October 24, 2019

Physical Activity for Older Adults

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By Stacy Harris, DNP, APRN
School of Nursing
University of Central Arkansas

Being physically active is one of the most important lifestyle habits people of all ages can take to improve their health. Recently, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (2018), released new physical activity guidelines. The new guideline recommends adults try to achieve a minimum of 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate activity or 75 minutes (1 hour and 5 minutes) of intensive activity each week. The new guideline highlights special populations, including recommendations for the older adult. Older adults should try to achieve the adult recommendations along with balance training and muscle strengthening activities. In addition, the guideline states that older adults with chronic conditions or disabilities should engage in physical activity according to their abilities, explaining that any activity level is better than being sedentary.

As adults age and chronic conditions become common, patients may feel becoming physical fit and more active is unrealistic and not beneficial. However, numerous studies have shown older adults benefit from physical activity. Lövdén, Xu and Wangy (2013) published a critique of a meta analysis that linked increased aerobic physical activities with enhance cognition in sedentary adults.  In a randomized control trial of Tai Chi training in adults (mean age 77) with mild cognition issues 30 minutes of Tai Chi three times a week over 12 months resulted in a 4% lower conversion to dementia compared to 17% for the control group (Lövdén, Xu and Wangy, 2013).  Tai Chi is a low impact activity practiced as a graceful form of exercise involving a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner accompanied by deep breathing.

Older adults may be overwhelmed or intimidated when a health care provider uses the word “exercise.” The word exercise suggests a level of activity that may be unattainable for older adults. Patients may be more likely to relate to leisure activities such as gardening, dancing or walking. Evidence suggests that leisure activities are beneficial to cardiovascular health. Mensink, Ziese and Kok (2009) found older adults who participated in leisure activities at 1-2 hours per week, had lower systolic blood pressure, heart rate and body mass than sedentary adults.

Besides improving cardiovascular health, physical activity is also proven to improve orthopedic issues. Half of all older adults have knee and hip pain and may worry that increasing physical activity will worsen already achy joints (Peterson, Osterloh and Graff, 2019). The good news is that this idea has been disproven by multiple scientific trials. The American College of Rheumatology and the Osteoarthritis Research Society International recommends activity as first line treatment for knee and hip pain. Activities such as water aerobics, land-based (i.e. walking) and Tai Chi are appropriate activities.

At the University of Central Arkansas (UCA), the Department of Exercise and Sport Science, developed an exercise program for older adults who reside at College Square Apartments, a retirement community on the UCA campus. A faculty member and students meet with participating residents who have been cleared by their primary care provider. Before exercise begins, the students conduct a motivational interview with the participant and create mutual agreed upon goals. The students administer the Senior Fit Test, interpret the results, then prepare and lead the participants through 6-8 weeks of exercise. At the end of the program students administer the Senior Fit Test again, and then review and debrief with the participant.

Older adults may think participating in a fitness program or purchasing expensive equipment is needed to improve fitness. Home-based items such as lifting full milk gallon jugs or carrying laundry baskets up steps are ways to increase strength. Stretch bands are low-cost items that can be used to help with flexibility and strength, too. Any physical activity is worthwhile and helps cardiovascular, joint and mental health. Just move!




Lövdén, M., Xu, W. & Wangy, H. X. (2013). Lifestyle change and the prevention of cognitive decline and dementia. Current Opinions in Psychiatry 26 (3): 239-243.

Mesink, B. M., Ziese, T. & Kok, F.J. (2009). Benefits of leisure-time physical activity on the cardiovascular risk profile at older age. International Journal of Epidemiology (28): 659-666.

Peterson, N. E., Osterloh, K. D., & Graff, M. N. (2019). Exercises for older adults with knee and hip pain. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners, (15) 263-267.

S. Department of Health and Human Services (2018). Physical activity guidelines advisory committee scientific report, 2nd Ed. Retrieved from https://health.gov/paguidelines/second-edition/report/