Let’s Get Physical! Exercise Benefits Our Muscles, Mood, Memory, and More

Physical activity is a vital component of a happy, healthy life as we age. Consider the wide range of exercise benefits. Step 1: Get started!

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Rosanne Leipzig, MD, PhD, is Professor and Vice Chair of the Brookdale Department of Geriatrics and Adult Development at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York, N.Y. She also serves as Editor-in-Chief of the monthly publication Mount Sinai School of Medicine Focus on Healthy Aging.

What’s the magic bullet that can help improve our cardiovascular health, preserve cognitive function as we age, and help protect us from cancer? Here’s a clue: It’s the same magic bullet that can also increase energy and stamina, decrease body fat, and strengthen bones. These benefits—along with better sleep, improvements in mood and memory, and a reduction in stress—can be gained simply and inexpensively with a prescription called exercise. Start today and you can begin realizing these multiple exercise benefits.

We have long understood that exercise unlocks the door to better physical function and elevates self-esteem. All you need is the desire, a little time, and a quick check with your physician to make sure that your exercise activities are compatible with your current health status and possible physical limitations—especially if you haven’t been physically active for a while.

If the latter applies to you, start low and go slow—maybe five minutes a day, three times weekly. Then increase the time you spend exercising as your body tolerates more. Eventually your regimen should incorporate elements of endurance, strength, flexibility, and balance.

Exercise Benefits Require Little or No Equipment

Keep in mind that exercise doesn’t necessarily call for fancy equipment. Walking is a case in point—all you need is a pair of supportive walking shoes and an inexpensive pedometer if you want to keep track of how many steps you take. Got a smartphone? Then download a free pedometer app from your phone’s linked app store.

Aim to walk for 30 minutes every day, but remember that you don’t have to accomplish it all at once. You could walk three times a day for 10 minutes and still derive the benefits of exercise.

Think about strength training too. For your arms, dumbbells will work—and they don’t have to be heavy. Light weights combined with more reps (the number of times you perform an exercise) provide the same muscle-building benefits as heavier weights and fewer reps.

exercise benefits

Exercise unlocks the door to better physical function and elevates self-esteem.

If you don’t have any dumbbells, you can still get exercise benefits by performing lifts with a can of soup in each hand. Even carrying laundry or groceries provides benefit if you do it regularly.

For your legs, invest in light ankle weights or inexpensive exercise bands. And don’t forget balance—your local senior center or YMCA likely offers tai chi, an ancient Chinese martial art that can help improve balance.

Don’t Let Physical Problems Keep You from Enjoying Exercise Benefits

Even if you have physical limitations such as arthritis or osteoporosis, there are exercises you can do. Simple stretches can decrease joint pain from osteoarthritis, while strength training helps maintain bone mass. Cardio exercises performed in a pool work well for people with arthritis because water supports body weight, relieving the burden on joints.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that age poses any kind of barrier when it comes to exercise. There are no absolute contraindications for exercise based on age, although any activity should take into consideration your health and current functioning.

There is, however, one proviso: If you have chest pain or new shortness of breath, exercise should be discontinued immediately until you get an evaluation by your physician.


Rosanne Leipzig, MD, PhD, is Professor and Vice Chair of the Brookdale Department of Geriatrics and Adult Development at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York, N.Y. She also serves as Editor-in-Chief of the monthly publication Mount Sinai School of Medicine Focus on Healthy Aging. Visit her website at rosannemd.com.


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

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Comments
  • Great article! I produced a national fitness show on PBS TV, (Suzanne Andrews Functional Fitness) and also am a rehab clinician. Exercise is truly the best medicine around. The only side affects are a better life. And as my show demonstrates, effective exercises can be gentle on the joints and make you look years younger. Healthiest blessings, Suzanne Andrews, President of Healthwise Exercise

  • 2 1/2 years ago, at age 65, I started a little strength training, and more serious aerobic training. Then, in January, I increased the strength training as part of PT for knee arthritis. Sitting, turning around, stepping off curbs, are all much easier for me now.

    But there are unexpected pluses. My diabetes figures (HPA1C) are consistently under the danger level of seven, for the first time in several years. And I don’t have to wear suspenders anymore! Really beyond my wildest dreams

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