When it comes to exercise for older adults, there is a lot of confusion out there.
For instance, you may read one article that tells you that you should only perform HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts. But then, the next article you read may tell you that older adults should only perform LISS (low-intensity steady state) workouts.
How can a person without a background in exercise science possibly navigate these contradictions?
Well, one option you have is to spend a few years learning the terminology and science behind exercise. This would give you the ability to sift through these studies and find your answer.
Alternatively, you can follow the science-backed recommendations from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
In this article, I will break down the cardio recommendations from the ACSM, provide a list of great exercise options anyone can participate in, and talk about some of the less-desirable exercise options for older adults.
Cardiorespiratory Exercise Guidelines from the ACSM
To start, let’s define “cardio exercise”.
According to the ACSM, cardiorespiratory exercise is “any activity that uses large muscle groups, can be maintained continuously, and is rhythmic in nature.”
Based on this definition, there are tons of activities that could fit the bill. In a later section of this article, I’ll break down some of the best forms of cardio exercise for seniors.
So, now that we have a working definition for what cardio really is, how much of it should we do.
Once again, we can look to the ACSM for guidance on this question. The group recommends that healthy adults complete 150 minutes of moderate cardiorespiratory activity per week. This breaks down to 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week of exercise.
However, those that prefer more intense exercise or have less time available have options too. The ACSM also states that healthy adults can, instead, perform 20 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise 3 days a week.
At this point, we have a definition of what cardio exercise actually is. Furthermore, we have some science-backed recommendations on how much of it to do each week.
In the next section, let’s take a look at some of the best cardio activities that people over 60 can incorporate into their routines.
Options for Aerobic Exercise
To review, the major components of cardio exercise are:
- Rhythmic in nature.
- Uses large muscle groups.
- Can be maintained continuously.
You may be picturing some aerobic activities in your mind right now based on this definition!
Below, I’ll review some simple cardio exercises that are a great choice for older adults.
Remember, whichever form of exercise (or combination of exercises) you choose, just be sure to achieve 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise 5 days per week minimum.
Or, if you’re feeling like pushing yourself a bit more: 20 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise 3 days per week minimum.
That’s right: something as simple as walking can be part of your exercise routine. Truth be told, if you take a moderate-intensity walk for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, you’ve already fulfilled the ACSM recommendations for aerobic exercise!
Walking is a perfect activity for most individuals because:
- It requires no equipment.
- The walker fully controls the intensity.
- Walks can be taken alone or in groups.
Of course, if walking isn’t the right fit for you, check out some of the other options below.
This form of exercise became popular in the 1980s. While it hasn’t gone away completely, pure step aerobics classes have largely been replaced with fusion classes. This means that group exercise routines incorporate step aerobics with other kinds of exercise.
However, you can also simply use stairs and hills to get an extra cardio boost while walking. Walking up and down stairs/hills can be very difficult. After 10-15 minutes, you’ll likely have a great sweat going!
To be honest, not all forms of yoga can be considered aerobic in nature. For instance, yoga classes that focus exclusively on meditation and breathing don’t necessarily improve one’s cardio. Granted, these more relaxed classes can be great for the body and mind. But the type of yoga I’m referring to for our purposes is the slightly higher intensity version.
Yoga that improves cardiovascular function will include tons of different flows and movements that force your heart and lungs to work overtime. As an added benefit, you’ll improve your balance, flexibility, and stability. A win-win-win-win!
For many reasons, biking can be a great cardio option for seniors. Bikes accommodate those with decreased balance, while still allowing for moderate-to-high intensity exercise.
Stationary bikes tend to be safer. However, for those that are experienced with biking on the road, taking long bike rides out in nature can be fun, rewarding, and a great way to improve health.
If you live near a body of water and can get involved with a rowing program, you are a very lucky individual!
That being said, even those that don’t have access to real rowing can still access the cardio benefits. Most gyms have at least one or two rowing machines available for use. These machines provide an unmatched total body workout. Rowers are a great choice for cardio exercise.
I’m fully aware that swimming is not an option for a huge portion of the population. For one thing, not everyone can get to a pool in the first place. Also, some people may be afraid of the water or may not know how to swim.
For those that love to swim, however, this mode of exercise is perfect. Swimming creates no impact on the joints and works nearly every muscle in the body. Of course, it also provides an amazing cardio workout as well.
Tai Chi is an ancient practice that has been around for centuries. For some, it is a form of martial arts, while others use it strictly for the aerobic and balance benefits.
Regardless of how the practice is used, Tai Chi is an excellent cardio choice for seniors.
What could possibly be better than dancing for exercise?
That’s the question Beto Perez asked himself when he invented Zumba in the early 2000s. Since then, this form of exercise has been loved by all age groups. There are Zumba classes for kids, adults, and seniors.
However, one can still get great cardio benefits just from dancing by themselves at home. There’s no need for a formal Zumba class to get a great dancing workout.
Exercises Seniors Should Avoid
I’m not one to exclude any exercises or forms of exercise outright. I think that almost every exercise has its place. Of course, this is only true if the exercise is used appropriately given the person’s age and ability.
Having said that, there are a few exercises that I dislike for seniors and other populations in nearly all cases.
The upright row is a strengthening exercise in which the lifter:
- Holds a barbell or two dumbbells.
- Pulls the weights straight up toward the ceiling, leading with his or her elbows.
Now, the reason I don’t like this exercise can get pretty technical. But let’s suffice it to say that the upright row puts a ton of strain on the shoulder. For many people, it can wear down tendons and other structures in the shoulder, leading to injury.
Therefore, I usually discourage clients from performing this movement.
Single Joint Exercises
When it comes to resistance training, I prefer that most seniors perform multi-joint exercises. Truthfully, there’s nothing wrong with single-joint exercises. However, if a person does a bicep curl, they’re working only a few, minor muscles. Instead, they could perform a lat pulldown, where they would work the same muscles used during a bicep curl, while also working other muscles.
Multi-joint exercises are often safer and more efficient than their single-joint counterparts. And who doesn’t want to reduce the risk of injury and decrease the time they spend in the gym?
Heavy Lifts Without a Spotter
Even for seniors, it’s ok to lift heavier weights from time to time. Of course, you need to make sure that you’ve built up to this heavy weight and that you’re ready to complete the lift.
However, seniors should never try for a one-rep max (or even a ten-rep max, in my opinion) without a spotter. The risk of heart and musculoskeletal increases significantly as we age, and heavy lifts puts seniors at unnecessary risk for injury.
Always use a spotter and have a plan for emergencies when exercising. While exercise is great for our health, it does create a risk that we need to be prepared for.
For seniors, it can be tough to combat the effects of aging. Luckily, by following the ACSM guidelines for aerobic exercise, older adults put themselves in the best position possible. There are many great ways to exercise, and a few that should be avoided.
If you have questions about what type of exercise would be best for you, consult a health professional in your area. Otherwise, if you’re ready to get back to being active now, lace up those shoes and get out for a 30-minute walk!
- Patel, H., Alkhawam, H., Madanieh, R., Shah, N., Kosmas, C. E., & Vittorio, T. J. (2017). Aerobic vs anaerobic exercise training effects on the cardiovascular system. World journal of cardiology, 9(2), 134–138. https://doi.org/10.4330/wjc.v9.i2.134
- American College of Sports Medicine. Physical Activity Guidelines.