As we age, physical activity needs to be part of the game plan for living a healthy, happy life.
Though the appropriate type and amount of activity can vary depending on an individual’s physical ability, experts say it’s never too late to get active and work on building strength.
“We try to tell people the body can still adapt, and it can still improve,” said Barbara Nicklas, Ph.D., professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
Those who engage in more occupational or leisure time physical activity have a lower risk of disease and death, and the health benefits of movement can extend to all ages, Nicklas explained in an editorial for the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Nicklas cautions against placing all “older adults” who are age 60 and up into one category. Rather than basing exercise and activity goals on age, they should be geared to one’s “physical functional status.”
“What can the person do?” she said. “Not everybody is the same.”
Get moving, no matter your age
Whether you’re 65 or 85, a runner, tennis player, or perhaps someone who has difficulty getting around, one constant remains: the importance of moving.
“Any time you can incorporate more movement throughout the day it is good,” said Nicklas, who urges starting where you’re at and doing what you can.
The U.S. Health and Human Services Department and the American Heart Association recommendations call for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity or a combination of both, as well as muscle-strengthening activity.
For those who have been living a sedentary lifestyle, walking is the best way to begin getting physically active, Nicklas said. She suggests asking a friend to join you or enrolling in a walking program like the one her university offers so there’s accountability, a social component, and safety, to guard against falls.
There’s no shame in using a “walking tool,” such as a cane or walker if it’s needed; it can help you stay active, Nicklas said. Some movement is better than none and remember to start gradually.
“Slow and steady — the tortoise pace — is better than the rabbit pace when you’re starting out or starting over,” she said.
Resistance or strength training — through free weights, weight machines, pushups or pullups — can help with range of motion around joints and improve muscle mass, muscle strength, and bone strength. It can help in the ability to perform everyday activities, improve balance, and may reduce the risk of falls.
Older and stronger
Fred Bartlit, 87, proves the point that chronological age isn’t the determining factor when it comes to strength and feeling young.
A former U.S. Army ranger, Bartlit always had physically active habits. He spent years as an avid skier and golfer. As he reached his 50s, at the urging of his future wife, he intensified his workouts and began strength training at a gym.
Today, the Colorado attorney and author said he is stronger than when he was in the Army at age 22. In addition to practicing law, he makes it his mission to inform older adults about battling sarcopenia, the loss of muscle with aging.
“Our bodies, they’re crying out for physical activity,” he said. “And now the world is sedentary.”
Bartlit cites multiple scientific in pointing out how building strength is important in performing everyday activities and in avoiding or managing chronic disease. He suggests working with a trainer at first, if possible, and trying to fit in strength training three times per week, possibly at a gym through the SilverSneakers program available in some Medicare plans.
“You have to create habits,” he said.
Bartlit spreads his message that being healthy and strong is achievable at any age in speeches and online through his StrongPath website.
“It’s about living a full life,” he said. “It changes the way you think, the way you feel, your confidence in doing things.”
Find motivation, and don’t stress over setbacks
Boosting physical activity and strength helps aging adults do the things they want to do in daily life, and that can be motivating, Nicklas said. It may be as simple as going to the grocery store on your own or having the energy to take grandchildren to the park or to a soccer game.
For someone as active as Bartlit, strength training helps him ski challenging mountains trails with his 58-year-old son and 16-year-old granddaughter.
Another major motivation for building physical activity and strength is avoiding illness or disability and the associated costs and diminished quality of life.
Older adults are disproportionately affected by conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease, with 80% of people over 65 having at least one of those chronic conditions, according to the National Council on Aging. Chronic diseases account for two-thirds of all healthcare costs.
One out of four older adults falls each year, and nationally $50 billion per year is spent treating the effects of falls. Fear of falling can cause some people to limit their physical activities. That can lead to further physical decline, more falls and social isolation or depression. 4
But even though some health setbacks may occur with advancing age, they don’t have to completely derail an exercise plan. “This is just reality, and it’s going to happen,” Nicklas said.
It may help to think about how many times all year you’ve been physically active, instead of how many times per week, so the focus is on the long term, she said.
“Steady improvement” should be the aim, she added. “The body is still capable of adapting.”
Things to Consider:
- Get going gradually on a walking program or other physical activity plan if you’ve been living a sedentary lifestyle.
- Try to get to a gym, possibly through a Medicare SilverSneakers program, or set up a workout space at home for resistance and strength workouts.
- Incorporating movement into your day can be done at any age regardless of physical capabilities; use a cane or walker if necessary to achieve the goal of moving more.
 “No Expiration Date on the Association Between Physical Activity and Mortality”, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 2018
 “American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids”, American Heart Association, 2018
 “Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner, Healthier”, Mayo Clinic, 2019
 “Healthy Aging”, National Council on Aging, 2018
This article was prepared by the American Heart Association (AHA). Transamerica is not affiliated with the AHA and does not control, guarantee, or endorse the information. This information does not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always talk to your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and experiencing a medical emergency, call 911, or call for emergency medical help immediately.