According to the American College of Sports Medicine, by the year 2030 more than 70 million Americans will be 65 years of age or older, and those 85 years of age and older will be the fastest-growing age group. Unfortunately, as more and more Americans live longer, less and less participate in the one activity that can help keep them healthy, active and productive—regular exercise.

While regular physical activity is important for people of all ages, it has been shown that the benefits of regular exercise are the most important to the people who tend to exercise the least—people over 50, and even more so, people over 60. In fact, it's estimated that more than 90% of retirees in the United States get virtually no meaningful exercise, and that more than 50% are totally sedentary.

There are several benefits of exercise, including:

  • Increased stamina and energy
  • Strong bones (and lower risk of osteoporosis)
  • Improved muscle tone and strength
  • Increased heart and lung efficiency
  • Flexible joints, tendons and ligaments, which improve agility
  • Improved digestive system
  • Better balance (thus helping to prevent injuries, such as falls)
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Less tension and stress
  • Improved memory and alertness

In addition, regular exercise may prevent the onset of certain diseases and inhibit the effects of many chronic diseases of aging, including high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, and osteoporosis.

Given these compelling reasons to exercise regularly, why don't more people over 50 do it? The excuses range from feeling too old, to having a specific medical condition, to not having enough time, to feeling out of place.

But the truth is that almost anyone of any age can participate in some type of physical activity, even including people with certain medical conditions.

Fortunately, beneficial results can be attained from as little as 30 minutes of exercise three to four times per week or 15-20 minutes of light physical activity (like housecleaning, gardening , slow walking) each day.

Also encouraging for the 50+ crowd is that many gyms, health clubs, swim clubs, walking clubs, YMCAs and senior centers are offering more exercise programs geared toward their age group.

Get a Checkup First

"Before starting any exercise program, anyone—regardless of age—should have a thorough physical and get the go-ahead from his physician," says Dr. Jacques Carter, MD, MPH, of Boston's Beth Israel/Deaconess Medical Center. He also notes that if you have a specific medical condition or conditions, your physician will want to make recommendations about what exercise program will be most suitable for you, set any necessary limitations on that program, and monitor your progress.

Do a Variety of Activities

Once you get the medical go-ahead, trainers and exercise physiologists suggest that you follow a three-pronged exercise program, including the following:

  • Aerobic Exercise
  • Probably the most important part of a regular exercise program, aerobic exercise is anything that causes an increase in the overall activity of your cardiovascular system (heart and lungs) for a sustained period. Over time, aerobic activity conditions your body in general, and your heart and lungs in particular, to be able to perform a greater amount of work with less effort.
  • Although even minimal increases in aerobic activity can be beneficial, your goal should be at least 20 (and preferably 30 or more) minutes of sustained aerobic activity three to five times per week.
  • Factor in the following two elements: First, find an aerobic activity you enjoy, because if you don't like it, you won't stick with it. Second, try and find an aerobic activity that is low impact (that is, it won't take a toll on your joints), such as brisk walking, biking, swimming, and low-impact aerobics classes.
  • Strengthening Exercises
  • In addition to toning your body and making all movement less strenuous and energy consuming, muscle strengthening and conditioning will help support your joints, thus preventing arthritic problems and reducing the chance of injuries caused by falls.
  • Muscle strengthening can be accomplished by using either weight machines or free weights. You don't need to use much weight to see results, because studies show that excellent health benefits can be achieved (even for people in their 70s and 80s) through regular regimens of even very light weight-lifting (3-10 pounds).
  • Muscle strengthening also has one "hidden" beneficial effect: While aerobic exercise burns calories while you exercise, weight training causes the body to burn calories 24 hours a day, even when you're at rest, because the body expends more energy to maintain muscle mass than to maintain fat mass—as much as 40 calories more per day per pound of muscle. And, while 40 calories per day may not seem like much, it does make a difference. Suppose you do serious weight lifting and add five pounds of muscle to your body. At that point, your body would automatically burn up to an additional 200 calories per day. Over a year, this is the equivalent of 72,800 calories, which equals a weight loss of 20 pounds per year!
  • Flexibility (Stretching) Exercises
  • Stretching exercises serve a number of purposes, including maintaining full motion in your joints, keeping muscles from shortening and tightening, preventing or lessening the effects of arthritis, and preventing injuries by increasing agility and mobility.
  • A physical trainer or exercise physiologist can help you design a good 10- to 15-minute stretching/flexibility regimen that you can do every day, as well as before and after your aerobic and/or strengthening exercises.

Other Tips

Experts recommend other tips to improve your exercise experience:

  • Always wear loose, comfortable fitting clothing, and comfortable athletic shoes, when exercising. In cold weather, wear layers of clothing, and protect all parts of your body. In hot and humid weather, wear clothes that breath (cotton is best) and drink plenty of liquids before and during exercise.
  • Warm up before you exercise (stretching exercises are excellent for this).
  • Allow your body to cool down (for 5-10 minutes) after aerobic exercise by either walking (or, if in the pool, swimming) very slowly, followed by 5-10 minutes of stretching exercises.
  • Don't exercise in extremely cold, hot or humid weather.
  • Don't exercise with a full stomach (wait at least 90-120 minutes after eating before exercising).
  • Don't exercise if you have an illness or injury.

Finally, if you experience any of the following symptoms during exercise, stop immediately and rest for 10-15 minutes, and if the symptoms don't subside, contact a doctor:

  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • Pain, pressure, discomfort or tightness in the chest, especially if it is extending into the neck, jaw, or left arm
  • Dizziness, light-headedness or fainting
  • Extreme perspiration
  • Severe pain, cramps or muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Extreme, prolonged exhaustion or fatigue after exercising