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Can You Be Too Old to Benefit From Exercise?

Excuse, Myth, or Reality


Updated August 29, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Many older people, especially those with osteoarthritis, think they are too old to benefit from exercise. I've heard older people explain why exercise is not worth their effort. Their thinking is based on a misconception or derived from misinformation though. Fact is, a person is never too old to benefit from exercise.

We have all heard about the importance of exercise and regular physical activity. As you get older, there are still benefits associated with exercise and activity. You never reach an age when it suddenly becomes non-essential. In older people, exercise and physical activity help to improve balance, maintain or improve strength, maintain or improve range of motion, and improve mood as well. Regular physical activity also helps you maintain your ideal weight which can help you cope with chronic conditions, such as arthritis.

Despite the known benefits, the NIH reports that exercise and physical activity rates are quite low among older people. About 30% of people between 45 and 64 years of age participate in regular physical activity. Only 25% of people 65-74 years old and 11% of those 85 and older include regular physical activity in their routines.

Inactivity, Not Age

As older people become weaker and start to lose their ability to perform usual activities of daily living, they become discouraged and blame their age. In large part, increasing weakness and decreasing physical function are related to inactivity, not age. Have you ever heard the expression, use it or lose it? It's that way with muscles. Lack of activity causes muscle atrophy. Inactivity also has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, more doctor visits, more hospitalizations, and the use of more prescription medications.

Why Exercise Remains Essential as You Age

Older people believe their advanced age prevents them from regaining strength. I've heard older people say, "I'll never be what I was when I was 20." If they can't build significant muscle mass, they view exercise as pointless. They seem not to realize how important exercise and physical activity are for preserving their current physical state.

Older people want to remain independent and function as normally as possible, for as long as possible. That goal -- to stay independent and functional -- must be the impetus to exercise and preserve strength, balance, coordination, and mobility.

Choosing Appropriate Exercise

Older people who believe exercise is too difficult for them or that exercise can harm arthritic joints should consult their doctor or ask for a referral to a physical therapist. It is important to learn which exercises or physical activities are appropriate for you. It's inadvisable to adopt an exercise program blindly, especially when you have physical concerns that must be considered. Many exercises can be modified to make them suitable for you. After consulting with a professional, you should feel more at ease and be ready to commit to an appropriate exercise routine.

It's Never Too Late to Start

It is never too late to start exercising and you should never stop, health-permitting. While exercising at age 80 will not turn back the clock, it will allow you to be as fit as possible at your current age.

Follow these steps as you begin your new exercise routine:

1- Make the committment to become as fit as possible by exercising regularly.

2 - After choosing exercises with the help of a professional, start slow and build on your progress.

3 - Set reasonable goals, factoring in your limitations.

4 - Stay motivated by rewarding yourself as you progress.

5 - Pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after exercise. How you feel will determine your pace or serve to signal when you should stop during that session.

6 - Stick with it!


Senior Exercise and Fitness Tips. Sarah Kovatch et al. Helpguide.org. June 2012.

Exercise: Benefits of Exercise. NIH SeniorHealth. April 2012.

You're Never Too Old. NIH News in Health. December 2011.

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