Physical Activity

Lifestyle & Management

If you will be starting moderate-level exercise and don’t have any health problems that would prevent you from doing so, you do not need to check in with your healthcare provider first. Of course, if you have any concerns, you should always mention them to your provider. Otherwise, jump in and get started!

If you have been inactive, start with 5 or 10 minutes (depending on your fitness level) and increase the time slowly. Try counting your daily steps with a pedometer. Recording daily step counts has been shown to help increase physical activity.

Four Major Types of Exercises

There are four major types of exercises one can perform to gain benefits from physical activity. These exercises include:

  • Aerobic exercise
  • Muscle strengthening
  • Flexibility
  • Balance training

Aerobic exercise

Exercise that makes you breathe a little faster is considered “aerobic.” This form of exercise helps keep your heart, lungs, and circulation in good condition. Aerobic exercise helps you lose excess weight because it speeds the rate at which you burn calories. As a result, doing aerobic exercise can help you prevent other diseases, such as diabetes. It also can help you to get these problems under better control. Most of the moderate and high intensity exercises discussed in Basic Facts are examples of aerobic exercise.

Muscle strengthening exercises (resistance training)

Working with weights—even very light ones—strengthens your muscles, which is an extremely important benefit for older adults. Becoming stronger can make it much easier for you to carry out everyday activities, such as climbing stairs and carrying packages. It also improves your balance and decreases your chance of falling. Those are key to helping you remain independent for as long as possible. Strength training exercise comes in many different forms. Exercises should focus on the major muscle groups (arms, shoulders, legs, hips, back, chest and abdomen). You can:

  • Follow exercise videos that use hand weights or stretch bands
  • Work out on weight machines at a gym, YMCA, or community center
  • Try an excellent, easy at-home program like this one, designed by the National Institute on Aging.

Balance exercises

Balance exercises can help you lower your risk of falls. Since falls can cause serious bone fractures, helping prevent them is key to living as independently as possible. Be sure to include balance exercises in your routine. You can find a balance program developed by the National Institute on Aging here. Gentle balance exercises include:

  • Standing on one foot for a few seconds, then switching to the other foot.
  • Doing tai chi, which was developed in China and has been proven for its health benefits—particularly related to balance—for older adults.
  • Walking heel-to-toe.

Flexibility exercises

These exercises stretch your muscles and help you stay more flexible. And the more flexible you are, the more freedom of movement you will have to carry out daily activities. Staying flexible can also ease muscle pain.

Yoga and Pilates are particularly good activities for staying flexible when you’re older. What’s more, taking age-appropriate yoga classes may even help you sleep better and enjoy an improved quality of life. You may be able to find yoga and Pilates programs suitable for older adults at YMCAs.

Which type of exercise is right for me?

The answer to that question is: the one you enjoy the most! Enjoying your exercise program helps you stick with it. You’ll get the most health benefits when you make physical activity a regular part of your life. That said, there are several different types of exercise to try.

For more tips and strategies, consult the National Institute on Aging’s Exercise & Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging, part of the Go4Life program. Go4Life is an exercise and physical activity campaign from the National Institute on Aging that offers exercises, motivational tips, and free resources to help you get ready, start exercising, and keep going. Check out Go4Life for more information and ideas for being active.


Check your progress

Contact your healthcare provider if you experience any unusual aches, pains, or shortness of breath.  

If your exercise routine is getting a little too easy, talk to your healthcare provider or a trainer at a fitness facility about finding ways to ramp it up—and increase the benefits of your workouts. 


Last Updated August 2020