While exercise is important at all stages of life, it may have the most significant effect on older adults, especially those 50 and above. As you age, your body undergoes several changes, many of which are degenerative and can be debilitating to your health.
But exercise can help slow these age-related health issues or even prevent them in the first place.
"With the myriad benefits of regular physical activity, when it comes to healthy aging, exercise is perhaps the closest thing there is to a miracle drug," says Scott Kaiser, MD, a family medicine physician and geriatrician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
"A well-rounded workout, including a mix of exercises to increase endurance, strength, balance and flexibility, can help in many ways," he says. "Beyond the physical benefits of increased strength, cardiovascular fitness and balance, there are mental and emotional rewards as well."
While we could go on and on (and on) about the many different benefits of exercise for adults over 50, here are the most outstanding reasons older adults should take up a workout plan or keep their current routine going strong.
9 Benefits of Exercise for Adults Over 50
1. It Promotes Longevity and Independence
Regular physical activity helps older adults retain their independence as they age. This one benefit is actually a culmination of several benefits, Dr. Kaiser says, as several factors — like disease risk factors, bone health, heart health, muscle strength and coordination — affect your ability to live on your own as an older adult.
"These factors are not just central elements of overall health and wellbeing — they are critical drivers of healthy longevity," Dr. Kaiser explains. It's important to remember that longevity precedes independence, he says. The better your health markers (such as blood pressure, strength and balance), the more likely you are to retain and enjoy independence in old age.
In fact, "functional independence is directly dependent on physical fitness," a February 2015 study in Rejuvenation Research notes. The study points out direct relationships between physical fitness levels in older adults and their risks for heart disease, cognitive decline, muscle loss and disability — all of which influence one's independence and longevity.
But exercise doesn't have to be intense work: Harvard Health Publishing reports that simply adding walks to your daily routine can decrease your chance of becoming disabled by 28 percent.
2. It Keeps Your Heart Healthy
A leading cause of illness and death in older adults is heart disease in its various forms, according to the American Heart Association. Because your heart (like everything else) changes with age, you're more likely to have heart problems the older you get. Heart disease takes many forms — stroke, heart attacks, atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease — but exercise can combat them all.
In fact, an October 2019 study in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology shows that exercise is most important for older adults, and it's never too late to start.
"Exercise lowers your blood pressure [and] strengthens your muscles, including the heart, and keeps your weight under control," Anthony Hilliard, MD, chief of cardiology for Loma Linda University Health, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
As you get older, maintaining a healthy heart is especially important in avoiding heart disease, heart failure, stroke and other life-threatening issues, Dr. Hilliard explains. When you do cardiovascular exercise, such as walking or hiking, your resting heart rate slows over time and the overall stress on your heart decreases, he says.
"Keeping your heart in shape will slow cardiovascular aging, leading to a more active and healthy life," Dr. Hilliard says.
3. It May Help Slow Cognitive Decline
A robust body of evidence shows promise in using exercise as a preventive tool for cognitive diseases like Alzheimer's disease. Several studies show a link between physical activity and a reduced risk of dementia, but more research is needed to identify the physiological changes that happen in the body and brain, according to a February 2017 report in Brain Sciences.
Much of the beneficial relationship between exercise and the brain may be due to improved circulation, explains Kenneth De Los Reyes, MD, a neurosurgeon and co-director of Skull Base Surgery at Loma Linda University Health.
"Physical exercise affects the brain in so many ways," he says. It "increases heart rate and brain oxygenation, increases hormonal release leading to a growth in neurons and their supporting cells, and promotes brain connectivity and plasticity."
Interestingly, a February 2019 study of brain autopsies in Neurology found that exercise was associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline even in older adults who had brain lesions.
"Exercise can provide sharper memory and concentration and better sleep and build better coping mechanisms for future mental and emotional challenges," Dr. De Los Reyes says.
Truly, there's no denying the benefits of exercise on brain health. The Mayo Clinic reports that people who have a history of exercise generally have a lower risk of developing cognitive diseases later in life — and the earlier you start exercising, the better.
Moreover, a January 2020 study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that cardio exercise is associated with higher gray matter volume. Gray matter helps your brain process information and contributes to sensory perception (like seeing and hearing), decision-making, speech and self-control.
4. It Helps Your Bones Stay Strong
Osteoporosis, a degenerative skeletal disease that causes your bones to become weak and fragile, increases your risk for fractures, says Laureen McVicker, lead physical therapist at Fusion Wellness & Physical Therapy.
This is especially true after menopause, when bone density can decrease more rapidly, McVicker says.
Weight-bearing exercises, which force your body to work against gravity, have been shown to be the best type for reducing your risk of bone fractures in old age, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
According to Wolff's Law, bone adapts to the stress it's placed under. When you exercise, you put physical stress on your bones. This triggers your bones to build new tissue and become denser and stronger. If you never expose your bones to stress, such as with weight-bearing exercise, they don't have a reason to get and stay strong.
Weight-bearing exercises include activities like walking, dancing, climbing stairs and hiking. However, some high-impact, weight-bearing movements, such as jumping or jogging, might be too hard on the joints for some adults over age 60.
