mature man at swimming pool

Staying physically active can present more of a challenge as you get older. Exercise is a powerful tool to prevent health problems and keep you strong enough to maintain independence. Despite the benefits, only 1 in 4 adults aged 65 to 74 have a workout routine. One reason for this may be that limited mobility is the most common disability affecting older Americans. But limited mobility doesn’t have to impact your physical activity. In fact, a sedentary lifestyle makes carving out workout time even more important. There are plenty of exercises you can do, whether you have a condition such as arthritis that sometimes makes movement painful or you need to work out without leaving your chair.

How much exercise is best for me?

The optimal amount of exercise for you has a lot to do with your circumstances. If you’re 65 and up and in generally good health with no limiting conditions, follow the guidelines outlined in the sidebar. Most people can get started on an exercise routine without talking to their doctor first, regardless of age.

If any of the following conditions apply to you, you will need to have a conversation with your healthcare provider before starting a workout regimen.

  • A new symptom or symptoms you haven’t yet brought up with your doctor
  • Recent surgery on your back or hip
  • Chest pain or pressure, or a heartbeat that seems to skip, flutter, or race
  • Dizziness or shortness of breath
  • History of blood clots
  • Infection or fever accompanied by aching muscles
  • Weight loss that isn’t a result of diet, exercise, etc.
  • Hernia
  • Wounds or sores on your feet or ankles that don’t heal
  • Swelling joints
  • Certain eye conditions, such as laser treatment, recent eye surgery, or detached/bleeding retina

If you have a chronic illness or limited mobility, talk with your doctor about how much exercise you should get and what types will suit you best. Shoot for at least 10 minutes of exercise per session to reap the most rewards for your efforts. And remember, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), having zero physical activity is a health risk. “Some physical activity is better than none at all,” the CDC reported. “Your health benefits will also increase with the more physical activity that you do.”

Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults Over 65

To achieve the minimum suggested exercise level, adults over 65 can choose between the following three options.

  1. Two and a half hours of moderately intense aerobic exercise per week, plus at least two days per week of muscle strengthening that covers all muscle groups. (You’ll be able to talk while doing moderately intense exercise, but not sing.)
  2. An hour and 15 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week, plus at least two days per week of muscle strengthening that covers all muscle groups. (With vigorous exercise, you’ll only be able to say a few words before needing to catch your breath.)
  3. An equal mix of moderate and vigorous aerobic exercise each week, plus at least two days per week of muscle strengthening that covers all muscle groups.

For even greater health, you can step your exercise up a notch by following one of these three plans.

  1. Five hours of moderately intense aerobic exercise per week, plus at least two days per week of muscle strengthening that covers all muscle groups.
  2. Two and a half hours of vigorous aerobic exercise per week, plus at least two days per week of muscle strengthening that covers all muscle groups.
  3. An equal mix of moderate and intense aerobic exercise per week, plus at least two days per week of muscle strengthening that covers all muscle groups.

You don’t have to stop there. The CDC points out that going beyond these exercise levels will provide even more health benefits.

What exercises can I do if I have limited mobility?

Limited mobility doesn’t have to limit your exercise routine. There are plenty of ways to work out that are suitable for people with all mobility levels. Let’s take a look at a few.

Get your workout in the water. Exercising in water can make movement easier and help you get in a gentle workout. Water aerobics classes abound, and the Arthritis Foundation also suggests water walking. “The water’s buoyancy supports the body’s weight, which reduces stress on the joints and minimizes pain,” Vinnie Jones, aquatic coordinator for Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center, explained. “Water provides 12 times the resistance of air, so as you walk, you’re really strengthening and building muscle.” Working out in a heated pool has even more soothing benefits for pain.

Use your groceries as free weights. Who needs expensive exercise equipment? A gallon jug of milk or 1-pound can of food makes an excellent dumbbell for building arm strength. Objects with an uneven weight distribution, such as a bag of rice or container full of liquid, will give smaller muscles a workout while engaging your brain, too. Other everyday alternatives to pricey weight sets include bags of produce (think apples, potatoes, onions, or oranges), stacks of cutlery secured with rubber bands, bags of pet food, or bottles of laundry detergent. This guide to soup can exercises is full of ideas to activate various muscle groups. Use a weight that’s appropriate for you—if you can’t lift the weight 8 times in a row, try something lighter.

Choose a resistance band for strength and flexibility training. Resistance bands are a great alternative to free weights for increasing your muscle strength and improving flexibility.. They’re an affordable fitness tool, too. You should be able to find a set for around $10, although more expensive options are available.

Work on your grip. You’ll need a tennis ball or similarly sized ball made of rubber or foam for this workout. Holding the ball in one hand, squeeze with all the pressure you can muster for 3 to 5 seconds. Relax your grip gradually, and repeat in sets of 10-15 squeezes per hand. This exercise will build grip strength for everyday needs like picking up and holding objects or opening stubborn jars.

Make your chair an exercise prop. There are several exercises and stretches you can do using your chair as a support. Here are a couple you can do while seated.

  1. Chair dip: Using a chair with armrests, sit with your feet shoulder-width apart and flat to the floor. Hold the arms of the chair with your hands, lean forward a bit, and inhale. Keeping your upper body straight, slowly push yourself out of the chair using your arms on an exhale. Hold yourself in place for 1 second, and lower yourself back into the chair on an inhale. Do sets of 10-15 repetitions, with short breaks in between.
  2. Leg straightening: Sit with your back straight against the chair, only the balls of your feet and your toes touching the ground. As you breathe out, bring one leg up and stretch it to be as straight as possible. Don’t lock your knee, though. Flex your foot toward you, and hold for 1 second. Exhale and lower your leg to its original position. Repeat in sets of 10-15, alternating legs.
  3. Chest stretch: In a chair without arms, sit with your feet shoulder-width apart and flat to the floor. Extend your arms to your sides, with the palms of your hands facing forward. Ease your arms back, and feel your shoulder blades move toward one another. When you get a good stretch, pause, and hold for 10 to 30 seconds. Repeat this stretch 3 to 5 times.

Don’t let limited mobility limit you. Whatever level of activity you’re capable of, getting in the best workout you can and keeping up with your exercise regimen is one of the best ways to promote good health. “Exercise is almost like a silver bullet for lots of health problems,” Dr. Alicia I. Arbaje, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explained. “For many people, exercise can do as much if not more good than the 5 to 10 medications they take every day.”

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