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home : columns : ask the doctors May 29, 2020

3/23/2020 8:26:00 AM
Older adults still need regular exercise

Dear Doctor: Our dad is 78 years old, and he has started spending a lot more time indoors and on his recliner. He's in good health, but he says he's getting too old for exercise to matter. What can we say to persuade him to become active again?

Dear Reader: Exercise is an important part of ongoing health and fitness, and, despite your dad's feelings to the contrary, we never age out of our need for it.

In fact, studies show that becoming or remaining active as an older adult offers a wide array of benefits. On the physical side, regular exercise can improve cardiovascular health; help to lower blood pressure; lessen the risk of chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and heart disease; help with balance, strength and flexibility; maintain healthy weight; improve strength and stamina; maintain joint health; help with swelling and pain due to arthritis; and lower the risk of falls. Regular exercise has mental health benefits as well. Older adults who incorporate even moderate amounts of exercise into their daily lives report enhancement to mood and outlook, improved cognitive function and a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression. Remaining physically active also has been shown to help older adults maintain their ability to live independently.

For a well-rounded exercise program, think in terms of a mix of activities to improve endurance, increase strength and maintain flexibility. And be creative. Walking, jogging, swimming and biking all fit the bill for moderate aerobic activities for endurance, but so do dancing, raking the lawn or playing badminton. We lose muscle mass as we age, so strength and resistance exercises, such as weightlifting or Pilates, are important. Activities like stretching, tai chi and yoga help keep joints loose and muscles limber. Current guidelines recommend that people 65 and older should do 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise each week, which averages out to a manageable 20-ish minutes per day.

Although sharing this information with your dad is a good start, leading by example is even better. It's not just older adults who fall short of the recommended levels of exercise and physical activity; up to half of all adults miss the mark. If you and your siblings live nearby, it could be helpful to your dad -- and to yourselves -- to choose an activity to do together once or twice a week and get up and moving.

A final thought: If your dad has supplementary Medicare coverage, check to see if it includes SilverSneakers. It's a health-and-fitness program designed for older adults that will give him access to a range of fitness options, including gyms, community centers and other fitness locations. And remember, your dad should check in with his doctor or other health care provider before making any significant changes to his exercise regimen or activity. They will be able to evaluate his condition and fitness level and point him in the direction of appropriate activities. Not only will it help your dad to stay safe, he'll have another partner and cheerleader in his corner.

Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Send your questions to, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.

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