Should your fitness regimen change as you get older?

Jack LaLanne pumps his fist after being inducted into the California Hall of Fame. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is to his right.
Jack LaLanne pumps his fist after being inducted into the California Hall of Fame, Dec. 15, 2008. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is to his right. See more pictures of healthy aging.
Photo by The California Museum via Getty Images

­With a few exceptions, senior citizens aren't usually thought of as very athletic. With age comes a decrease in energy and strength, along with a host of conditions and diseases that can make exercising more difficult. So it only makes sense that as you get older, your fitness regimen will have to change or even go away entirely, right? Not necessarily.

There's no such thing as being "too old" to exercise -- it's a necessary component of maintaining good health at any age. The longest-lived woman in the world, Jeanne Calment, took up fencing at age 85, rode her bicycle until 100 and lived alone until 109 (she died at 122). Jack LaLanne, the "godfather of fitness," still exercises two hours a day at 94 years old. Both of these people are the exception to the rule, and we aren't as likely to be exercising as strenuously into our 90s or 100s. LaLanne has been exercising regularly since he was a teenager, and Calment lived the relatively stress-free life of a socialite.


­But it's never too late to start a fitness regimen, and there's no reason to give up existing exercise if you're in good health and your doctor approves of your activity. An exercise program can help prevent many of the problems associated with getting older, including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease. It can also boost your immunity, help you sleep better and increase your self-esteem. Weight-bearing exercise can prevent osteoporosis, because muscles pull on bone and stimulate it to grow. A 2004 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that women in their 70s who exercised regularly were more likely to be living independently more than a decade later [source: CNN].

There are some specific changes that our bodies undergo with age that directly affect our overall fitness. Before we look at some basic fitness tips, let's find out exactly what goes on.


Changes in Overall Fitness Due to Old Age

Even if you already have a regular exercise regimen and are generally healthy, aging can cause some changes in your overall fitness. Some of them are preventable, while others are just an inevitable part of growing older. These changes don't mean that you can't exercise. In some cases, you might need to make modifications.

Many people began to experience a loss of balance, or disequilibrium, as they get older. Glaucoma and cataracts are culprits, due to how both conditions deteriorate eyesight. If your spatial perception is off, it's difficult to maintain balance. Problems in the vestibular system of the inner ear, such as chronic ear infections, can also lead to disequilibrium. Loss of muscle tone can make you feel unsteady, and so can changes to the brain. The cerebellum is the part of the brain responsible for regulating balance and motor function, and it shrinks with age.


You can also lose flexibility, simply because tendons and ligaments degrade over time. They dehydrate, and adhesions, or internal scar tissue, can form with minor injuries. Muscle tissue also goes through degradation over time, known as sarcopenia. After age 50, we lose muscle mass at a rate of 1 to 2 percent per year [source: Western Washington University]. Muscle is also replaced by fat.

Stamina and energy are often the next to go. This is partly related to the sarcopenia, but can also be caused by cardiomyopathy (a weakened heart) or diminished lung capacity. Loss of height is one cause of that diminishment in lung capacity -- there is literally less room for the lungs to expand. Losing height is a natural part of aging, but if it happens rapidly, it can be serious -- osteoporosis, a loss of bone mass, is a potential cause.

Finally, our immune systems are weaker as we get older because we produce fewer lymphocytes, the cells that fight infection. This can be due to nutritional deficiencies, but it's also just a part of aging.

These are just a few of the changes that take place in the body as we age. The good news is that a fitness regimen can help slow down all of them.


Fitness Regimen Basics for the Over-50 Crowd

older man lifting weights
You don't have to go this far for strength straining -- simple hand weights are just fine.


­Suppose you're over the age of 50 and want to begin a fitness regimen. It's actually not much more complicated or difficult than figuring out a fitness regimen for anybody else, and you don't need to join a gym -- there's plenty of information to be found online, in books and via DVDs. The first step, however, is a consultation with a doctor to be sure that you (or the person in question) are not only healthy enough to begin, but are aware of any potential limitations or complications.


Cross-training, or using a combination of exercises, is a great way to combat boredom and keep you interested in exercising. It also accounts for energy levels that may vary from day to day and can help prevent injury by working different muscle groups. Some people find specific exercises that they enjoy and prefer to stick with them, but there are a few different types of exercise that most people should try to do on a regular basis.

