What Exercise is Best for Seniors?

What Exercise is Best for Seniors?


United States government fitness guidelines currently recommend that people older than sixty participate in moderate-intensity physical exercise 150 minutes every week. Research shows that level of activity can extend your life twenty-eight percent over ten years, versus a completely sedentary lifestyle. But what if you have a chronic condition that prevents you from exercising at that level? Well, a new study demonstrates that even much less exercise yields life-extending benefits for seniors.

A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests those 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans may be more than most older people can do, so they may choose not to exercise at all. But the study proves seniors can lower their risk of mortality twenty-two percent simply by doing as little as a quarter hour per day of brisk walking, bicycling or swimming.

Dr. David Hupin of the Department of Clinical and Exercise Physiology, University Hospital of Saint-Etienne, France, led the study. He says:

When our older patients cannot do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week because of chronic disease, we (the 2008 guidelines) recommend the to be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow.

The research analyzed data from earlier studies of 122,417 male and female participants, aged from sixty to 101 from the United States, Taiwan and Australia. Physical activity levels and risk of dying from any cause over ten years were studied, as well as the participants’ health status, physical and mental conditions, cholesterol, weight, and other relevant data.

The study used units known as Metabolic Equivalent of Task, or MET, to measure exercise and intensity. A MET represents the amount of energy that is expended every minute spent in a specific activity. Rest expends 1 MET, moderate walking uses 3 to 5.9 METs, and vigorous exercise uses over 6 METs. Participants’ activity “dose” was rated low if it averaged 1 to 499 METs, moderate if from 500 to 599 METs, and high if over 1,000 METs.

Surprisingly, even people in the low METs group had a mortality rate 22 percent lower than people who were sedentary except for standard daily activities. Those in the moderate METs category had a mortality rate 28 percent lower, and people in the 1,000 METs group had a mortality rate a full 35 percent lower than seniors who did not exercise.

There was a strong link shown in the study between exercise and lowered incidence of cardiovascular disease, but less so with cancer.

Elder women received a greater benefit than men. In the low METs group, women’s mortality risk was reduced by 32 percent compared to 14 percent for men. The researchers speculate men may overestimate time spent in exercise, while women may underestimate.

Clearly, any exercise you can do is better than no exercise. So even if you do better some weeks than others, or even if your health precludes higher intensity exercise, make it a point to go outside and take a stroll around the neighborhood. You will be giving yourself the benefit of a longer, healthier life.


  1. This is good information and should be helpful for seniors who feel overwhelmed by most physical exercise and personal trainers. I’m 76, real age test 47 and have been a freelance writer on health and fitness since 1982. I also teach health and fitness, specializing in lifetime health for all ages both in person and through my website. Too often seniors are intimidated by fitness programs. Most programs are designed for 20, 30 & 40 year old people then modified slightly, or not at all, for seniors. But, if anyone, any age wants to live a long and rewarding life, they have to be committed to their goals. It’s the personal trainers responsibility to customize the program to the client and the participants responsibility to select someone they feel confident in, follow the instructions and give feedback to the trainer when, and if, necessary. No one knows what’s going on in your body, no matter what your age, better than you do. Too many seniors who aren’t knowledgeable enough try to go it alone, do too much too quickly, get injured or burnout before they really have an opportunity to begin reaping the benefits. My wife has been a certified yoga teacher since the 1980s and we’re both in excellent health. We both exercise but we realize our needs and desires are very different. Even though there are some areas of overlap, we do what works or us. Both the participant and the trainer have to be of the mindset that no one program works for everyone. If it’s working and you’re happy with it, stay with it. If not, find a different program and trainer.