The Importance of Physical Activity in Older Adults

Learn more about your fitness needs and the importance of staying active as you age.

The Importance of Physical Activity in Older Adults

The Importance of Physical Activity in Older Adults

By Philip Read, Personal Trainer (NASM, CPR/AED cert.)


Physical activity is important throughout our whole lives. As we get older, it becomes even more crucial to be active. The aging process causes whole bodily changes in almost all functions of the human body. Although the aging process is irreversible, it can be slowed by having an effective plan, involving a combination of proper nutrition, an effective exercise program and adequate rest. The regular practice of physical activity is an attractive and effective strategy for slowing these losses. Studies have shown that regular practice of physical exercise three days a week can result in increased muscle strength, flexibility, functional mobility, and balance—the4 aspects we will discuss in this article.

Physiotherapist Luiza Teixeira Fidelis wrote, “The aging process involves changes in all systems of the human organism, with significant declines in almost all functions, in the different components of functional capacity, especially in the expressions of muscular strength and flexibility.”  She went on to write that muscle strength, especially hand grip strength, showed a “regression of 3% per year in men and 5% per year in women, after a four-year longitudinal study.”(Scielo, 2013)

In other words, women tend to lose muscle strength faster than men. One reason for this is that women tend to have a larger percentage of body fat, and less muscle density than men because of inherent biological differences (hello, hormones). One of the most important areas that we lose strength, and one that affects daily life the most for seniors is in the hands.

This is undoubtedly a very important area for seniors, as it is the main component responsible for the ability to perform daily movements with greater or lesser ease, such as tightening your shoes, combing your hair, reaching for an item in the closet, brushing your teeth, etc. One way to increase hand strength is through targeted activity, such as the use of a stress ball or hand grip strengthener.  Without hand strength, it becomes increasingly difficult to impossible to work on other areas of health and fitness, such as nutrition (cooking for oneself) and flexibility.

Flexibility is considered one of the most important components of fitness and physical performance in elderly individuals, as it is relevant to the execution of both simple of complex movements, physical performance, and basic functionality, as well as the maintenance of health and preservation of your desired quality of life. Adults, both men and women, lose flexibility with each passing year and the only way to slow this down is to consciously work on maintaining it—meaning, if you don’t use it, you lose it.  

Loss of strength, associated with decreased flexibility in all joints, affects balance, posture, and functional performance. It increases the risk of falls and breathing problems, decreases gait speed and hinders daily routine activities. Loss of strength doesn’t just mean not being able to lift weights or carry heavy boxes. For example, moving from sitting to standing is one of the most performed activities in an individual's daily life and is one that most people don’t give much active thought to. However, it is a complex movement and is necessary to maintaining a self-sufficient lift. If we can’t stand up out of a chair, we can’t walk. Remember that hand strength we talked about? You need it here too!

So, how can you make sure that you are getting enough activity to maintain your health and life? One effective way is through group activities that involve physical fitness, and also allow people to socialize and meet new people (which is also another important aspect of maintaining good health). This gives folks the chance to interact with one another and improve functional capabilities while enjoying the many exercise classes that are available today. Group exercises are usually structured according to the class focus, but likely don’t follow a defined protocol, varying in intensity and time for each one.

In all group classes, warm up and cool down stretches should be performed. Many classes will include strengthening with and without resistance, static and dynamic balance exercises and motor coordination activities; all of which are some of the most important areas that should be trained on a regular basis.

We are fortunate to live in a society that is starting to place more emphasis on health and fitness all the time. It has become easier than ever to find what works for you as an individual, whether it be classes, a gym, a video at home or walking your dog. Even something as simple as going to get the mail counts as exercise (though, maybe not quite enough on its own…). We have learned so much about physical fitness and nutrition, and as we continue to stay in the workforce for longer and longer, these aspects of life become much more imperative to focus on. A large percentage of our health and well-being is within our control; we just have to recognize and take action.