Exercise and Older Adults

Regular exercise is essential for those older adults (over 65 years) who wish to maintain independence and quality of life. It’s no secret that the U.S. population is aging and by 2030 it is estimated that one in five Americans, or about 71 million, will be 65 years or older. The most rapidly growing are group here in America is those 85 years and older, due in part to advances in healthcare and health-promoting activities. However, while the health of our aging population is improving, many older people suffer from one or more chronic conditions that limit activity and reduce quality of life. For some, activities of daily life become strenuous due to chronic conditions and the associated loss of physical function, resulting in loss of independence. As people age, being physically active and eating right become even more important.

Cardiovascular System

The main function of this system is the internal transport of cells and dissolved materials, including nutrients, wastes, and gases.

Not so fun fact:The 25% reduction in maximum cardiac output that occurs with aging is completely due to the age-associated reduction in maximum heart rate.

Fun fact:Older people in good physical condition can match or exceed the aerobic capacity of younger people.Differences between cardiovascular functioning in older and younger persons have been extensively quantified. However, interactions between age, disease, and lifestyle are often overlooked. Whether the high prevalence of cardiovascular disorders such as hypertension, coronary artery disease, and heart failure is due to an aging process or whether these disorders merely occur more frequently in elderly persons because of a longer exposure to risk is not yet established. It is reasonable to ascertain, however, that the capabilities of the cardiovascular system gradually decline with age.

Age-related changes in the blood include a decrease in the volume of packed red blood cells or constriction or blockage of peripheral veins by a blood clot. Also, there might be pooling of blood in the veins in the legs because valves are not working effectively.

Age-related changes in the heart include a reduction in maximum cardiac output, changes in the activities of nodal and conductive fibers, a reduction in the elasticity of the heart’s fibrous tissues, progressive atherosclerosis (fatty buildup or plaques) that can restrict coronary circulation, and replacement of damaged cardiac muscle fibers by scar tissue.

Age-related changes in blood vessels are often related to arteriosclerosis, a thickening and toughening of arterial walls in which the walls become less tolerant of sudden increases in pressure.

Aging affects aerobic capacity and cardiovascular performance during exercise. Peak exercise capacity and peak oxygen consumption decrease with age, but there is great variation from one individual to another. Aerobic capacity decreases by 50% between ages 20 and 80.

Physical conditioning appears to lessen the vascular stiffening associated with aging since stiffening is increased by only about half as much in endurance-trained elderly persons as compared to sedentary ones. Exercise can also improve the aerobic capacity of older persons by increasing cardiac output and oxygen utilization.

Musculoskeletal System

Muscle mass declines with age, resulting in reduced muscular strength and endurance. For each decade after age 25, 3 to 5% of muscle mass is lost. This is primarily due to changes in lifestyle (i.e., less physical activity) and decreased use of neuromuscular system. Studies have consistently shown that muscular strength and endurance gains following exercise in older adults. The aging process affects bone, as they become more fragile and porous with advancing years, placing older adults at greater risk of fractures. Debilitating fractures become more common and many older individuals that sustain a hip fracture will die of related complications. With age, loss of calcium results in decreased bone mass, but weight bearing and resistance-training exercises have been shown to help maintain bone mass.

As lean body mass declines with age, body fat typically increases. These changes in body composition are primarily due to decreased muscle mass, basil metabolic rate, and reduced, or lack of physical activity. Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the total number of calories that your body needs to perform basic, life-sustaining functions. These basal functions include circulation, breathing, cell production, nutrient processing, protein synthesis and ion transport. On average, there is a 10% reduction in basal metabolic rate between early adulthood and retirement age, and a further 10% decline after that time. Regular physical activity helps to stimulate protein synthesis, preserve lean body mass, and decrease fat stores.

Sensory Systems

As people age, balance and coordination tend to decline, increasing the risk of falls and fall-associated injury. This is due to the loss of muscle mass and associated strength and a decline in sensory systems that provide the central nervous system with information regarding the body’s position in space. The visual, vestibular, and somatosensory systems provide essential information to the central nervous system to maintain balance. Each of these systems is affected by aging. People rely heavily on visual input for balance. Vision typically declines with age and the resulting poor vision acuity distorts information that is sent to the central nervous system, impacting balance. It is not unusual to see older people hunched over as they walk, partly due to poor vision. Physical activity has been shown to improve balance and coordination, especially activities that focus on the mind body connection, such as tai chi, yoga, Pilates and kickboxing.

Mental Health

Cognitive decline has been associated with aging and there is evidence that physical activity prevents cognitive impairment and disability and improves sleep. As people age, depression and anxiety disorders increase, though physical activity has been shown to be beneficial in preventing these disorders. Additionally, people tend to have fewer friends and acquaintances as they age, and this loss of social stimulation can lead to depression. Physical activity provides a mechanism for older adults to have regular social interaction.


While there may seem to be good reasons to slow down and take it easy as you age, there are even better reasons to get moving. Becoming more active can energize your mood, relieve stress, help you manage symptoms of illness and pain, and improve your overall sense of well-being. And reaping the rewards of exercise doesn’t have to involve strenuous workouts. It’s about adding more movement and activity to your life, even in small ways. No matter your age or physical condition, it’s never too late to get your body moving, boost your health and outlook, and improve how you age.