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How to Avoid the "I'm Too Old to Exercise" Trap

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

By: Kristin Driessen PT, DPT

Kristin Driessen PT, DPT

Being in an outpatient orthopaedic clinic, I have the opportunity to work with people across the life span ranging from children to senior citizens. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard an elderly patient say, “wow, I am definitely too old to exercise like that!” while watching an adolescent athlete perform his or her physical therapy exercise program.

Why is this an acceptable frame of mind? I certainly do not want my patients thinking they cannot exercise at a moderate, or even vigorous intensity strictly because of their age. Understandably, there are co-morbidities and actual physical capabilities to consider when starting to exercise, but being born in a certain year should NEVER be the determinant factor.

Current exercise guidelines per the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend senior citizens get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity (or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity), and at least two days of resistance training per week. Other activities, such as balance and flexibility exercises, are recommended to reduce risk of falling and to improve mobility of joints. 1 Now at first, this sounds like a lot of time and a lot of different types of exercises, which can be intimidating. Before you stop reading, let's break this down together, and determine how to avoid letting your age get in the way of being physically active!

The first part of initiating an exercise program is understanding the current exercise recommendations. Moderate intensity aerobic activities are exercises such as walking, and stationary cycling. These produce large movements of the joints in a rhythmic pattern. "Moderate" intensity is exercising to the point where your heart rate increases, and you sweat, but you can still talk comfortably without gasping for air. 1 150 minutes of this type of activity may seem like a lot, but going for a daily brisk 20 minute walk with your spouse or friends just about covers the recommendation. Now, that does not seem so bad! Keep in mind that moderate intensity for someone that is 85 may be different from someone that is 15. So to my patients that see athletes training hard in the physical therapy gym, you can work at the same amount of perceived exertion, but with a different mode of exercise that is appropriate for you!

Strength training is defined as targeted exercises for large muscle groups of the body (i.e; qaudriceps, hamstrings, deltoids, biceps, etc.). The current AHA recommendation is twice a week. 1 Additionally, exercises such as stretching allows for improved flexibility of muscles if stiffness or lack of mobility is an issue, and further balance training such as yoga and Tai Chi may help reduce risk of falling in the elderly population.

It is very easy to make excuses of why you cannot exercise. Maybe it is time constraints, money, you do not know where to start, or you have health conditions and are worried about how exercise will affect you. Luckily, all of these common excuses do have solutions, so I ask you to consider these below:

1) Is time a factor? Fortunately, getting some exercise is better than none. If 150 minutes of aerobic activity is simply too much time to squeeze into your busy week, exercise how much you can realistically do per week. Maybe you can set your alarm in the morning for 20 minutes earlier, or turn off the TV 30 minutes earlier in the evening in order to exercise. I have had patients that go for brisk walks during their lunch break at work!

2) Is money a factor? Sometimes getting personal trainers or a gym membership is just not in your budget. That's okay! I have plenty of patients that exercise by walking around the block, or driving to a park to walk there. Instead of purchasing gym equipment for home such as dumbbells and barbells, I have had patients use cans of soup, water bottles, and 5 pound bags of rice to add resistance to their strengthening program. Additionally, it may be worth to ask local gyms if they offer a senior discount for a membership, or look into Medicare’s Silver Sneakers Program if you are eligible.

3) Are other health conditions a factor? Keep in mind everyone's "moderate level" is very different. What may be moderate intensity for someone with diabetes may be different for those without this diagnosis. Exercise will be determined by YOU and what YOU feel comfortable doing! Luckily, scientific research supports exercise for those with osetoarthritis, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, and cognitive impairments. 1 Of course, discuss your desire to start exercising with your doctor or physical therapist to make sure there are not any contraindications to certain activities.

Hopefully you understand the current guidelines for exercise in the aging population, and the solutions listed above will work for you. There is no age that is "too old" to exercise; you can be an athlete at any age! Before starting any exercise program, discuss with your doctor your fitness goals, identify any barriers or questions you have in regards to exercise, and develop a plan for becoming active that suits your specific goals and needs!

If you want additional information regarding current guidelines for exercise prescription in older adults and exercise with specific diagnoses, please visit:


  1. 1. Lee PG, Jackson EA, Richardson CR. Exercise prescriptions in older adults. Am Fam Physician.2017;95(7):425-437.

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