As you age, one of the most important things you can do is aim to get enough exercise. Something as simple as taking a walk or performing a few stretches can help you keep your body in good condition and increase your self-esteem, improving your overall quality of life. Physical activity is especially important if you reside in an assisted living facility, as it can keep you healthy enough to participate in social activities and enjoy trips to local attractions. Getting enough exercise may even help you avoid health problems that could contribute to having to move from assisted living to a nursing home.

Unfortunately, many older adults don’t get as much exercise as they should. According to a 2016 report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25.4% of adults between the ages of 50 and 64 don’t get any physical activity outside of work. Inactivity is even more common for seniors aged 65 and older, leading to an increased risk of cancer, recurrent falls, cognitive decline and disabilities that prevent older adults from performing all necessary activities of daily living.

The good news is it’s never too late to start an exercise routine –  regardless of your age , or even chronic conditions – such as arthritis. As a resident of an assisted living facility, you have even more opportunities to exercise than many seniors living in their own homes. This guide explains the importance of physical activity for seniors and provides a list of exercises you can do from your assisted living unit, common area, or exercise gym.

Exercise Benefits for Seniors 

One of the benefits of assisted living is that many communities have wellness programs for residents. Participating in one of these programs has many physical, social and psychological benefits.

Physical Benefits of Exercise for Seniors

Participating in an exercise program offers many physical benefits, especially if you have sore muscles, stiff joints or other problems that make it difficult to stay active. These are just a few of the key physical benefits of exercising regularly while residing in assisted living:

Pain Relief

Many older adults avoid exercise because they have pain, swelling and stiffness caused by certain medical conditions. This is actually one of the worst things you can do. Exercise releases endorphins, chemicals that produce a sense of well-being. Endorphins don’t eliminate pain, but they change the way the brain perceives pain signals, which may help you feel more comfortable. 

In people with arthritis and other joint problems, exercise reduces pain and improves joint function. Regular exercise may even strengthen cartilage, the connective tissue that absorbs shock and allows smooth movement of the joints.

Reduced Risk of Chronic Disease

Exercise helps prevent many chronic diseases, especially heart disease and diabetes. Getting enough exercise may help you reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke and other serious heart problems. 

Exercise also reduces blood pressure and makes it easier for your blood vessels to dilate when needed. In people with prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes, exercise lowers the amount of glucose (blood sugar) in the bloodstream, reducing the risk of long-term complications.

Weight Loss

Losing weight isn’t the only reason to exercise, but it’s an important one if you’re overweight or obese. Extra pounds put additional stress on your joints and increase your risk for several chronic health conditions. As you age, your metabolism also gets slower, meaning you burn fewer calories than you did when you were younger and more active. Regular physical activity can help you shed excess pounds or prevent weight gain as you get older.

Preservation of Muscle Mass

Sarcopenia or loss of muscle mass can have a significant impact on a senior’s quality of life. Decreased metabolism, increased risk of falling, inability to climb stairs, carry groceries and even get out of a chair can all be due to muscle atrophy. Physical activity, especially resistance training, can prevent and even reverse muscle loss.

Psychological Benefits of Exercise for Seniors

The physical benefits of exercise are well-publicized, but many people don’t realize that exercise also has important psychological benefits that impact how you think and feel.  

Reduced Risk of Cognitive Decline

This benefit can be both physical and psychological. Cognition, or how we take in information and then process, understand and apply it, is reliant on how well the billions of neurons in the brain function, and ultimately, that affects your daily thoughts and actions. 

In animal studies, exercise has been shown to improve the function of the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory and thinking. Researchers believe that exercise prevents or slows cognitive decline in humans by increasing blood flow to the brain. In a study led by Anna E. Leeuwis of Alzheimer’s Center Amsterdam, participants with higher levels of cerebral blood flow performed better on tests designed to measure their attention and executive functioning. 

Improve  Mood

 Exercise releases “feel good” hormones, some which are endorphins, dopamine and serotonin and suppresses cortisol, the hormone released when you feel upset or worried. As a result, exercise improves your mood and has been shown in studies to  make the symptoms of depression and anxiety more manageable. Just 10 minutes of aerobic exercise can even help you reduce stress and feel better.. 

Improve Self-Perception 

When you participate in a wellness program, you can take pride in knowing that you’re doing something to improve your health. As you begin to see and feel the physical and psychological benefits of exercise, you may notice increased self-esteem and better body image. This, in turn, can motivate you to participate in meaningful activities that produce a sense of accomplishment, altering how you see yourself and your abilities. 

Common Myths About Physical Activity for Seniors

Although exercise has important physical and psychological benefits, some assisted living residents shy away from exercise because of persistent myths about physical activity in older adults. Below are some of the most common myths about exercise for older people.

Myth #1: You don’t need to exercise as much as you did when you were younger.

According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans released by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, all adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise each week. This refers to aerobic exercise, the type of exercise that improves circulation and strengthens the heart and other components of the circulatory system. You should also engage in muscle-strengthening exercises on at least 2 days each week.

Myth #2: It’s not safe for older adults to exercise.

