Cardio Exercise Tips for Seniors

There’s no doubt that getting older changes your body and appearance, but it also affects your ability to exercise. Your maximum heart rate declines with age, which means your heart and lungs can’t pump as much oxygen and blood to your muscles during intense physical activity. As a result, your muscles won’t be able to work as hard or as long as they once could. With age comes reductions in muscle mass, reducing the maximum effort you can sustain. Your tendons and ligaments will stiffen and shorten, reducing your natural range of motion and flexibility. And unless you’re very lucky, you’ll probably have some age-related problems with bones, joints and/or nerves, like arthritis or neuropathy, which will also affect your ability to move as freely as you once did in your younger years.

But does any of this mean you might as well accept the inevitable decline, scrap your exercise plans, and head for your favorite easy chair?

Nope—just the opposite, in fact. Researchers have discovered that much of the physical decline in we associate with aging may have more to do with increased inactivity than with aging itself. Moreover, starting (or continuing) a regular exercise program can delay and reduce the affects of aging, and in some cases, even reverse some of the declines already brought on by previous lack of exercise. The benefits of regular exercise, and the negative consequences of not exercising, are probably most notable between ages 50 and 70 than at any other time in your life.

To put it simply, if you can still move, it’s not too late to improve your fitness level and your quality of life. Not doing that could spell real trouble. For best results, aerobic (cardio) exercise, which I'll cover in this article, should be a regular part of your daily routine.

But it will be important to choose activities and intensity levels that are right for you. Here are some simple rules you can follow to make sure you stay safe and use your exercise time effectively.

1. Know your safety limits and the warning signs.
If you are new to cardio (aerobic) exercise, have been inactive for awhile, or have any medical conditions that could be affected by exercise, it’s very important that your health care provider clear you for exercise before you start. If you take any medications for blood pressure or heart disease, make sure you ask what effect they can have during exercise, whether you need to adjust your target heart rate accordingly, or if you should avoid any specific activities. If you have any chronic conditions (including diabetes or hypoglycemia), ask your doctor to identify any symptoms or signs (such as faintness, dizziness, chest pain, irregular heart beat or joint pain) that may mean you should stop your exercise session, as well as any special instructions for timing your exercise sessions in relation to eating or taking your medications.

In very general terms, you don’t need to exercise so intensely that you find it difficult to catch your breath or talk during your workout. It should be somewhat difficult to engage in a normal conversation or sing a song during a proper workout, but you should be able to talk in short phrases, a measure known as The Talk Test. If you can’t, you may be working too hard and should slow down a little (more on exercise intensity, below). Likewise, a small amount of muscle soreness after an exercise session can be normal, but any significant or sharp pains during your exercise, especially in a joint, are not normal. If you experience this kind of pain, stop and figure out what’s wrong and see your doctor if it persists. “No pain, no gain” is NOT the advice you want to follow.

2. Have a plan.
Although you certainly can pick one cardio activity you enjoy and “just do it,” you may see better results and stay motivated longer if you make a plan first. To improve the three components of aerobic fitness (heart and lung performance, muscle endurance, and functional capacity), make sure your routine includes some of each of the following elements:
  • Short bouts of higher intensity exercise
    Getting your heart rate up into the upper half of your aerobic zone (70-80% of your MHR) is the best way to improve the ability of the heart and lungs to deliver blood and oxygen to your working muscles. The idea of “high intensity” exercise can be a little scary if you haven’t exercised in a while, but keep in mind that high intensity is relative to you—not to someone who’s 20 years younger or exercises regularly. You don't have to sprint up a mountain or run a marathon. How much actual work you have to do to get your heart rate up to that level will depend on your current fitness level—it may be that a moderate walking pace up a small hill will work for you. As your fitness improves over time, it will gradually take more work to raise your heart rate high enough, so as long you’re monitoring your heart rate during exercise, you’ll know when to increase your effort and when to slow down a little without having to worry about finding out what’s too much the hard way. This link will help you calculate your heart rate range for exercise.

    Action plan: Three 15-minute sessions of high intensity cardio exercise per week (or the equivalent amount incorporated into other workouts)
  • Longer bouts of moderate intensity exercise
    Each time you exercise, you help train your muscles to use the oxygen that your heart and lungs deliver. But if you only exercise your legs (by biking, for example), the rest of your muscles aren’t going to get much out of it. This is why doing a variety of different exercises is important for overall fitness. Walking on flat ground, walking uphill and downhill, and riding a bike will each work your lower body muscles in different ways, and a combination of these will provide the overall balanced development you need for your lower body. Playing tennis, volleyball, or golf (without a cart) will add the upper body work you need, as will swimming, water aerobics, and most other activities that involve continuous use of your upper and lower body muscles at the same time. Because you won’t be working as hard during these moderate intensity sessions (55-70% of your MHR), you can make them a little longer. That way, your muscles will build endurance.

    Action plan: Two or three sessions (30-60 minutes each) of moderate intensity cardio exercise per week (Note: Your high intensity and moderate intensity sessions don’t have to be separate workouts. You can do a little bit of both in a single workout, such as 15 minutes of high-intensity exercise and 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise for a 45-minute workout.)
  • Warm-ups, cool-downs and stretches
    The older we get, the more likely we are to have problems with ligaments, tendons, joints and the small muscles we don’t think of when we’re making our exercise plans. The best way to prevent these problems is to include a warm up at the beginning of your cardio workout, a cool down at the end, and some stretching when you're finished.

    Action plan: Spend 5 minutes warming up by doing lighter exercise to slowly elevate your heart rate before every workout. After each workout is over, take another 5 minutes to gradually slow down and allow your heart rate to come down before you stop moving completely. Then take 5-10 minutes to stretch the muscles you used during your workout. If possible, try to include 2-3 sessions of yoga or Tai-Chi in your weekly exercise plan; both can be really helpful with improving balance and flexibility.
3. Be creative and have fun!
There’s no rule that says your cardio exercise plan must include walking, jogging, biking or swimming. While those activities are popular and provide great workouts, the best way to stick to your plan is to pick activities that you actually enjoy doing. Anything that keeps you moving and gets your heart rate up will do the trick—dancing, gardening and yard work, even chasing the grandkids in the park could all count as exercise!

If you have physical limitations that keep you from doing standard exercises, there are several alternatives available. There are aerobic (and strength-training) exercises you can do while sitting in a chair, which you can find in the form of video programs you can do at home or in classes offered by many gyms, YMCAs, and social groups for seniors. The same is true for water-based exercise programs like water aerobics and pool walking/dancing, for those who have to avoid the impact or weight-bearing movements associated with land-based exercise.

If you're social and find it easier to stick to an exercise program when you have support, you can check out the many challenges and exercise-based SparkTeams, look for activities that other SparkPeople are doing in your local area, and check out real-life groups such as Silver Sneakers and mall walking groups where you live.

With a little preparation and imagination, you will find the right cardio workout for you. Now all you have to do is get started!

SparkPeople encourages every person over the age of 65 to see his or her doctor to get medical clearance before starting a diet or exercise program. This article has been reviewed and approved by SparkPeople fitness experts Jen Mueller, Certified Personal Trainer, and Nicole Nichols, Certified Fitness Instructor.