Senior Fitness: Octagenerians & Beyond
Updated: Jul 14
Seniors who exercise regularly live longer, are more independent and have fewer muscular-skeletal injuries than their sedentary peers. Moreover, it confers higher levels of life satisfaction. Exercise is beneficial at any age. Adopting a more active lifestyle can not only improve one's physical health but also dramatically improve well-being. It is never too late to start.
I work with many seniors and am dismayed at the prevailing myths surrounding exercise and the elderly. Some ideas are so hardwired it is challenging to combat the misinformation. Continuing or starting an exercise program is crucial as you age. Many people slow down as they age and 'retire' from the gym or tell themselves it's alright to 'take it easy.' Some feel they have earned the right to be lazy as they get older. This may be true, but it won't make things easier; it will likely make life harder and shorter. Older adults are not delicate flowers that need to be coddled at every turn.
Here are some myths that won't die:
Exercise is not safe
It is too late to start
Exercise is bad for pain and arthritis
Walking is enough exercise
Weight training is dangerous
Lifting heavy weights will hurt the joints
Exercise only benefits the muscles
Older people need to rest more
There are lots of dangerous exercises that should be avoided
You can't increase your strength when you get older
Seniors should never do high-intensity interval training (HIIT)
All of these are flat-out wrong. Unfortunately, too many doctors, trainers, therapists and media outlets push these false narratives. Almost all older people can benefit from more physical activity. The fear and myths surrounding senior fitness are literally responsible for putting some in early graves. Regular exercise promotes longevity, improves mood and lowers the chances of injury. Many medical conditions can be improved through physical exercise, including Alzheimer's disease, other forms of dementia, arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, constipation, high blood pressure and obesity.
The National Sports & Conditioning Association (NSCA) states:
Fragala et al. (2019) summarize that the gradual loss of muscle mass (in sedentary persons) will generally begin at age 30 and then accelerate to 10% in adults older than 60. This loss of muscle mass continues to increase to greater than 50% in adults over 80 years. A simultaneous loss of muscular strength is highly associated with physical disability, type 2 diabetes, cognitive decline, osteoporosis, and mortality. Alarmingly, the researchers cite evidence that inactive persons have been found to have double the risk of future mobility limitations as compared to those who meet the U.S. Surgeon General's recommendation for physical activity (at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week).
Many older individuals have been told by their doctors (who most often have no strength training background) to never squat or deadlift; even though these are fundamental movement patterns that are critical for activities of daily living. I can't tell you how often I've heard clients tell me that they should not squat at all (because it is terrible for the knees) or below parallel. This idea is sheer nonsense. By squatting deep and with or without an external load, we can improve the strength, mobility, and stability required to stand up and walk. Deadlifting can help improve the ability to pick things up, dramatically increase the power of the lower back, legs and alleviate symptoms of osteoporosis. These are basics fundamental movements that most older adults would benefit from doing. Sadly, I see too many trainers, doctors and therapists shy away from these big lifts, fearing they will hurt their older clients.
Regular physical activity including strength and cardiovascular training, is medicine for older adults. Five leading risk factors for death are high blood pressure, smoking, high blood glucose, physical inactivity and obesity. A glance at these risk factors reveals that high blood pressure, glucose levels, and obesity are connected with physical inactivity. Increasing physical activity as you age is one of the most critical interventions one can do to prolong independence and mortality.
Senior Fitness Rules
When in doubt, make sure to talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program. This rule goes for everybody in all age groups.
It is a good idea to incorporate some balance training into your workout. This will help with gait and prevent falls.
Don't be afraid to lift heavy weights (so long as you can control them). There is nothing wrong with getting strong!
Do something every day. The human body is a little like a shark; if you don't move, you'll flounder and die.
Get a combination of cardio and weight training sessions in per week. One is good, but both are better.
Practice bodyweight exercises (like dips, push-ups, Turkish get ups etc.) so in case of a fall, you will have no problem getting up off the floor.
Don't be afraid to do HIIT. Start slow and build up.
Practice bodyweight box/chair squats. When you can do ten or more without using your hands, add weight.
Play a sport.
Practice the fundamentals: Squat, deadlift, pushup, pullup, lunge, plank etc.
Make sure you warm up properly before all types of exercise.
Find a way to enjoy fitness; take a class, listen to music, workout with a trainer, go for a swim, do yoga etc. Once it becomes a habit, it will be with you for the rest of your life.
The most important thing you can do is start! Let's get you moving today so you can live a longer, healthier and happier life.