Anyone starting a new exercise program should get clearance from their medical provider. However, The American Academy of Family Physicians reports  that exercise is safe for most adults. Even if you have to modify your exercise routine to account for changes in balance or pain caused by a medical condition, it’s still important to get plenty of physical activity.

Myth #3: You don’t need to do any resistance training.

Resistance training is a type of exercise that requires the muscles to push against some type of weight or force, causing them to get stronger. Many older adults believe that resistance training is only for people trying to bulk up for fitness competitions, but everyone can benefit from this type of physical activity. According to researchers from the CDC, resistance training helps prevent frailty, making it ideal for older adults who want to ward off some of the ill effects of physical inactivity.

Wellness Programs for Seniors in Assisted Living

Wellness Programs for Seniors in Assisted Living

Now that you know the importance of aerobic exercise and strength training, don’t be afraid to ask the activities director at your assisted living community to start a wellness program or update an existing program to better meet your needs. A good wellness program should include the following components.

Exercise Classes

Some people find it difficult to stay motivated when they always have to exercise on their own. If your assisted living community offers exercise classes, you’ll be able to exercise with fellow residents, which can help prevent social isolation while you burn calories and strengthen your body. Step aerobics, water aerobics, Tai chi, yoga and chair-based exercises are just a few of the classes that can be added to the wellness program at an assisted living community.

Educational Programs

Even if you want to exercise, it can be difficult to get started if you don’t know how to exercise safely or choose activities that are appropriate for your medical status and fitness level. If this applies to you, ask the activities director to add fitness-related educational programs to the community event calendar. You may benefit from programs on strength training, determining how many calories to consume each day, preparing nutritious foods or creating an exercise plan based on your current level of fitness.

Family Involvement

Exercising with a loved one keeps you motivated and makes physical activity more fun. If you talk to the activities director about adding new features to the wellness program, suggest having family fitness days. This would give you and other residents the chance to strengthen family connections while you work on being more active. If your current wellness program doesn’t incorporate friends and family members, feel free to invite your loved ones to take a walk with you or play a game that requires some physical exertion.

Social Outings

You don’t need to engage in formal exercise to enjoy the benefits of physical activity. Something as simple as walking around a shopping mall or museum can help you burn calories and avoid some of the ill effects of a sedentary lifestyle. For best results, a wellness program at an assisted living facility should include plenty of social outings to give residents the chance to move their bodies while spending time with friends.

Healthy Meals

When someone else prepares your meals, it can be difficult to keep track of how many calories you’re consuming. One way to combat this problem in an assisted living setting is to ask for detailed nutritional information about each meal and snack. You should also consider asking the dining director to add healthier options to the menu. Substituting steamed broccoli for buttered carrots, for example, can help you reduce the number of calories in your lunch or dinner. If you’re concerned about diabetes, it can also help you lower your carbohydrate intake.

Example Exercises for Older Adults

Aerobic exercise should get your blood pumping, but it shouldn’t make it hard to breathe or cause you any pain. One good way to tell if you’re exercising at a moderate intensity is to do the talk test recommended by the CDC. If you can talk but not sing, there’s a good chance you’re engaged in moderate-intensity physical activity. Here are some examples of aerobic exercises that can help you look and feel your best:

  • Brisk walking
  • Cycling at a speed of less than 10 miles per hour
  • Doubles tennis
  • Water aerobics
  • Ballroom dancing
  • Recreational badminton
  • Hiking

The good thing about strength training is that you don’t need to pump iron to strengthen your muscles and increase your stamina. You can purchase a set of resistance bands or simply use your body weight to engage in this type of exercise. Progress slowly with a goal of completing 8-12 repetitions before considering an increase in resistance or adding an additional set of the same exercise (after an appropriate rest break).

Here are a few examples of strength-training exercises you can do right in your residence or in one of the common areas of your assisted living community:

  • Wall pushups: Put both hands against the wall and then push your body forward. As you get closer to the wall, bend your elbows. Return to the starting position by straightening your arms.
  • Standing marches: Standing next to the wall or a sturdy chair, raise one knee until your foot isn’t touching the ground. Raise the knee until it’s as high as your hip. If you can’t reach your hip, lift the knee as high as possible. Return your foot to the floor and repeat with the other foot.
  • Leg lifts: Stand behind a chair and grip the back of it. Adjust your feet until they are hip-width apart. Placing your weight on one leg, lift the other leg behind you. After touching your foot to the ground, repeat this process with the other leg.
  • Toe lifts: Hold the back of a chair, stand up straight and lift your heels until you’re on the tips of your toes. Lower your heels carefully until both feet are on the ground.
  • Bicep curls: If you don’t have weights, you can use cans of soup, water jugs or other objects that are easy to hold while exercising. Start out by standing straight and holding your arms at your sides. Grasping a small weight or other object, raise both arms toward your torso and then return them to the starting position.

Special Considerations for Seniors With Chronic Health Conditions

Special Considerations for Seniors With Chronic Health Conditions

If you have a chronic health condition, you may worry that moderate-intensity exercise will make your symptoms worse. Although you should consult with your doctor before beginning an exercise program, the following activities are recommended for adults with chronic health issues, including heart disease, osteoarthritis and autoimmune disorders.

