Physical Activity for Older Adults: It’s Never too Late to Improve Your Health

SBM: physical-activity-for-older-adults-its-never-too-late-to-improve-your-health

Guilherme M. Balbim; PhD Candidate, University of Illinois at Chicago

Nowadays, people have more access to information highlighting the importance of physical activity more than ever before. Public health campaigns, TV news, and websites are increasingly giving more attention to physical activity as one of the most important behaviors to improve and maintain good health. Some older adults might wonder whether it is too late to get started and end up choosing not to be physically active because they think the time has passed. This is not true, engagement in physical activity can bring health benefits for everyone, no matter the age.

Aging & Physical Activity: How much physical activity is enough?

In 2018, the US Department of Health and Human Services released the second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Two main types of physical activity are equally important for older adults, aerobic and muscle-strengthening.

Aerobic Activities for Older Adults

Aerobic activities make a person’s heart beat more rapidly, and breathing rate increase to meet the demands of the body’s movement.  To get the maximum benefits, it is recommended to do 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week, or an equivalent amount (75 to 150 minutes) of vigorous-intensity activity.

Any equivalent amount of activity by doing both moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity also works out.

Muscle-Strengthening Activities for Older Adults

Muscle-strengthening activities make muscles do more work than activities of daily life. Some examples are lifting weights, working with resistance bands, use of body weight for resistance (e.g., push-ups), climbing stairs, and carrying heavy loads.

Older adults should do muscle-strengthening activities that involve all the major muscle groups (legs, hips, chest, back, abdomen, shoulders, and arms) at least two days a week.

Other Physical Activity for Older Adults

It is also recommended to do activities involving balance and flexibility. Balance activities can help to prevent falls, and flexibility (e.g., stretching) exercises provide more freedom of movement.

For those who cannot do the recommended amount of activity, two bottom line messages illustrate what older adults should remember about physical activity: some activity is better than none; and move more, sit less.

Benefits of Physical Activity in Old Age

An essential aspect of physical activity is that it is never too late to get benefits from it. People who start exercising later in life reduce their mortality risk just as much as people who have been exercising their whole lives as compared to those who are sedentary.

There is no single answer to the reason why physical activity is so effective in reducing risk of death. In general, physically active individuals sleep better, feel better, and function better.

Heart disease, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, depression, excessive weight gain, falls with injuries, and breast, colon, endometrial, esophageal, kidney, stomach, and lung cancer are all less common among individuals who are or become more physically active.

Physical Activity and Brain Health in Older Adults

The term “brain health” can be broadly understood as the optimal functioning of the brain in its biological, behavioral, and subjective experiences arising from brain function (e.g., mood). It includes measures of the brain structure or the subjective manifestations of brain function, including mood and anxiety, perceptions of quality of life, cognitive function (e.g., attention and memory), and sleep.

Recently, several studies demonstrated positive effects of physical activity in reducing the risk for cognitive impairment and dementia, and improvements in cognitive function.

Long-term effects of physical activity on cognitive and brain outcomes might explain the reduced risk for cognitive impairment and dementia. Additionally, acute effects, which are those observed right after the activity, are also demonstrated on executive function; those are processes of the brain that help organize daily activities and plan for the future.

Tasks such as one’s ability to plan and organize, self-monitor, inhibit or facilitate behaviors, initiate tasks, and control emotions all are part of executive function. These are important skills to an older adult perform independently activities of daily life.

Physical activity also improves other components of cognition, including memory, processing speed, and attention (i.e., apply a mental effort to select only the important stimuli amongst a number of other stimuli).

How Does Physical Activity Affect the Brain in Older Adults?   

Physical activity affects the brain in many ways. It increases heart rate, delivering more oxygen to the brain. Also, physical activity plays a role inducing the release of hormones that stimulates the growth of new brain cells and new connections between cells in areas involved with executive function and memory.

What’s more, physical activity is related to increased release of chemicals that help in the communication between neurons (i.e., neurotransmitters), growth of new blood vessels, and increased blood flow in the brain.

All those microscopic effects leads to changes on the structure and function of the brain, which ultimately is expressed as positive changes on executive function, processing speed, attention, and memory.

Being physically active can improve brain health no matter the age people start engaging in physical activity.

What Type of Physical Activity is Best for Older Adults?

The best type of physical activity is the one that fits in older adults’ daily life, something suitable with the current physical conditions and abilities, and most importantly, something enjoyable. Check out some examples here.

People are more likely to abandon an activity if the chosen one does not suit their preferences or lifestyle. Some questions to think about when choosing a physical activity are:

  • Do you like things organized or prefer more casual activities?
  • Do you like to do things on your own or to be part of a group?
  • Do you prefer to spend time indoors or outdoors?
  • What are your movement constraints?

No matter the answers to those questions, if you stick with a routine that includes physical activity, the benefits for your body and brain will come soon and last longer than you think.



  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. 2nd editio. Washington, DC: U.S.: Department of Health and Human Services; 2018.
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report To the Secretary of Health and Human. 2018 Phys Act Guidel Advis Comm Sci Report To Secr Heal Hum Serv. 2018.
  3. Piercy KL, Troiano RP, Ballard RM, et al. The physical activity guidelines for Americans. JAMA - J Am Med Assoc. 2018;320(19):2020-2028. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.14854
  4. Stephen R, Hongisto K, Solomon A, Lönnroos E. Physical Activity and Alzheimer’s Disease: A Systematic Review. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2017;72(6):733-739. doi:10.1093/gerona/glw251
  5. Beckett MW, Ardern CI, Rotondi MA. A meta-analysis of prospective studies on the role of physical activity and the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease in older adults. BMC Geriatr. 2015;15(1):1-7. doi:10.1186/s12877-015-0007-2
  6. Beydoun MA, Beydoun HA, Gamaldo AA, Teel A, Zonderman AB, Wang Y. Epidemiologic studies of modifiable factors associated with cognition and dementia: Systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Public Health. 2014;14(1):1-33. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-643
  7. Mortimer JA, Stern Y. Physical exercise and activity may be important in reducing dementia risk at any age. Neurology. 2019:10.1212/WNL.0000000000006935. doi:10.1212/wnl.0000000000006935
  8. Ludyga S, Gerber M, Brand S, Holsboer-Trachsler E, Pühse U. Acute effects of moderate aerobic exercise on specific aspects of executive function in different age and fitness groups: A meta-analysis. Psychophysiology. 2016;53(11):1611-1626. doi:10.1111/psyp.12736
  9. Chang YK, Labban JD, Gapin JI, Etnier JL. The effects of acute exercise on cognitive performance: A meta-analysis. Brain Res. 2012;1453(250):87-101. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2012.02.068
  10. Sng E, Frith E, Loprinzi PD. Temporal Effects of Acute Walking Exercise on Learning and Memory Function. Am J Heal Promot. 2018;32(7):1518-1525. doi:10.1177/0890117117749476
  11. Stillman CM, Cohen J, Lehman ME, Erickson KI. Mediators of Physical Activity on Neurocognitive Function: A Review at Multiple Levels of Analysis. Front Hum Neurosci. 2016. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2016.00626

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