Any workout should start with a short warm-up. This simply means that you're warming up your muscles to prepare them for more strenuous work. One easy way to warm up is to start walking slowly. You can also stretch to warm up, but it's important that these stretches are dynamic rather than static -- in other words, you're moving while stretching rather than standing still, so as not to strain the muscle.

Aerobic, or cardiovascular, exercises allow you to burn fat and lose weight, as well as improve your cardiovascular health. Aerobic exercise can include walking, cycling and swimming. Most people should do some kind of aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, most days of the week.

Strength training, also known as weight training, strengthens your muscles and bones and should be done for at least two days a week. Just 2-pound hand weights or even bottles of water can provide resistance. There's also balance and flexibility training, which can help prevent common injuries such as falls. Pilates and yoga fall under this category of exercise.

All workouts should end with a cooldown, which stretches muscles and brings the heart rate back to normal. This usually entails stretching for five or 10 minutes.

These basics are for people without any restrictions. But if you do have arthritis, heart disease or another condition, you can still exercise. We'll check out some modifications next.


Fitness Modifications for Seniors


­It might seem safer not to exercise if you have a condition or disease such as type-2 diabetes or osteoporosis. However, people with these and other issues can still experience the benefits of a fitness regimen, and even improve their condition, by modifying their exercise routine.


People who have arthritis should check out a low-impact aerobics program. Exercises such as jumping jacks can put a lot of stress on joints, causing them to swell and become even more painful. To modify this exercise, you can step one foot out at a time and raise the opposite arm instead of jumping both legs out and bringing up both arms. There are modifications like this for many specific exercises, or you can focus on already low-impact exercises like swimming. If you have osteoporosis, you should get a bone density scan before exercising to determine the degree of bone loss. You need to be cautious when doing any kind of exercise that puts stress on the bones and make sure not to overstretch.

It can be scary for someone with heart disease or other heart problems to contemplate any kind of exercise that will raise the heart rate, but your doctor can determine a healthy target heart rate for your age and specific condition by performing a treadmill test. There are also heart rate calculators online. Once you know your target heart rate, you can program it into machines at the gym or a heart rate monitor. Then, if your heart rate starts to go too high, you'll know to slow down your exercise until it's in the zone again.

If you have type-2 diabetes, you'll need to check your blood glucose level before and after exercise. Moderate exercise can rapidly lower blood glucose levels, while very intense exercise can raise them. It's necessary to know exactly how different types of exercises affect it so you can plan accordingly. Regular exercise can affect the amount of insulin you need if you're insulin dependent, or even your doses of medication. You should wear a medical ID bracelet and exercise with someone who knows about your condition.

Regardless of your condition, you should always stop exercising and consult your doctor if you feel nauseous, dizzy, have chest pain or become extremely fatigued. If you're just starting out, always start out slowly and build up your intensity over time. If you do join a gym, seek out fitness instructors who have knowledge and experience working with older people and people with health conditions.

For even more information about fitness, aging and health, see the links to HowStuffWorks articles on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • AARP. "Strength Training for Boomers." AARP. March 22, 2004.
  • BBC. "'Flexible' elderly reduce risk of falls." BBC News Health. January 13, 2002.
  • Burns, Edith A. "Aging and the Immune System." HealthLink, Medical College of Wisconsin. August 30, 2001.
  • Carney, Kat. "Elderly work up a sweat for exercise." CNN. February 20, 2004.
  • Hobieka, Claude P. "Equillibrium and Balance in the Elderly." Ear, Nose & Throat Journal, August, 1999.;col1
  • Jack La Lanne
  • Nied, Robert J. and Barry Franklin. "Promoting and Prescribing Exercise for the Elderly." American Family Physician. February 1, 2002.
  • Postive Aging Resource Center. "Exercise." PARC, Brigham & Women's Hospital. 2004.
  • Rauscher, Megan. "Loss of height linked to breathlessness in elderly." Reuters Health at MedLinePlus. February 13, 2009.
  • Science Daily. "Elderly improve with exercise too." Science Daily. March 25, 2008.
  • University of Arizona. "Building Strong Bones for a Lifetime." University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. 2005.
  • Whitney, Craig R. "Jeanne Calment, World's Elder, Dies at 122." New York Times. August 5, 1997.