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How much exercise do you really need?

Created date

March 15th, 2017
Several people working out at a fitness center

The list of beneficial effects of being active grows every year and now includes prevention of heart disease, cancer, dementia, diabetes, and much more. Physical activity and exercise will, in fact, help you stay independent, live longer, and enjoy a better quality of life. 

Given all these positives, it may seem remarkable that only 30% of Americans are active and that the numbers for seniors are even lower. Here’s why: it’s difficult to get motivated, figure out what to do, how to get started, and determine how much exercise you really need anyway. It can be intimidating, especially when you read the recommended amount of exercise you should be doing every week. 

For older adults, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends two hours and thirty minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week and muscle-strengthening two or more days a week. Or you could do one hour and fifteen minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (such as jogging) every week and muscle strengthening two or more days a week. You could also try an equal mix of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity and two or more days a week of muscle strengthening. Experts also say older adults should add flexibility and balance exercises to the mix as well.

Trying to figure all this out can be confusing and overwhelming, but there is hope and a simple approach to an active lifestyle.

Getting down to basics 

First, exercise shouldn’t feel like a chore. That’s why you need to choose an activity you enjoy. Also, give yourself credit—everything counts toward your activity total. Lifestyle exercise such as cleaning the kitchen, vacuuming, tending your garden, or following young grandchildren around the house gets you up and moving. Other ways to be active include chair activities, doing some stretching when you wake up, taking stairs instead of an elevator, or parking farther away than usual from a store entrance. Any aerobic activity—such as walking—can be broken up into ten-minute increments throughout your day to make it more manageable. 

Finally, a recent study gives hope to those who don’t meet the above guidelines and only exercise once or twice a week. It showed that both cardiovascular and cancer mortality were reduced even at lower levels of activity. It is truly remarkable how positively we respond to even small amounts of activity, and this is true for the most frail among us as well! 

If you’re ready to get started, even if you are in reasonably good health, please talk to your doctor and together develop an “exercise prescription”—it may be the most important medicine you will ever take. An exercise plan will usually include frequency, intensity, time, and type of activity, and it is fine to start very gradually. For more information, two excellent resources are exerciseismedicine.org, which addresses exercise for a number of chronic conditions, and cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults, which clearly describes current guidelines. Time’s a wastin’ so it’s time to get movin’.


Matt Narrett, M.D., is chief medical officer for Erickson Living and leads the medical team at all Erickson Living communities. He received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School and has been providing care for seniors for over three decades. 

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