Health Condition

Recommended Exercise

Why the Recommended Exercise Is Beneficial for This Condition

Autoimmune Disorders

  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Yoga
  • Weight training

In people with autoimmune disorders, the immune system attacks healthy tissue, resulting in increased inflammatory activity. The recommended exercises are beneficial for autoimmune disorders because they're low-impact and can be easily modified to accommodate older adults with joint pain, muscle pain and other common symptoms.

Cancer

  • Walking
  • Cycling
  • Gardening
  • Playing active games
  • Dancing
  • Stretching

Chemotherapy, radiation therapy and other cancer treatments often cause fatigue, but it's important for people with cancer to stay as active as possible. Physical activity may help increase stamina during cancer treatments, improve physical function or even reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. The mood boost that comes with exercise can also help ease some of your worry during and after treatment. If your doctor okays them, the recommended exercises can help you stay active without putting too much stress on your body.

Heart Disease

  • Stretching
  • Yoga
  • Free weights
  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Playing tennis

Johns Hopkins University recommends aerobic exercise, strength training and stretching to improve heart health. Even people with congestive heart failure or a history of heart attack should exercise as much as possible to strengthen their cardiovascular systems. The recommended exercises include all three types of recommended exercise, making them suitable for people with coronary artery disease and other heart diseases.

Hypertension

  • Aerobic classes
  • Cycling
  • Walking
  • Dancing
  • Swimming

Physical activity helps reduce blood pressure by strengthening the circulatory system, reducing stress and making it easier to maintain a healthy weight. Experts at the Cleveland Clinic specifically recommend cardio and strength training for people with hypertension (high blood pressure). The recommended exercises can help you improve your cardiovascular health, making hypertension more manageable.

Multiple Sclerosis

  • Freestyle swimming
  • Water aerobics classes
  • Gardening
  • Household chores

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to attack the spinal cord and brain, resulting in numbness, tingling, muscle weakness, pain and other symptoms. Exercising in water is especially helpful if you have MS, as the water makes it easier to move around. Even if you have trouble walking, you may be able to exercise comfortably in a pool. Gardening and doing household chores can help you stay active even if your MS symptoms make it difficult to develop a formal exercise routine.

Osteoarthritis

  • Flexibility exercises
  • Chair stands
  • Swimming
  • Walking
  • Rowing

Osteoarthritis causes pain, stiffness and swelling in the affected joints. Although it's tempting to avoid exercise, engaging in physical activity makes the symptoms of osteoarthritis more manageable. Swimming is beneficial, especially if you have access to a warm pool, as the warm water can soothe your sore body. Exercising in water also reduces the impact on your joints, making it easier and safer to exercise even when your arthritis symptoms are bothering you. The other exercises are ideal for strengthening your body and preventing additional stiffness caused by a lack of activity.

Parkinson's Disease

  • Dancing
  • Yoga
  • No contact boxing

Parkinson's disease affects balance and coordination, increasing the risk for falls, so it's important to be careful when exercising. The recommended activities are all enjoyable and can be modified as needed based on your symptoms. If you're stiff or have trouble moving around, performing basic yoga movements is a good way to stay active.

Recent COVID-19/Long COVID

  • Walking
  • Household chores
  • Swimming

People with long COVID, also known as post-COVID syndrome, may have difficulty returning to their normal activity levels due to difficulty breathing, heart palpitations and other symptoms. Although you may need to modify your exercise routine, it's important to continue exercising as much as you're able. Walking, swimming and performing household chores can help you get your stamina back before you move on to more strenuous forms of exercise.

Spinal Cord Injury

  • Stretching
  • Hand cycling
  • Swimming
  • Resistance bands

If you have a spinal cord injury, it's important to stay active, as regular physical activity can help you avoid developing other health problems that can make your recovery more difficult. For seniors who use wheelchairs, it's also important to keep the upper body strong. The recommended exercises include aerobic activity, strength training and flexibility exercises to give you a well-rounded exercise program.

Stroke

  • Weight lifting
  • Resistance bands

Stroke survivors should do 20 to 60 minutes of exercise per day for at least 3 days per week. If you feel up to it, 20 to 60 minutes of exercise every day of the week can help you regain your strength and reap the benefits of staying active. Lifting weights and using resistance bands can help you overcome the lingering muscle weakness that often occurs following a stroke.

Type 2 Diabetes

  • Walking
  • Tai chi
  • Swimming
  • Dancing

In people with Type 2 diabetes, exercise reduces the need for insulin, making it an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Walking is ideal because you can do it almost anywhere, from a local shopping complex to the garden of your assisted living community. Tai chi helps reduce stress, which can make it easier to stick to your diabetic eating plan and stay active. Swimming and dancing are ideal because they can improve your heart health and lose weight, both of which are important for managing Type 2 diabetes.

Note for individuals with Diabetes: Visually check your feet daily for cuts and blisters after exercising; some individuals with diabetes have a condition called neuropathy where they can lose the feeling in their feet, so they may not realize they need medical attention.