Instead, you can choose low-impact activities that are easier on the joints, such as walking on the elliptical or doing yoga or barre. The National Osteoporosis Foundation also recommends resistance training exercises, like lifting weights and using resistance bands, for preventing osteoporosis.
5. It Improves Coordination and Helps Prevent Falls
"Falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries among people 65 years of age and older," Dr. Kaiser says, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). What many people don't know, he says, is that falls are easily preventable.
"While there are several things people can do — including having a health care provider review their medications to identify those which may increase the risk of falls, evaluating the home for potential safety hazards and having one's eyes and feet checked — the most critical element of a fall prevention strategy is regular physical exercise to improve balance and strength," he says.
Exercise reduces your risk of falling because it improves your coordination as well as strengthens your muscles and bones, two important things that keep you on your feet.
Exercises that promote strength, gait and balance are particularly effective at reducing fall risk, according to a June 2017 review in Current Trauma Reports.
Body-weight resistance training, single-leg and single-arm exercises (with assistance if needed) and walking can all improve strength and balance, McVicker says. Core exercises will also help, she says, as a strong core is essential to stability and full-body strength.
6. It May Reduce Feelings of Loneliness and Depression
As people edge into their later years, they may battle increased feelings of loneliness and depression, especially if they have lost many loved ones.
The National Council on Aging estimates that one in four older adults are living with a mental health disorder, such as depression and anxiety. This number is expected to double to 15 million by 2030. Moreover, the CDC says that older adults are at an increased risk of depression, partly because of their increased risk of developing chronic diseases, which often occurs with mental illnesses.
The good news is that physical activity can improve your emotional health, too. Health experts believe exercise has a direct effect on the mood-related hormone serotonin, among other "happiness chemicals," according to the American Psychological Association.
Dr. De Los Reyes says that many of the effects of exercise on the brain discussed earlier (like improved oxygenation, blood flow and hormone production) can help seniors combat emotional health problems. "With these physiologic changes come the benefits in mood, reducing anxiety and stress," he says.
A March 2020 study in Ageing Research Reviews concluded that three popular types of exercise (resistance training, mind-body exercise and aerobic activity) can help older adults overcome clinical depression, in addition to following other medical treatments. Additionally, a November 2015 review in GeroPsych found exercise to be a feasible supplemental treatment for depression among older adults.
7. It Can Prevent Muscle Loss
Sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss, is common among older adults. At one time, this was taken as a fact of life. "Existing dogma suggested that at some point muscle mass would just go down and nothing could be done to change that," Dr. Kaiser says. However, "scientists rejected this thinking and proved that you can increase muscle mass at any age."
The best way to fight sarcopenia is to exercise, according to a February 2017 review in Aging Clinical and Experimental Research. Resistance training is known for building muscle, but some research, like this August 2015 study in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, shows that walking can also help prevent sarcopenia.
"Losing muscle mass and strength can make it increasingly difficult for us to maintain our ability to function and thereby present a significant threat to our independence," Dr. Kaiser says. In other words, weight-bearing exercise like resistance training and walking "becomes all the more critical the older we get."
Older adults lose, on average, 3 to 8 percent of their muscle mass after the age of 30, and the rate of muscle loss is even greater after age 60, according to a frequently cited July 2004 study in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. A May 2020 review in Nutrients reports that people with sarcopenia may lose up to 50 percent of their muscle fibers, particularly their type II muscle fibers, by age 50.
Type II muscle fibers are responsible for explosive movements that require ample power — think sprinting, lifting a one-rep max squat, or jumping. Strengthening these muscles plays an important role in preventing falls in older people, McVicker says.
Resistance exercises, such as weight lifting and using resistance bands can help build type II muscle fibers. Because older adults might be sensitive to explosive movements like jumping or have limited balance, McVicker says lying and seated exercises, such as single-leg squats on a chair, hip thrusts and seated dumbbell shoulder presses can help.
8. It May Help You Sleep Better
Regular exercise is helpful in supporting quality sleep, another critical component of general health and wellbeing, Dr. Kaiser says.
Study after study supports the link between physical activity and improved sleep: A July 2018 meta-analysis in PeerJ reports that exercise can improve both sleep quality and sleep duration, especially in older adults.
Even people with chronic insomnia — a common condition among people over age 60, per the National Sleep Foundation — may benefit from exercise. An April 2015 study in the Journal of Sleep Research suggests exercise as a potential treatment for insomnia, reporting "significant reduced insomnia symptom severity."
Though there's been some squabble that exercising in the evening can disrupt sleep, there's no conclusive evidence to support that claim, according to an October 2018 review in Sports Medicine. So, if the best time for you to exercise is later in the day, don't let the fear of poor sleep stop you.
Just try to avoid high-intensity exercise too close to bedtime, as it may affect your ability to fall asleep, per Harvard Health Publishing.
There are direct links between exercise and the prevention of many types of cancer, Dr. Kaiser says. "While many of the well-established associations between higher levels of physical activity and reduced risk of cancer stem from observational studies — thereby establishing the link but not necessarily proving that one factor results in the other — the evidence for causality is strong."
