How Much Physical Activity Do Older Adults Need?

Discover how much physical activity older adults need for healthy aging & improved quality of life.

June 2, 2024

Importance of Physical Activity for Older Adults

Regular physical activity plays a crucial role in maintaining health and well-being, particularly for older adults. Besides the numerous physiological and psychological benefits, it also enhances overall quality of life and brings about significant economic advantages.

Enhancing Quality of Life

Even though regular physical activity might not significantly lengthen life expectancy in older adults, it has been shown to enhance their quality of life considerably. Engaging in regular exercise can improve physiological and psychological functions, maintain personal independence, and reduce demands for acute and chronic care services. All these factors contribute to a better quality of life for older adults.

Moreover, a 2016 study revealed that physical activity among US adults aged 50 and above can enhance health and quality of life, whereas physical inactivity contributes to increased healthcare costs.

Economic Benefits of Physical Activity

From an economic perspective, regular physical activity offers significant benefits. Research indicates that the medical costs for inactive adults are substantially higher than for active adults, and these costs increase with age. This suggests that by improving physical activity levels in older adults, it may be possible to significantly lower health care costs [3].

Furthermore, older adults who engaged in intermediate and high levels of physical activity had lower health care utilization and expenditures compared to those with low levels of physical activity.

The benefits of physical activity extend beyond the individual to society as a whole. Cost savings from the improvements in health and reduced demand for healthcare services are likely to cover the costs of a well-designed exercise program. Therefore, promoting regular physical activity among older adults is not just a question of 'how much physical activity do older adults need?' but also a significant public health and economic strategy.

Recommended Physical Activity Guidelines

To maintain health and wellness, it's crucial for older adults to engage in regular physical activity. Here, we will explore the recommended guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.

Aerobic Activity Recommendations

For substantial health benefits, older adults are advised to participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or an equivalent combination of each per week. These recommendations are supported by multiple sources, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Moderate-intensity aerobic activities include brisk walking, while vigorous-intensity activities may involve running or jogging. It's encouraged to spread these activities throughout the week to avoid prolonged periods of inactivity.

Intensity Duration (per week)
Moderate 150 minutes
Vigorous 75 minutes
Combination Equivalent of both

Muscle-Strengthening Activities

Alongside aerobic activities, older adults should also engage in strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups at least two days a week. These activities may include resistance training or body weight exercises.

Moreover, adults aged 65 years and older should incorporate activities to improve balance, such as standing on one foot.

Activity Frequency (per week)
Muscle-Strengthening 2 days
Balance Improving Variable

These guidelines serve as a basis for how much physical activity older adults need. However, the intensity and frequency of physical activity should be adjusted according to an individual's fitness level, health status, and personal preferences. Always consult with a healthcare provider before starting a new exercise regimen to ensure safety and appropriateness.

Current Physical Activity Trends Among Older Adults

A concerning trend in the current physical activity levels of older adults is that there is a general lack of the minimum recommended activity, impacting not only their health but also contributing to increased healthcare costs.

Lack of Minimum Recommended Activity

Relatively few older adults in the United States achieve the minimum amount of recommended physical activity. According to American Family Physician, it is estimated that 28 to 34 percent of adults aged 65 to 74 years are inactive. Furthermore, less than 40% of adults aged 65 years and older exercise routinely [5]. Over 38% of participants reported less than 30 minutes of moderate-vigorous physical activity in the previous week [5]. These statistics indicate a significant gap in reaching the recommended levels of physical activity among older adults.

Impact on Healthcare Costs

The implications of this lack of physical activity go beyond the individuals' health. The medical costs for inactive adults are substantially higher than for active adults and increase with age. This suggests that it may be possible to significantly lower healthcare costs by improving physical activity levels in older adults, as compared with any other age group [3].

Activity Level Healthcare Utilization and Expenditures
Low High
Intermediate Lower
High Lowest

Figures courtesy source

Older adults who engaged in intermediate and high levels of physical activity had lower healthcare utilization and expenditures compared to those with low levels of physical activity. This further emphasizes the need for strategies and interventions that encourage and support older adults in achieving the recommended levels of physical activity.

Health Benefits of Physical Activity

The question of 'how much physical activity do older adults need?' is not just about the quantity but also about the quality of life that such activity can bring. Regular physical activity has been associated with a myriad of health benefits, particularly for older adults.

Lower Risk of Depression

Being physically active has been shown to reduce the risk of depression in adults. A study published by American Family Physician highlighted that adults who exercised at least three times a week were much less likely to develop depression compared to non-exercisers. Regular physical activity can promote mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing anxiety, thereby enhancing the overall quality of life.

