Health and Fitness for Seniors: Avoid Injury When You Exercise

Reaching your senior years is no reason to stop working out. Health and fitness is important (and fun) at any age. Just stay alert for signs you're overdoing it.

health and fitness

Getting into our seniors years is no reason to forget about health and fitness. Exercise regularly—and do it via activities you enjoy.

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Most of us value health and fitness, so a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may surprise you: About 27 percent of adults age 65 and older don’t exercise. The study (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Sept. 15, 2016) revealed that the numbers are even worse for people age 75 and older: 35 percent are inactive.

Getting older isn’t an excuse to avoid an active lifestyle—in fact, research shows that slowing down physically is associated with greater risk for low vitality, poor health, hospitalization, and loss of independence in older adults. Not convinced? Another recent study (Annals of Internal Medicine, Sept. 26, 2016) found that adults age 70 to 89 who regularly exercised were 13 percent less likely to suffer a disability—and more likely to recover faster if they did.

“It becomes even more important to get regular exercise as you age,” confirms David Thomas, MD, professor of medicine and rehabilitation medicine at Mount Sinai. “Physical activity helps boost your energy, mood, heart health, and bone strength, and more and more evidence also is linking it to a sharper memory in old age.”

The same goes for seniors who’ve led a sedentary lifestyle for decades but finally start prioritizing health and fitness. “There is evidence that people who start exercising late in life after years of inactivity benefit more,” Dr. Thomas confirms.

Ease in Gently

If you aren’t used to exercising, it’s important to start slow. If you have a pre-existing health condition, let your doctor know you intend beginning an exercise regimen. “It’s important to find out what constitutes a possible danger sign,” Dr. Thomas says. “For example, if you have a heart condition, your doctor will likely advise you to stop exercising if you experience chest pain or pressure.”

You can expect to feel some aches and pains after exercising, particularly if you aren’t used to activity, but warming up with gentle stretches and marching on the spot can help prevent muscle strain.

Don’t Let Arthritis Put You Off

You shouldn’t avoid exercise if you have arthritis, since studies show that physical activity can ease the pain that accompanies the condition. The same policy applies if you have the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis.

“Many seniors with osteoporosis avoid exercise because they fear falling and fracturing a bone,” Dr. Thomas observes. “However, weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, helps build bone mass.”

A Health and Fitness Key: Stay Alert for Injuries

One common knee injury is a torn meniscus. “The meniscus is a tiny shock absorber that acts as a cushion between the thighbone and the shinbone,” says Dr. Thomas. “It’s vulnerable to tears during sudden rotating movements—for example, the twists and turns you might engage in during a game of tennis. Damage also can arise over time, due to osteoarthritis in the knee joint.”


  • Warm up and stretch for at least five minutes before starting any workout.
  • Wear supportive, cushioned shoes that fit properly.
  • Stick to low-impact exercises, such as biking, swimming, and walking, to protect your knees.
  • If you’re hurting after a workout, hold ice to the area for 5-15 minutes once every two or three hours, to relieve inflammation (cover the ice to prevent your skin from getting too cold). Later, you can apply heat to loosen up the joint.

If you’ve torn a meniscus, you’ll experience symptoms like pain, swelling, and weakness, or you may hear a popping sound inside the knee when you move. “Tears generally heal on their own, with rest,” Dr. Thomas says. “Once the pain has diminished, physical rehabilitation can stabilize your knee by boosting muscle strength in the joint.”

If the tear doesn’t get better, your doctor may recommend arthroscopic (“keyhole”) surgery to repair the damaged meniscus.

The shoulders are another part of the body that can take a beating. “Repetitive motions like swinging a golf club or lifting weights can weaken or even tear the muscles and tendons of the rotator cuff, which holds the shoulder joint in place,” Dr. Thomas explains. “Rest, activity modification, and strengthening exercises are often enough to relieve a rotator cuff injury, but large tears may require surgical repair.”

Exercise Targets

A good starting point with any new workout routine is to do no more than 20 to 30 minutes every other day. “Balance it between cardiovascular activities that raise your heart rate, and resistance exercises that build muscle and bone strength,” Dr. Thomas advises. “Don’t forget flexibility, which will benefit from gentle yoga, and balance, which can be improved by tai chi.”

Ease into the new exercise routine—don’t try to lift more weights than you can handle, don’t start out at a run on the treadmill, and don’t overstretch while trying to touch your toes. “After about six weeks you can start increasing the frequency and duration of your exercise sessions,” Dr. Thomas says.

Keep in mind too that workouts don’t have to be “formal.” You can march on the spot while you’re waiting for your coffee to drip, rake leaves instead of relying on the leaf-blower, do shoulder lifts and rolls when you’re stopped at a traffic light, and take the stairs instead of the elevator.

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This article was originally published in 2017. It is updated regularly. 

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Kate Brophy

Kate Brophy is an experienced health writer and editor with a long career in the UK and United States. Kate has been Executive Editor of the Icahn School of Medicine … Read More

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