Fitness Healthy Aging

Physical Activity Guidelines for Older Adults

Evelyn is an alert, oriented, and physically active 80-year-old woman. She’s worried about her younger sister June, who’s 70 and sedentary. June has begun to experience memory loss and is now relying more on others to assist her with daily activities such as housework and errands. June thinks her decline is inevitable because she’s “getting old” and resents Evelyn’s nagging her to come to a chair-yoga class with her.

As a dietitian who interacts with older adults regularly, how would you share details and advice about physical activity and health for older adults?

New Physical Activity Guidelines
The second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans was published in the fall of 2018. The new guidelines provide evidence-based information on the benefits of activity and set activity goals for all age groups, from preschool-aged children to older adults to those with chronic health conditions and disabilities. They’re intended to be used by health care professionals and policy makers to initiate programs and policies, but RDs also can use them to counsel clients and patients. In-depth information on the evidence behind the guidelines can be found in the Scientific Report of the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee.

Benefits and Strategies
Most older adults know that exercise can help lower risk of hypertension, diabetes, some cancers, and overweight/obesity. New evidence reported in the guidelines suggests that physical activity can result in many other benefits for older adults, including decreased risk of dementia, improved cognition, reduced risk of depression, less anxiety, improved physical function, lower risk of falls and fall-related injuries, and improved sleep, with a potential increase in quality of life. Share these tangible benefits, which may be easier for older adults to embrace than more obscure benefits such as decreased risk of chronic disease.

The guidelines suggest older adults engage in multicomponent physical activity that incudes balance training, muscle-strengthening activities, and aerobic activities. As with other age groups, 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity is suggested weekly to obtain substantial health benefits. Muscle-strengthening activity two or more days weekly also is recommended.

In addition, the guidelines stress that all Americans, including older adults, should move more and sit less and “start low and go slow.” They caution that older adults should be under the care of a health care provider about setting physical activity goals if they have chronic conditions or symptoms that may affect their ability to exercise.

Key Takeaways

  • Some physical activity is better than none.
  • The benefits of physical activity generally outweigh the risk of adverse outcomes or injury.
  • To reduce risk of injury, it’s important to increase the amount of physical activity gradually over a period of weeks to months.
  • A good first step is to replace sedentary behavior with light-intensity physical activity.
  • No matter how much time they spend in sedentary behavior or light-intensity activity, inactive people can reduce their health risks by gradually increasing their moderate-intensity physical activity.
  • Exercise in short bouts (climbing a few flights of stairs, for example) can contribute to the overall amount of physical activity.

Making the Guidelines Work for Your Clients
Your advice to June might be that she can gain health benefits by reducing the time she spends sitting and adding small amounts of activity. Even Evelyn, who’s more active, can experience additional greater benefits by increasing her activity level. June may be encouraged to know that she can add light-intensity physical activity such as gardening, walking, or housework, and gradually increase her activity. You also can encourage June to add more aerobic activity, muscle strengthening, and flexibility by attending some classes at the senior center with her sister. With consistent support and encouragement, both June and Evelyn could eventually increase their level of activity to the levels recommended for older adults by the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

For more information on this topic, refer to Diet and Nutrition Care Manual: Comprehensive Nutrition Care Guide from Becky Dorner & Associates, Inc.

— Becky Dorner, RDN, LD, FAND, is widely known as one of the nation’s leading experts on nutrition and long term health care. Her company, Becky Dorner & Associates, Inc, is a trusted source of valuable continuing education, nutrition resources, and creative solutions. Visit to sign up for free news and information.

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