Cognitive Function and Dementia Prevention

In addition to the mental health benefits, regular exercise can also contribute significantly to cognitive health. Regular physical activity in older adults has been associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. The American Family Physician study found that older individuals who were physically active were much less likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer disease.

Further, physical activity helps maintain good cardiovascular health, which is essential for brain health. Endurance exercise training can lead to improvements in resting and submaximal exercise heart rate, blood pressure, and stroke volume, emphasizing the importance of high-intensity training for the elderly.

Apart from the benefits to mental and cognitive health, regular physical activity also contributes to physical health. It has been associated with lower rates of all-cause mortality, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, and breast cancer.

Moreover, physical activity helps to reduce the risk of falls among older people. Exercise programs that include challenging balance activities for more than 3 hours per week have been shown to have a greater effect in reducing falls.

Physical activity also has economic benefits. Older adults who engage in intermediate and high levels of physical activity have been associated with lower healthcare utilization and expenditures compared to those with low levels of physical activity [4].

In summary, regular physical activity can greatly enhance the physical and mental health of older adults, contributing to better quality of life and reduced healthcare costs.

Strategies for Increasing Physical Activity

To address the question of 'how much physical activity do older adults need?', it's essential to understand that variety, duration, and intensity play a crucial role in designing an effective exercise regimen.

Variety in Aerobic Activities

Joint guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Heart Association recommend that older adults engage in a diverse range of aerobic physical activities throughout the week. These activities can include walking, swimming, cycling, or even dancing. They should last for at least 10 minutes at a time and should be performed at moderate or vigorous intensity, depending on the individual's physical capacity [3].

Duration and Intensity Recommendations

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), adults aged 18-64 and older adults aged 65 and above should aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. They can also opt for an equivalent combination of both.

In addition to aerobic exercise, it's recommended that older adults also include strength and balance exercises in their routine to reduce the risk of falls and improve muscle mass. Strength training, in particular, has been shown to counteract skeletal muscle atrophy, a common issue among older adults due to aging and physical inactivity. This type of training can increase lean body mass, improve physical performance, and enhance daily living activities [6].

Age Group Exercise Type Duration
Adults (18-64 years) Moderate or vigorous aerobic activity 150 or 75 minutes per week
Older Adults (65 years and above) Moderate or vigorous aerobic activity 150 or 75 minutes per week

Data Source: NCBI Bookshelf

In cases where older adults cannot adhere to these guidelines due to chronic conditions, they should aim to be as active as their ability and conditions allow. It's important to note that any physical activity is better than none and can contribute to improved physical health and wellness. Always consult a healthcare provider before starting any new fitness regimen.

Supporting Physical Activity in Older Adults

To combat the lack of physical activity among older adults and promote a healthier lifestyle, the collective effort from the community and the promotion of healthy aging are crucial.

Community Involvement

Communities play a key role in supporting the physical activity needs of older adults. By doing so, they help delay, prevent, or manage chronic diseases, reduce the risk of premature death, and ultimately promote healthy aging.

Community-based programs and initiatives can provide resources and support for older adults to incorporate regular physical activity into their routine. These can range from fitness classes and walking groups to education programs that highlight the importance of physical activity for overall health.

The Midcourse Report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identified strategies to increase physical activity among older adults. It emphasized the involvement of various professionals and stakeholders and promoted the idea that staying active should be an easy and enjoyable choice for this demographic.

Promotion of Healthy Aging

Promoting healthy aging involves encouraging older adults to meet the recommended physical activity guidelines. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults aged 65 years and older engage in at least 150 minutes or more of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity and 2 days of muscle-strengthening physical activity each week. These activities provide substantial health benefits and assist in the prevention and management of chronic diseases [8].

Type of Activity Frequency Duration
Aerobic Physical Activity 5 days a week 150 minutes
Muscle-Strengthening Activity 2 days a week As per individual capacity

The Biden-Harris Administration has stressed the importance of older Americans staying physically active and expressed commitment to improving the health of all Americans, regardless of age, through supporting the guidelines for physical activity amongst older adults.

Despite the numerous benefits, 31 million adults aged 50 or older were inactive in 2014 (CDC), which emphasizes the importance of promoting physical activity among older adults. By working together, individuals, communities, and organizations can help to increase physical activity levels among older adults and support healthier aging.

References

[1]: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8486296/

[2]: https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/inactivity-among-adults-50plus/index.html

[3]: https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2010/0101/p55.html

[4]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5488312/

[5]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1490218/

[6]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6304477/

[7]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK305058/

[8]: https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/06/27/hhs-releases-physical-activity-guidelines-for-americans-midcourse-report-implementation-strategies-for-older-adults.html

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