance, and balance and coordination. It's never too late to begin a physical fitness routine; older adults, as anyone, suffer serious health implications from inactivity.

Cardiovascular Workouts

A minimum of 150 minutes, or 2 1/2 hours, of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise helps older people maintain stamina and endurance. Cardiovascular exercise involves moving the large muscle groups of the legs and arms to raise the heart and breath rate. Power walking, riding a stationary recumbent bicycle or gardening all count as moderate-intensity activity, and are easy on older joints. The pool also offers a way for older adults to get a low-impact, cardiovascular workout -- whether you swim, water walk or do water aerobics. Cardio sessions may be done in 30- to 40-minute segments most days of the week. Seniors who are new to exercise may find that 10- or 20-minute bouts are easier to tolerate; perform two or three of these bouts daily to accumulate a week's work of exercise.

Strength Training

As you age, you naturally lose muscle tissue unless you actively work to preserve it. This muscle wasting, known as sarcopenia, results in the loss of muscle mass as well as strength, power and function. To prevent or diminish the effects of sarcopenia, seniors should participate in regular strength-training activities. Using free weights, such as barbells, dumbbells or kettlebells, body weight or resistance bands helps stave off sarcopenia, especially when all the major muscle groups are addressed and strength training is conducted three or four times per week on non-consecutive days, determined a meta-analysis study published in a 2011 issue of Deutches Artzeblatt. Lift weights that are 60 to 85 percent of your maximum ability to perform simple exercises such as squats, rows, chest and shoulder presses, triceps kickbacks and biceps curls.

If you are new to strength training, start with just your body weight and brace yourself against a chair during standing exercises, such as squats and leg lifts. Perform pushups against a wall and practice getting in and out of a chair without using the support of your arms. If you feel unsteady standing, sit on a weight bench or in a chair when you do shoulder and arm exercises. One set of eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise is sufficient. Graduate to multiple sets and heavier weights after four to six weeks of body-weight training.

Balance and Coordination Training

Older adults are vulnerable to falls, which can be debilitating to their health. Balance training can be as simple as standing on one leg while doing daily tasks such as brushing your teeth or washing dishes. Over time, work up to using training tools that introduce more instability; do a routine that involves sitting on a stability ball while lifting and extending each leg and standing on an unstable surface, such as a half-ball or balance disc, for 20 to 30 seconds at a time. Partner with a spotter to ensure your safety in case you begin to fall off the unstable surface. Tai Chi and gentle yoga are other exercise routines that help older adults maintain coordination and also promote balance.


Older adults should include flexibility training as part of a regular exercise routine. Yoga is one way to practice flexibility, but holding simple stretches such as a forward fold, grasping the hands behind the back or a seated butterfly stretch for 10 to 30 seconds at a time is also effective. Repeat a stretch for every major muscle group two or three times to get a full 60 seconds. Warm up with a light cardiovascular activity, such as walking on a treadmill, for about 10 minutes before stretching. Aim for two to three sessions per week, lasting a total of 15 to 20 minutes.

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