Recommended Exercises for Adults 50+

By Lifestyle Medicine Staff

Recommended Exercises for Adults 50+

Key Takeaways:

Adults 50+ should choose exercises that promote these three aspects of fitness: strength, endurance, and balance.

Stanford researchers analyzed the benefits and risks of the following exercises:

  • Pilates
  • Martial Arts (e.g., Tai Chi, Karate, Taekwondo)
  • Walking
  • Running
  • Masters Athletics (i.e., team sports for adults)
  • Resistance Training (e.g., exercise machines, free weights, elastic bands)
  • High-intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

It is well known that exercise is crucial for overall health; however, as we age, it’s essential to know which exercises are best to increase longevity and quality of life. For older adults (defined as 50 and above), the three main goals regarding physical activity are to build muscular strength, improve cardiorespiratory endurance, and increase flexibility and balance to reduce the risk of falling. Stanford researchers reviewed studies on several types of exercises to assess which were most suitable and effective for older adults to achieve these goals.

“It’s important to maintain a consistent exercise regimen in midlife and beyond,” says Matt Kaufman, MD, Stanford Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation resident and one of the authors of the review. “Many factors contribute to decreased activity as we age, whether it be pain, time constraints, complacency stating they haven’t done exercise recently. Sometimes, there is a fear of getting hurt or embarrassment when starting a new exercise routine, which can also be a major barrier for older adults to start exercising. With the various exercises we cover in this review, we hope readers will be inspired to choose one they enjoy and start moving.”

With so many types of exercises to choose from, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. Reviewers assessed whether activities required equipment, were high or low impact, and if they were practiced in a social setting. The purpose of the review was to define the benefits, risks, and recommendations for these exercises that are popular among older adults: Pilates, martial arts, walking/jogging, running, Masters Athletics, resistance training, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Low-Intensity Exercises for Adults 50+

Pilates

Given the social nature of group classes, Pilates has become a popular exercise for older adults. Joseph Pilates created the exercise in the 1920s, and it has been shown to improve dynamic balance, hip and lower black flexibility, lower extremity muscle strength, and cardiovascular fitness. Caution is advised for those with osteoporosis, osteopenia, or discogenic pain and those with Parkinson’s disease, baseline postural instability, or dysautonomia.

Recommendation: 40- to 50-minute mat or apparatus Pilates sessions, three to four times per week.

Martial Arts

Martial arts include a variety of mind-body exercises that improve flexibility, mobility, endurance, and balance.

Tai Chi

Tai Chi, which involves breathing exercises accompanied by slow body movements, has been shown to improve cardiorespiratory fitness, increase muscle strength and balance, and decrease frequency and fear of failing.

Recommendation: 45- to 60-minute Yang-style Tai Chi sessions, several days per week, over a minimum eight-week duration.

Traditional Japanese Karate

Traditional Japanese Karate, a mind-body exercise focusing on mindfulness and effective use of bare hands for combat or self-defense, showed improvements in walking speed, motor reaction time, strength, and balance.

Recommendation: 60-minute sessions, twice per week, for more than 10 months.

Hard Martial Arts

Hard martial arts, such as Taekwondo, involve contact of the body against another person. Along with the benefits seen in other martial arts (increased strength, endurance, mobility, flexibility, and balance), hard martial arts have been shown to decrease cognitive decline.

Recommendation: 60-minute sessions, twice per week, for more than 10 months.

Walking

For many, the most accessible exercise is walking outdoors, which offers benefits in balance, muscular strength and endurance, and cardiorespiratory fitness.

Recommendation: 30- to 60-minute brisk walking sessions several times per week.

High-Intensity Exercises for Adults 50+

Running

Like walking, running is easily accessible and improves balance, muscular strength and endurance, and cardiorespiratory fitness. However, because running has a higher impact than walking, it poses a greater risk of injury to the bones and joints of the lower body.

Recommendation: 30- to 60-minute running sessions several times per week.

Masters Athletics

Joining a team sport as an adult can have many benefits, such as improved balance, muscle strength and endurance, and cardiorespiratory fitness. Since this modality is a team sport, it also offers the opportunity for social engagement, which typically leads to greater adherence. The downside is that Masters Athletics are not as accessible as most exercises because they may be difficult to find or costly.

Recommendation: Join a local team for a sport you enjoy!

Resistance Training (i.e., exercise machines, free weights, elastic bands)

Extensive data suggest resistance training is the most effective exercise to improve skeletal muscle mass, strength, and physical function. Additional benefits of resistance training in older adults include gait speed, balance, cardiovascular fitness, and decreased fall risk.

Recommendation: 1-hour session twice per week. Consultation with a trainer may be appropriate to avoid injury.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

HIIT, characterized by brief intermittent bouts of high-intensity aerobic exercise (such as sprinting during a walk or bike ride, or taking a HIIT group fitness class), has shown increased muscle building, power, and cardiorespiratory fitness. HIIT is a time-efficient exercise that considerably increases aerobic capacity despite its low time commitment. Since HIIT requires near-maximal effort in short bursts, it is recommended that HIIT be supervised to prevent injury.

Recommendation: 20- to 30-minute sessions twice per week. Each session should include six one-minute high-intensity bursts of effort.

“I often recommend some form of resistance training for my patients, whether in a gym or at home. These exercises can help build muscle and prevent falls,” says Dr. Kaufman. “I also recommend Masters Athletics since they have the added benefit of a sense of community that makes exercise more enjoyable and helps keep you accountable.”

Conclusion

Reviewers found similarities in fitness benefits depending on whether the exercise was low- or high-intensity. Lower-intensity exercises (Pilates, martial arts, and walking) significantly increased flexibility, balance, and endurance. Whereas, higher-intensity exercises (running, Masters Athletics, resistance training, and HIIT) showed greater improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness, muscle building, and strength.

“When creating an exercise regimen, I recommend engaging in both low- and high-intensity exercises every week. This could look like taking an hour walk every morning along with hiring a trainer at the gym for weekly weightlifting sessions, or taking a Pilates class every week along with your regular HIIT classes,” says Dr. Kaufman. “Ultimately, the best exercise regimen is something you will stick with. Whether it is one form or multiple forms of exercise, what is most important is that you are consistently active!”