Despite research limitations, health experts typically support the link between exercise and lower rates of cancer, Dr. Kaiser says, because "there are clear biological pathways to explain the ways exercise may positively impact factors that reduce cancer risk," such as reduced inflammation, balanced hormone production and improved immune function and insulin sensitivity.
For example, a December 2015 meta-analysis in the European Journal of Cancer, which included 38 cohort studies, showed that women who were physically active have a lower risk of breast cancer than those who weren't physically active.
Results also suggest that women who are physically inactive can reduce their lifetime risk of breast cancer by 9 percent if they engage in at least 150 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.
In addition, an April 2016 review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that those who engaged in high levels of physical activity lowered their total cancer risk by 10 percent compared to those who did the least amount of physical activity. Moreover, results showed that physical activity may offer some protection against breast and colorectal cancer, specifically.
How to Safely Start an Exercise Routine as an Older Adult
Less is usually more when you're just starting out, says Heather Jeffcoat, physical therapist and owner of Fusion Wellness & Physical Therapy. And if you're rekindling an old exercise habit, less is still more.
"Use a lighter resistance, do fewer repetitions and walk a shorter distance than you did previously," Jeffcoat says, as this allows you to avoid overtaxing your muscles and joints and to see how your body responds to the extra activity.
"If you are working with a trainer, let them know that your first goal is to make sure you do not get injured," Jeffcoat says, noting that not all workouts need to be super intense to be effective.
Also, don't tweak too many factors at once, she says. You can primarily control three things that happen during your workout: the rep count, the weight and the types of exercises. Jeffcoat recommends only altering one factor at once, so you know the culprit if anything goes wrong.
For example, "If you experience pain the next day, but you added four new exercises and increased the weight of the other four exercises you were doing, it's difficult to assess where the problem lies," Jeffcoat says. "You have a lot of control with your workouts and shouldn't feel pressured to have a full routine one or two days in."
Remember, you reduce your risk of injury — and increase your chances of developing proper technique — when you ramp up your fitness routine slowly.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends adults should engage in:
- 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 to 100 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or an equivalent combination of each intensity each week
- Muscle-strengthening activities at least 2 days a week
- Balance training, in addition to aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity
- Rejuvenation Research: "Exercise Attenuates the Major Hallmarks of Aging"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Walking, Other Exercise Helps Seniors Stay Mobile, Independent"
- Canadian Journal of Cardiology: "Physical and Psychological Effectiveness of Cardiac Rehabilitation: Age Is Not a Limiting Factor!"
- Brain Sciences: "Physical Activity: A Viable Way to Reduce the Risks of Mild Cognitive Impairment, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Vascular Dementia in Older Adults"
- The Mayo Clinic: "Alzheimer's Disease: Can Exercise Prevent Memory Loss?"
- Mayo Clinic Proceedings: "Physical Exercise as a Preventive or Disease-Modifying Treatment of Dementia and Brain Aging"
- Neurology: "Physical Activity, Common Brain Pathologies, and Cognition in Community-Dwelling Older Adults"
- Public Health Reports: "The role of exercise in preventing osteoporosis."
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: "Exercise for Your Bone Health"
- National Osteoporosis Foundation: "Osteoporosis Exercise for Strong Bones"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Falls and Fall Injuries Among Adults Aged ≥65 Years — United States, 2014"
- Current Trauma Reports: "Older Adult Falls: Effective Approaches to Prevention"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Depression is Not a Normal Part of Growing Older"
- Ageing Research Reviews: "Comparative effectiveness of three exercise types to treat clinical depression in older adults: A systematic review and network meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials"
- GeroPsych: "Using Exercise to Fight Depression in Older Adults A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry: "Exercise for depression in older adults: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials adjusting for publication bias"
- Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care: "Sarcopenia: A Contemporary Health Problem among Older Adult Populations"
- Nutrients: "Sarcopenia: A Contemporary Health Problem among Older Adult Populations"
- Aging Clinical and Experimental Research: "Physical activity and exercise as countermeasures to physical frailty and sarcopenia"
- Journal of the American Medical Directors Association: "Mail-Based Intervention for Sarcopenia Prevention Increased Anabolic Hormone and Skeletal Muscle Mass in Community-Dwelling Japanese Older Adults: The INE (Intervention by Nutrition and Exercise) Study"
- Stat Pearls: "Physiology, Bone Remodeling"
- American Psychological Association: "Working Out Boosts Brain Health"
- National Sleep Foundation: "Insomnia & Seniors"
- Journal of Sleep Research: "Increased Physical Activity Improves Sleep and Mood Outcomes in Inactive People With Insomnia: A Randomized Controlled Trial"
- Sports Medicine: "Effects of Evening Exercise on Sleep in Healthy Participants: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Does Exercising at Night Affect Sleep?"
- Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
- National Council on Aging: "Behavioral Health"
- European Journal of Cancer: "Physical Activity, Hormone Replacement Therapy and Breast Cancer Risk: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies"
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "Leisure Time Physical Activity and Cancer Risk: Evaluation of the WHO's Recommendation Based on 126 High-Quality Epidemiological Studies"