Aerobic Exercises for Seniors

By Laura High and Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
September 20, 2022
Aerobic Exercises for Seniors

Firing up your cardiovascular system is important at any age. While doing aerobic exercise at moderate intensity, you should be able to talk but not sing.


Physical activity is important for everyone, and something is always better than nothing, no matter your age or level of fitness. Countless studies have proven the benefits of exercise, and organizations and governments around the globe implore us to move more and do so regularly.

Aerobic exercise, sometimes called cardio, raises your heart rate. Strength and training to maintain flexibility are also important for a comprehensive fitness program, but if you can do only one activity, some form or cardio will give you the most bang for your workout buck.


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According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week. Meeting this goal, which can be broken down to just 30 minutes a day (two 15-minute increments are also fine), has been shown to provide substantial health benefits, including lowering your risk of premature death coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and depression.

If you push beyond the 150 minutes you will realize additional health benefits, including a lower risk of colon and breast cancer and prevention of weight gain. Aerobic activity is one of the rare instances in which more really is better.  You can also push harder in less time, aiming for 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity, or some combination of vigorous and moderate exercise.

For older adults, aerobic and other exercise offers a path to maintain independence, a key goal for many as they age. Cardiovascular fitness is a measure of your body’s ability to deliver oxygen to your muscles. When you are not aerobically fit, you may have trouble doing things like climbing stairs, standing in a shower, or carrying groceries.

Many older people are afraid of exercise for fear of falling. They know that falls, followed by physical rehabilitation, often mean you can’t move home again, unless you have regular help. But their fear becomes a trap, bringing on the dreaded result.

They need to know that tests of fitness — the strength of your grip and your ability to rise from sitting to standing — predict the likelihood of a fall. Aerobic fitness is part of a strategy to take care of yourself, to be independent, to do the things you want to do, said Neal Pire, FACSM, an exercise physiologist at The Gym of Englewood, in Englewood, N.J.  

For people in the early stages of dementia, exercise may slow decline. Exercise may also cut pain, allowing you to perform more tasks.

What exercise counts?

Moderate-intensity physical activity requires a medium amount of effort. Measured on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being sitting and 10 being the greatest effort possible, moderate activity should be a 5 or 6. At this level, you will have a noticeable increase in your breathing and heart rate, and you’ll likely begin to perspire.

If you’re already fit, you can be more energetic. Vigorous-intensity activity is a 7 or 8 on the scale and produces large increases in your breathing and heart rate.

You can gain the benefits of aerobic activity from doing just about anything. All that’s required is that you use large muscles in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion over a sustained period of time. Brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, and dancing are all examples of aerobic activity.

For most of these activities, you can determine whether you’ve reached the recommended intensity level by using the talk test (this won’t work if you’re swimming). You should be able to talk but not necessarily sing.

“Singing requires more breath control that you’re going to lose when you’re in that moderate physical activity intensity level,” Pire said. “But essentially, instead of measuring pulse and calculating heart rate and all that other stuff, I like using the talk test because it’s simple for anybody to do.”

Where to start?

The fitness level of each individual is unique, so what you might consider moderate exercise might be vigorous to your neighbor. Some older people can run a couple of miles, whereas others may struggle to walk a couple of blocks.

The starting point of your aerobic activity will be dependent on your level of fitness. Your breathing will primarily dictate how far you go and for how long, but you may also be limited by how your muscles react if you’ve been sedentary for a while.

  • Start where you can. If you can walk only a few blocks, start there and work your way up slowly. Maybe you can swim just a few laps, or ride your bike a little way. It doesn’t matter how far or how fast you go, as long as you go.
  • Make a plan. Set reasonable, attainable goals for yourself, and keep track of your progress. Acknowledge the gains you’ve made. Consider rewarding yourself in some way: Get a massage or buy some new workout clothes.
  • Make it a habit. Build your workout into your schedule, and put it on your calendar. Once it becomes part of your regular routine, you won’t have to talk yourself into it each time. It will become easier — especially after you start noticing your progress. Work your way up until you reach 30 to 60 minutes of activity at least 5 days a week.

If you haven’t been active for a while, or if you have certain physical or health limitations, understand how your condition affects your ability for physically activity, and then work within those limitations. Always talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program.

Be safe

Make sure you’re in a safe environment when starting out. Avoid places that have challenging physical obstacles until you build up your strength and confidence. If you have balance issues, do exercises that improve balance to minimize your risk of falling.

If you have a mobile phone, make sure you take it with you. If you don’t have one, consider getting one for safety’s sake. Always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back.

It’s always easier to get motivated and stick to a schedule if you have a workout buddy. Find someone who is near your same level of fitness and make a commitment to each other to meet and exercise together. Not only will you help each other show up, you’ll have someone with you in the event you need assistance.

“Do something that you can do, and do it in a safe environment,” Pire said. “You want to be safe, you want to be careful, and you want to start where you can start and progress slowly.”


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September 20, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN