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Physical activity guidelines for older people

9-minute read

If you have a medical condition or have been mostly inactive, see your doctor before starting any vigorous exercise program.

Key facts

  • Keeping active helps you stay physically and mentally strong.
  • Aim for about 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days, but any amount of activity is beneficial — even just a few minutes.
  • Strength and weight-bearing activities can increase bone density, helping to prevent osteoporosis.
  • Consider exercising with a friend, and choose activities you enjoy, to help you stay motivated.

Why should older people stay active?

Whatever your age, you can enjoy the benefits of physical activity. There’s a host of health reasons to stay active and it doesn’t have to be ‘serious business’ — being active can be fun, especially if you can socialise at the same time. Exercise also helps keep your mind active and improves your quality of life.

Even a small increase in daily physical activity can reduce your risk of health conditions such as:

ARE YOU AT RISK? — Are you at risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease? Use the Risk Checker to find out.

Physical activity can also:

Conversely, spending a lot of time sitting down (being sedentary) may increase the risk of health conditions. So it’s a good idea to break up long periods of sitting with physical activity. Even a few minutes of walking or stretching is beneficial.

Can physical activity ‘slow down’ the ageing process?

Some types of physical activity, such as resistance training and flexibility exercises, can improve physical changes that come with ageing.

Most people lose some muscle mass, bone density and flexibility as they age. Chronic health problems can also contribute to weakness and frailty.

Physical activity has been shown to improve overall health, reduce the chance of chronic health conditions and reduce frailty. This means that staying active may help you live longer with a better quality of life.

How much physical activity do older people need?

You should aim for about 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity every day. Moderate-intensity exercise should make you feel a bit breathless, but you should still be able to talk comfortably.

Incorporate different types of physical activity into your daily routine. This will keep it interesting and easier to stick to over time.

What types of exercise should older people be doing?

There are 4 main types of physical activity that are important for people of all ages.

Cardiovascular (‘cardio’) fitness activities help keep your heart and lungs healthy. This includes:

  • brisk walking
  • cycling
  • swimming
  • golf (without a gold cart)
  • tennis
  • aerobics classes
  • dancing

Household chores such as gardening and cleaning can also be a great cardio workout. Low-impact activities such as swimming can be beneficial for people who find movement painful because of health conditions such as osteoarthritis.

You don’t have to do all of your activity in one session per day — you can spread it out. For example, 10 minutes of cardio 3 times a day, or 15 minutes twice a day

Strength activities help your muscles and bones stay strong. Strength training and weight-bearing exercise are especially helpful at increasing your bone density and reducing the risk of falls among people with osteoporosis.

Strength exercises include:

  • weight training
  • resistance training
  • lifting and carrying (for example, groceries or small children)
  • gardening (involving digging and lifting)
  • climbing stairs

Aim to build strength exercises into your routine about 2 to 3 times a week.

Flexibility activities incorporate gentle stretching and bending exercises that help you move more easily. This might include:

  • Tai Chi
  • yoga
  • dancing
  • gardening
  • lawn bowls
  • mopping or vacuuming

Try to do some stretching exercises every day. You can even stretch while watching TV or waiting for the kettle to boil — you can follow the diagrams here.

Balancing activities help improve your balance, which can help prevent falls. They include:

  • side leg raises
  • half squats
  • heel raises

Remember, physical activity can be varied and you can exercise outside of a gym or classes. There are also online fitness tools and programs you can use at home.

Even people who are less mobile or have a disability can find ways to keep active. Find an exercise program that is tailored to people at a similar age and fitness level as you.

If you’re struggling to find an activity that’s right for you, ask your doctor, exercise physiologist or physiotherapist for advice.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, physiotherapists, hospitals and other health services.

How can older people start exercising safely?

Start gradually to give your body time to adjust to a new exercise routine. Try short periods of activity and, over a few weeks, build up to about 30 minutes of physical activity on most days. Even a few minutes of activity is beneficial when you’re starting out.

Wear comfortable clothes and supportive shoes. Drink plenty of water before, during and after exercising.

High-intensity (vigorous) exercise isn’t specifically recommended for older people, particularly those with osteoporosis since it can increase the risk of fractures. But if you’ve enjoyed vigorous exercise throughout your life you may be able to safely continue as you get older. Check with your doctor.

Don’t stop or slow down without first checking with your doctor — you might just be advised to keep it up, or modify your activity slightly as you get older.

If you have stopped being active because of a health condition or recent surgery, talk to your doctor before resuming your fitness program. In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist for advice.

Physical activity should involve some effort, but shouldn’t cause pain. If you experience pain or other symptoms such as dizziness or heart palpitations when you exercise, stop the activity and see your doctor.

If you are experiencing severe chest pain or shortness of breath, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

How do I stay motivated to keep active?

Even when you know that physical activity is beneficial, it can be hard to get started and stay motivated. You could:

  • choose activities you enjoy
  • switch to another activity if you find yourself getting bored
  • invite a family member or friend to join you
  • use reminders, such as post-it notes on the fridge
  • plan ahead — schedule activities in your diary or calendar and allocate regular times for exercise
  • use a diary or activity tracker to record your activities to help keep you motivated

Myths about physical activity and older people

‘Older people can’t go to the gym.’

Fact: Gyms are not just for younger people. Many older people enjoy working out at gyms or attending exercise classes, many of which are tailored to seniors.

If it makes you more comfortable (and you're retired), you could go to the gym during off-peak hours. You could also request a tour or introductory training session with a qualified personal trainer. It’s also important to remember that physical activity can take place anywhere.

‘Frail people can’t exercise.’

Fact Most people can find enjoyable ways to safely stay active, even if they have health problems or are frail. Physical activity can actually help you become stronger and less frail. If you are struggling to find an activity that is right for you, ask your doctor, exercise physiologist or physiotherapist for ideas.

‘I’m too old to start exercising.’

Fact: It’s never too late to become more active and enjoying the benefits of physical activity. Improving your fitness and mobility, even at an older age, will boost your physical and mental health, and quality of life.

Resources and support

  • The National Ageing Research Institute (NARI) provides links to exercise programs you can do at home.
  • Stay on Your Feet is the Western Australia Department of Health’s falls prevention program, which includes information and resources about safe exercise for older Australians.
  • Read the ‘Choose health, be active’ booklet by the National Department of Health for information and ideas about staying active.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2021

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