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Exercises You Should Try - for older adults

Three types of exercise are important for staying healthy and independent: strength exercises, stretching exercises, and endurance exercises.

Strength Exercises

Strength exercises build muscle as well as increase your metabolism, which helps keep your weight and blood sugar in check. Do strength exercises for all your major muscle groups at least twice a week. Don't do strength exercises of the same muscle group on any 2 days in a row. Depending on how fit you are, you might need to start out using as little as 1 or 2 pounds of weight, or no weight at all, to allow your body to adapt to strength exercises.

Lift a minimum of weight the first week, then gradually build up the weight. Starting out with weights that are too heavy can cause injuries. Remember that you have to add gradually a challenging amount of weight in order to benefit from strength exercises. If you don't challenge your muscles, you won't get stronger.

When doing a strength exercise, do 8 to 15 repetitions in a row. Wait a minute, then do another set of 8 to 15 repetitions in a row of the same exercise.

Tip: While you are waiting, you might want to stretch the muscle you just worked or do a different strength exercise that uses a different set of muscles.

Take 3 seconds to lift or push a weight into place. Hold the position for 1 second, and take another 3 seconds to lower the weight. Don't let the weight drop -- lowering it slowly is very important.

It should feel somewhere between hard and very hard for you to lift or push the weight. It should not feel very, very hard. If you can't lift or push a weight 8 times in a row, it's too heavy for you and you should reduce the amount of weight. If you can lift a weight more than 15 times in a row, it's too light for you. Increase the amount of weight.

Safety tips:

  • Don't hold your breath during strength exercises. This could affect your blood pressure.
  • Use smooth, steady movements to bring weights into position.
  • Avoid jerking or thrusting movements.
  • Avoid locking the joints of your arms and legs into a strained position. Breathe out as you lift or push a weight and breathe in as you relax.
  • Muscle soreness lasting a few days and slight fatigue are normal after muscle building exercises.
  • Exhaustion, sore joints, and painful muscle pulls are not normal.

Examples of strength exercises:

  • Dumbbell Chest Press
  • Dumbbell Fly
  • Dumbbell Front Shoulder Raise
  • Dumbbell Triceps Extensions
  • Dumbbells Biceps Curl

Stretching Exercises

Stretching exercises are thought to give you more freedom of movement to do the things you need and like to do. Stretching exercises alone will not improve your endurance or strength.

Stretch after you do your regularly scheduled strength and endurance exercises. If you can't do endurance or strength exercises for some reason, and stretching exercises are the only kind you are able to do, do them at least 3 times a week, for at least 20 minutes each session. Note that stretching exercises, by themselves, don't improve endurance or strength.

Do each stretching exercise 3 to 5 times at each session. Slowly stretch into the desired position, as far as possible without pain, and hold the stretch for 10 to 30 seconds. Relax, then repeat, trying to stretch farther.

Safety tips:

  • Always warm up before stretching exercises by doing them after endurance or strength exercises or by doing some easy walking or arm-pumping first.
  • Stretching should never cause pain, especially joint pain.
  • Mild discomfort or a mild pulling sensation is normal.
  • Never bounce into a stretch -- make slow steady movements instead.

Examples of stretching exercises:

  • Leg Circles
  • Leg Stretches
  • Neck Rotation
  • Side Bends
  • Thigh Pull

Endurance Exercises

Endurance exercises are any activity -- walking, jogging, swimming, raking -- that increases your heart rate and breathing for an extended period of time. Build up your endurance gradually, starting with as little as 5 minutes of endurance activities at a time, if you need to.

Your goal is to work your way up to a moderate-to-vigorous level that increases your breathing and heart rate. It should feel somewhat difficult to you. Once you reach your goal, you can divide your exercise into sessions of no less than 10 minutes at a time, if you want to, as long as they add up to a total of at least 30 minutes on most or all days of the week.

Doing less than 10 minutes at a time won't give you the desired cardiovascular and respiratory system benefits. The exception to this guideline is when you first make the decision to begin endurance activities, and you are just starting out.

Gradually working your way up is especially important if you have been inactive for a long time. It may take months to go from a very long-standing sedentary lifestyle to doing some of the activities suggested in this section.

Safety tips:

  • Stretch after your activities, when your muscles are warm.
  • Drink water.
  • Dress appropriately for the heat and cold.
  • To prevent injuries, use safety equipment such as helmets for biking.
  • Endurance activities should not make you breathe so hard that you can't talk and should not cause dizziness or chest pain.

Examples of moderate endurance exercises:
Older adults who have been inactive for a long time will need to work up to these activities gradually.

  • walking briskly on a level surface
  • swimming
  • gardening, mowing, raking
  • cycling on a stationary bicycle
  • bicycling

Examples of vigorous endurance exercises:
People who have been inactive for a long time or who have certain health risks should not start out with these activities.

  • climbing stairs or hills
  • shoveling snow
  • brisk bicycling up hills
  • digging holes

Source: National Institute on Aging

Adapted by Editorial Staff, November 2006
Last update, July 2008


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