Exercise: How much is really enough?

Created date

March 23rd, 2020
Dr. Matt Narrett is the chief medical officer for Erickson Living-managed communities.

Exercise is remarkably beneficial to emotional, physical, and cognitive health, and it prevents or delays many diseases. Yet, few of us exercise on a regular basis.

Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that, overall, a startling 80% of adults do not meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for exercise, including aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. In addition, estimates reveal that only about a third of adults 75 years of age and older consider themselves physically active. 

There can be many reasons for not exercising—lack of motivation, feeling as if you don’t have time, or just simply not knowing how to get started. Even if you decide to start exercising, you might be a little intimidated if you take a close look at the CDC’s guidelines. They include 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week. Along with that, you should spend some time on muscle-strengthening exercises two or more days a week. Experts say older adults should also include flexibility and balance exercises. 

These goals can be difficult to understand and may only be relevant if you are in fairly good health. The presence of chronic conditions and functional limitations in over half of the senior population make it difficult for many to come anywhere close to the CDC recommendations.

Any exercise is good 

The good news is that you don’t have to meet the recommendations to benefit from being active. Studies show that the human body responds positively to exercise no matter how old you are, and that people who exercise once or twice weekly have a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease or cancer. Among older women, Harvard researchers found that as few as 4,400 steps a day was associated with lower mortality. Research at the University of California found that light physical activity reduced risk of heart attack and cardiac-related mortality by 42%.

A good way for many seniors to start is to incorporate exercise into simple everyday activities, such as spring cleaning the house or meeting a friend for a walk instead of watching television. If you go to a store, park farther away than usual. Take stairs instead of an elevator. Consider tai chi and yoga, which encompass several types of physical activity—balance, flexibility, muscle-strengthening, and sometimes a little bit of aerobic activity. The pool is an ideal place to do some all-in-one exercises, too. You can be quite active in the water, and it is much less likely that you’ll end up with an exercise-related injury.

Research has also shown us that sitting for long periods is very harmful to health. So, if you are watching TV or sitting for long periods, do some leg lifts or stand up and stretch every half hour or so.

As you can see, even if you have some health problems or functional limitations, you have options to be more active. But your plan needs to be safe and personalized. Talk to your doctor before you increase your activity. You may need to begin with a physical therapist and start conservatively, but just get started. You will likely enjoy benefits far greater than you imagined.


In good health,

Dr. Narrett