Senior Fitness: Why It's Never Too Late to Start

Even people in their 70s and 80s can benefit when they start to exercise -- as long as they do it safely.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on December 22, 2009
3 min read

Each month WebMD the Magazine puts your questions about weight loss and fitness to top exercise and motivational experts. This month, John Harvey, an 86-year-old retired physician, asked for help beginning a fitness routine. Harvey moved with his wife to a retirement community in Bethesda, Md., about a year ago. He's never been obese, but at 225 pounds he's leaning more on his cane and is unsteady on his feet. For advice, we turned to Anthony Absalon, a fitness trainer at Fox Hill Senior Living in Bethesda, who specializes in seniors and is arthritis rehabilitation-certified by the Arthritis Foundation.

John's question: I was a workaholic all my professional life. I never exercised or played golf or tennis -- I just worked all the time. Now I have trouble with my balance, I've had to use a cane for more than a year, and I've had arthritis for many years. What can I do to get more fit?

Answer: "While today's seniors were growing up, fitness wasn't what it is today. The biggest issue is trying to get them to start with a fitness program that combines cardio, strength training, and balance." Some of Absalon's safe fitness tips for seniors:

Watch your steps. Get a simple pedometer -- many cost around $10, and some are even giveaways -- and track how many steps you take each day. The goal is at least 10,000 steps every day, but work up slowly -- you don't have to go from 1,000 to 10,000 overnight.

Take the stairs. Just walking up and down stairs instead of riding the elevator can help burn calories and build strength and balance. But it's not always easy with an old injury. "If you have a bum knee, it's up with the good, and down with the bad," says Absalon. "So lead with your good leg when going up the stairs, and lead with your bad leg going down."

Take a chair. You can boost your core strength -- essential for balance and muscle tone -- while sitting at a computer or watching TV. Scoot forward so you're sitting on the edge of the chair, sitting tall with chest up and shoulders back. Lean back from the hips until your shoulders touch the back of the chair, then come back up. "You'll feel how tight your stomach muscles are," says Absalon. "It's a safe way to exercise your core without torquing the spine."

Squat safely. Regular squat exercises can strengthen your leg muscles and keep you from needing a cane, walker, or wheelchair. Stand straight and tall with feet shoulder-width apart, toes facing forward. First, drop your hips back and stick out your bottom, then bend the knees like you're sitting. This keeps you from pushing the knees over the toes -- not a safe squat. "Don't worry if you can't go down very far at first," says Absalon.

The results: After nine months of exercising with Absalon, Harvey has gone from 225 to 185 pounds. "My balance has improved, and I feel so much more secure in my walking now," he says. "They tell you not to give up the cane once you start using it, but I get around fine here in the house without it. And my hips don't hurt as much and they seem to work better. I feel much stronger and more invigorated -- it's amazing!"