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Exercise: How Much? What Types?

By Kathy Shillue, PT, DPT, OCS
Physical Therapist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Regular exercise is essential for healthy aging. The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association recently updated their recommendations for exercise because most people don't get enough, and this is especially true for seniors.

The following recommendations are specifically targeted to individuals over the age of 65. There are several parts to a good exercise program and you should do some of each: aerobic exercise, strengthening exercises and flexibility exercises.

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise uses your whole body to make you work so your heart rate and breathing increases. Walking is a good exercise because it requires no equipment, and it is a weight bearing exercise, which means it helps to strengthen your bones. If you can't walk outside, look for the programs at your local senior center. They often have fitness facilities with classes or pools that are available for a minimal charge.

The most important thing is to increase the time you spend exercising, and this should be above and beyond what you do for daily activities. The total number of minutes you spend exercising is important: if you exercise at a moderate level, you have to do 150 minutes per week. If you exercise at a vigorous level, you need to do 60 minutes per week.

Moderate 5 or 6 level Noticeable increase in heart rate and breathing 30 minutes x 5 days per week 150 minutes per week total
Vigorous 7 or 8 level Large increase in heart rate and breathing 20 minutes x 3 days per week 60 minutes per week total

If you are not very active or have not been as active as recommended, you should start slowly to avoid injuring yourself. It is okay to start with exercise bouts of 10 minutes at a time and work your way up.

Strengthening Exercise

Strengthening exercises are used to make individual muscles stronger and use some type of resistance, like hand weights, rubber tubing or an exercise machine. You don't need any fancy equipment; a bottle of water or a can of soup can be used as a weight for beginners. Just hold onto it as you slowly bend the elbow, to work the biceps muscle.

Your body weight can also be used for resistance. Hold onto the back of a chair for balance as you squat halfway down and stand back up to work your leg muscles. The level of resistance or work you do should be moderate- to high-intensity. What does that mean? On a scale of 1 to 10, if 1 is no movement of the muscle and 10 is maximum muscle effort, you should feel like you are working at a level of 5 to 8.

The ACSM and AHA recommend exercises for the major muscle groups on two (non-consecutive) days per week, for 10-15 repetitions. Remember that as you get stronger, you have to make the exercises harder to keep pace with your progress. You should always feel like you are working at a moderate to high intensity.


Flexibility or stretching exercises are recommended to maintain range of motion needed for your daily activities. To do a stretching exercise you should stretch until you feel a gentle pulling but not pain, hold for 20-30 seconds, and repeat 3-4 times.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted July 2012

Contact Information

Division of Gerontology
Department of Medicine
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Lowry Medical Office Building #1B (West Campus)
110 Francis Street
Boston, MA 02215