Exercise for the Elderly

How important is exercise and physical activity for a woman in her late seventies? I'd like to help my mother preserve her health as long as possible, but I don't want to push too hard. Can you suggest any reasonable guidelines? What kinds of exercise are best for a person at this stage of life?

As long as it’s physically possible and circumstantially feasible, exercise is important at any stage of life. There’s even a sense in which it becomes particularly crucial as a person ages. An elderly person who sits around all day will go downhill rapidly both physically and mentally. A sedentary lifestyle can contribute to loss of strength, weight gain, high blood pressure, depression and loss of enthusiasm for life.

By way of contrast, studies have shown that a regular exercise routine can reduce hypertension, benefit the lungs, help increase bone-mineral density, firm up muscles, and sharpen mental acuity. Daily walking has been found to reduce the risk of heart disease. Exercise helps improve mobility and functional strength, potentially enabling an elderly person to remain independent longer and postpone or avoid having to spend time in a care facility. Aerobic exercise can even increase the amount of sleep your mom gets each night and reduce the amount of time it takes her to fall asleep.

If you want to encourage your mom to initiate an exercise program, suggest that she discuss her physical condition and personal needs with her doctor. This is especially important if she has a chronic disease or illness, chest pain, shortness of breath, swollen joints, hernia, or is recovering from surgery. After a thorough medical exam, the physician might refer her to a qualified exercise specialist who can set up a realistic schedule of physical activity. If she doesn’t like the idea of exercising alone, this might be a good opportunity to join her in an exercise program that will benefit both of you. Helping her set some achievable goals will also be important.

The goal of any exercise program is to raise the heart rate and increase aerobic capacity. Ideally, this aerobic training should involve at least twenty to thirty minutes of activity, three to five days a week. If your mom has been sedentary for a long time, it would be best to have her start out with a five- to ten-minute program one or more times per day and slowly increase the amount of exercise time. A good way to begin is by walking, which requires no special equipment and is ideal for people with osteoporosis.

Remember that exercise doesn’t have to be boring. Depending on your mother’s health or level of frailty, she may be able to walk, bicycle, swim, play golf or tennis, work in a garden, or stroll through a shopping mall. Swimming and water aerobics are especially beneficial for individuals with arthritis or who have problems performing weight-bearing exercise. Indoor exercise can include walking on a treadmill, riding a stationary bicycle, using a rowing machine, or lifting light weights (such as soup cans). If your mom is bed-ridden she may be able to squeeze a ball or sponge, lift her legs up off the bed, flex her arms and ankles, and breathe deeply, exhaling completely several times. She should also drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration and use a safety helmet, knee pads, eye goggles, or other forms of protection when appropriate.

For additional help and information on this topic, we’d encourage you to consult the resources and referrals highlighted below. Or if you have relationship concerns and challenges associated with this situation, please don’t hesitate to give our Counseling department a call.


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Caring for Aging Parents

Caregiver Action Network

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging

Caring for Ill or Aging Parents

Elderly Care


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