Dos and Don'ts for Senior Fitness

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on September 22, 2020
photo of mature man jogging

Staying active helps you live a longer, healthier life. Did you know it may also boost your brain health?

A recent study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings suggests cardiovascular exercise like walking, jogging, and biking increases your gray matter and brain volume, which studies show can slow cognitive changes associated with aging.

This comes as no surprise to John-Paul H. Rue, MD, an orthopedic and sports medicine specialist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “It supports what many doctors and sports trainers have long stated,” he says. “In addition to the obvious benefits, like stronger muscles and healthier heart and lung function, there’s now growing evidence of improved cognitive function.”

We asked Rue and Thanu Jey, CSCS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and director of Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic in Toronto, how to exercise safely as you age.

DO choose wisely.

Pick activities that are easy on your joints, Jey says. Good choices are brisk walking, biking, swimming, dancing, and water aerobics. Avoid jumping, which puts added impact on your ankle, knee, and hip joints, and increases your risk of falling.

DON’T start without your doctor’s OK.

“Check with your doctor before you start any new exercise routine,” Rue says. Your doctor will check your heart and lungs and make sure your new routine is a good fit.

DO use good form.

Focus on form and technique, especially when you start a new activity. “The key to avoiding overuse injuries is to ensure proper form,” Rue says.

DON’T overdo it.

Go slow and easy at first. If you’re walking or biking, start with a short distance or time. If you’re using weights or resistance, use light weights or low resistance. “Once your body gets used to it, gradually build up the intensity or distance,” Rue says.

DO stretch.

Take a few minutes before and after your workout to stretch, Rue says. Stretching keeps you flexible and wards off injuries. Try stretches for your upper body, lower body, neck, and back. Check out an online yoga class.

DON’T forget balance exercises.

As you age, falls are more common. Improving your balance lowers your risk. Try tai chi or yoga. Practice standing on one foot. Try walking heel-to-toe. “Start stability and balance training early so it becomes part of your daily routine,” Jey says.

DO listen to your body.

If you have a cold, the flu, or another illness, hold off on exercise until you feel better. If something hurts, stop. See your doctor if you have shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain or pressure, trouble balancing, or nausea.

Get off on the right foot with these bonus tips from Jey.

1. Choose Good Shoes

“Look for an athletic shoe with extra grip and flexibility,” Jey says. Arch support and an elevated, cushioned heel are also important.

2. Consider the Elements

Be aware of your surroundings so you don’t trip or fall. Dress appropriately for the temperature. If it’s too hot, exercise indoors.

3. Stay Hydrated

Don’t wait until you’re thirsty. Drink a glass of water before your workout, keep drinking during your workout, and drink up after you’re done.

4. Rest Up

Rest helps you perform better and recover faster. If you didn’t get a good night’s sleep, cut back on intensity or skip your workout until tomorrow.

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Show Sources


Mayo Clinic: Mayo Clinic Proceedings: “Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Gray Matter Volume in the Temporal, Frontal, and Cerebellar Regions in the General Population.”

John-Paul Rue, MD, Baltimore.

Thanu Jey, CSCS, Toronto. “Exercise and Seniors.”

National Institute on Aging: “Safety Tips for Exercising Outdoors for Older Adults.”

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