Physical Activity

Basic Facts

No matter what your age or abilities, it’s never too late to start being physically active—or to get back into being active. Being active is one of the best things you can do to maintain or improve your health. Activity helps you to feel better mentally and physically, stay strong physically, prevent falls, and maintain your independence for as long as possible. Moderate amounts of aerobic physical activity (the kind that makes you breathe faster) can reduce your risk of functional decline by as much as 30%, allowing you to continue taking care of yourself. 

What’s the difference between physical activity and exercise?

  • Physical activity is any activity that involves moving your body. This includes housework, climbing the stairs, gardening, etc.
  • Exercise is a type of physical activity that is planned, structured, and focused on attaining physical fitness. Some examples are swimming, walking, or lifting weights.

What are the benefits of regular physical activity?

The health benefits of physical activity are independent of risk factors. For example, smokers who increase their physical activity will experience health benefits, even if they continue to smoke.  

Likewise, overweight or obese adults benefit from physical activity, even if they do not lose weight. Getting regular physical activity on most days of the week improves health in the following ways. All these benefits can increase your quality of life.   

Promotes mental and cognitive health

Physical activity can help reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. Exercise triggers the release of “feel-good” brain chemicals, which can lift your spirits and ease depression. You may also find that being active optimizes your cognitive function, helping keep your mind sharp.

Increases physical strength

Older adults who are physically active build and maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints. They may be more secure on their feet and better able to move about without falling, which decreases the likelihood and severity of falls. Simple strength and balance training exercises can reduce your risk of falls by 40%.

Helps maintain a healthy weight

Increased weight can be a factor in a number of health problems. Physical activity can help keep your weight at a healthy level. If you lose weight by diet alone, you may lose not only fat mass, but also muscle mass and bone mass. Physical activity, particularly muscle-strengthening activity, can preserve bone and muscle mass.

Restores restful sleep

When you are physically active regularly, you’ll enjoy a better quality of sleep. Being active also decreases your feelings of tiredness and fatigue. Aerobic exercise in the early evening can improve sleep quality, but be aware that exercise later in the evening can be too stimulating and make it difficult to get restful sleep.

Reduces arthritic disability

Studies have shown that older adults with osteoarthritis had less pain and more flexibility after 16 weeks of strengthening exercises.

Maintains or improves heart health

Simply put, physical activity helps your heart work more efficiently. Aerobic exercise (the kind that makes you breathe faster) can improve the fitness of your heart in as little as 6 weeks after beginning an exercise program. 

Improves blood sugar control

Better control of your sugar levels means you may need less medication for your diabetes. Lower sugar can also decrease your risk of the long-term problems associated with diabetes.

Reduces the risk of many diseases

Exercise helps reduce the risk of several chronic illnesses such as diabetes, stroke, heart attack, high blood pressure, breast cancer, colon cancer, and cholesterol disorders.

Keeps bones strong

After menopause, women can lose 1-2% of their bone mass every year. The good news is that doing strength-training exercises can increase bone density and reduce an older woman’s risk for bone fractures and osteoporosis. Starting an exercise program even late in life can help to preserve bone density.

Economic Benefit

Older adults who are regularly physical activity has been shown to have lower medical costs compared to sedentary adults.

Physical activity during hospitalization

Even if you are in the hospital, staying active—as much as possible—is important. Try to get out of bed to sit in a chair or to walk as often as you can—ask staff or visitors for help if you feel unsteady walking on your own. Bathing and dressing yourself also count as physical activity. Staying active can shorten your hospital stay, lower your chances of having to go to a nursing or rehabilitation facility after your discharge, and improve your long-term recovery. 

Especially for older adults with arthritis and other muscle and joint conditions, participating in exercise programs when you are in the hospital can lessen stiffness, improve balance, and ease fatigue.

Risks of being sedentary (inactive)

Given the numerous health benefits of physical activity, the risks of being inactive are clear. Physical inactivity is a serious problem in the US for people of all ages. Inactivity in old age can lead to unnecessary illness and loss of your ability to handle daily tasks as well as your independence.  Physical inactivity is also associated with higher mortality rates.  

Recommended Types and Amounts of Physical Activity

People at all levels of fitness benefit from increased physical activity. The benefit of physical activity is proportional to the intensity of exercise and to your level of fitness when you began exercising. In fact, people who are the least fit often gain the biggest rewards from the smallest increases in physical activity. For those who can do higher intensity activity, it takes less time to get the same benefit from high intensity activities than light intensity.

Physical activity can range from light to high vigorous intensity. In general, as you increase your exercise intensity, you improve your physical fitness and your will be able to sustain high intensity activity for longer periods,

What is moderate intensity aerobic physical activity?  

A moderate level of physical activity—which is also what we define as exercise—is walking 100 steps in a minute.  Other examples are listed below. 

Examples of moderate intensity physical activity include:

  • Gardening
  • Wheeling yourself in a wheelchair
  • Walking briskly
  • Bicycling
  • Dancing fast
  • Pushing a stroller
  • Raking leaves
  • Water aerobics
  • Swimming laps
  • Wheelchair basketball
  • Shoveling snow
  • Stair-walking

What is a high intensity aerobic physical activity? 

Examples of high intensity physical activity include:

  • Speed walking
  • Jogging
  • Tennis, basketball, soccer 
  • Aerobic dancing (e.g Zumba)
  • Jumping rope
  • Walking uphill

How often should you exercise, and for how long?


Ideally, older adults should do at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity at least 5 days each week (150 minutes per week) or at least 75 minutes a week of high intensity aerobic activity.

Adults should also do muscle-strengthening at least 2 days a week for 20-30 minutes and balance training at least 3 times a week. Often these two activities can be combined in exercise, dance or tai chi classes, though it’s always good to do some dedicated weight lifting since without that your muscles weaken with age.

It may take months to reach your ultimate goal. You are more likely to succeed if you set smaller step-wise goals that can be achieved in 1-3 weeks. But the most important goal is to avoid inactivity. You should engage in whatever amount of physical activity you can according to your ability and then work toward increasing that amount gradually.

Precautions for a healthy start

To avoid soreness and injury, you should start out slowly, stretch before using muscles for the first time in a long time, and gradually build up to the desired amount of exercise to give your body time to adjust. Don’t get discouraged—reaching your target level of physical activity can take months. 


Last Updated August 2020