Exercise For Older Adults

We all know that exercise is something that we should be doing throughout our lives due to the many health benefits associated with exercise. As we age we tend to drop away from sports – athletes and sports performers in football, rugby, hockey are thought to be ‘past it’ when they reach early to mid thirties. Why should we keep exercising beyond these ‘retirement’ years?  What about the master athletes, people who are exercising into the years beyond 60? What exercise should they be doing? Should we ever stop exercising?  Is it ever too late to start?

The current physical activity guidelines, recommend by the American College of Sports Medicine, for older adults, those aged over 65 years of age, is at least 150 minutes of ‘moderate-intensity’ aerobic activity per week or if you are already achieving this, comparable benefits can be achieved with 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise, carried out throughout the week. This could be 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise five days a week. The recommendation is to also strength train twice a week. The recommendation fact sheet can be found here.

As we get older, our training may not change, but the reasons why we train may. Generally, alongside the health benefits from exercise, we all train to improve our performance for a sport, lose fat or increase muscle mass.  Ageing is universal and inevitable as we go through the cycle of life we will see increases and decreases in our sensory, motor, cognitive functions, muscle mass and aerobic functions. Is this part of the aging process we must simply accept or is there something we can do to help combat these declines?  Does resistance training and cardiovascular training help older aged adults with health related quality of life?

As is the case with any athlete, older adults can develop their current physical capabilities (strength, flexibility, aerobic capacity) beyond their current levels by increasing their activity levels and intensity, following a well-designed periodised plan. By helping older people change or continue with healthy exercise habits we can help people significantly improve their quality of life.

A major health problem among the elderly is injuries caused by falls. It has been reported that the most important risk factors to falls are leg weakness, impaired gait and balance dysfuntion. It has been found that poor single leg balance is a greater predictor for those at risk of a fall.

Cardiovascular Training

The concern with the exercise guidelines previously mentioned is that it takes longer for older adults to recover from a session when compared to younger adults. It took adults over 60 five days for peak muscle power to recover from a HIIT session compared to three days for 20 year olds (HIIT = 6 x 30 seconds at 50% peak power output with 3 minutes recovery between sprints).

HIIT, which is vigorous exercise has gained in popularity? Most likely due to time. HIIT sessions are short and sharp, with many benefits the same as steady state cardio. Research reported these type of sessions to be more beneficial to sedentary people when compared to lifelong exercises. This however could have been due to the intensity of the HIIT session not being great enough to elicit greater adaptations in the lifelong exercise group.  Had a higher peak power training intensity been used, for example 70% peak power output, for the lifelong exercise group we may have seen greater adaptations for this group.


Strength Training

Strength training is important as we age to not only help fight muscle wastage, we reportedly lose 5-10% of our muscle mass between 20-50 years of age and a further 30-40% between 50-80 years old. Strength training is also important for increasing our bone mineral density, fighting against osteoporosis.

Research on women between 66-87 showed a well structured exercise program had a positive influence on increasing bone mineral density, balance and walking gate. The structured plan included strength training, balance exercises, aerobic training and coordination drills.

Strength training and interval training is also reported to improve a cancer suffers quality of life. Cancer and its treatment can have significant physical and mental side effects on patients (muscle atrophy, decrease in muscle strength, reduced aerobic capacity). Cancer sufferers showed improvements in strength and felt less fatigued.

De Backer et al. (2007) found subjects who carried out resistance and interval training benefited from an improved quality of life, they felt less fatigued (even though training) and their muscle strength increased. This was with a range of male’s (24-73 years) and female’s (26-71 years) subjects, who had various types of cancers and treatments.

It is never too late to start and there are no reasons why we should look to stop. The research for continuing to be active the older we get is positive:

  • Markedly increase muscle mass
  • Increase strength and power
  • Decrease in difficulty performing daily tasks
  • Increases energy expenditure
  • Promotes participation in spontaneous physical exercise


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