Physical activity for older adults: Effects and benefits

Megan Smith
 min read

Physical activity for older adults is becoming more and more recognized as the ultimate weapon against aging.

Physical activity for older adults: Effects and benefitsMaintaining independence and well-being is one of the defining issues of our society.

As a general rule, aging is characterized by a decline in the control and function of human movement. Gentle physical activity is possible at any age, and is essential to allow the elderly to retain independence and mental alertness.

This deterioration in motor skills alters the ability of older adults to carry out their day-to-day activities and thus limits their independence.

Yet it is so easy to allow our parents to enjoy a high quality of life with just a little understanding of how far physical activity can take you.

Physical activity for older adults: Introduction

There are various factors that cause a decline in function and control of body movement.

Changes to the neuromuscular (muscles and peripheral nerves), bone, cardiopulmonary, central nervous (brain and spinal cord), or sensory systems all play an important role in our ability to continue functioning physically as we grow older.

First we will discuss the effects of aging on the various functional capacities.

Then we’ll explain how physical activity can partly compensate the alteration of motor performance with age.

The effects of age on functional abilities

The quality of walking and standing balance are two key markers of mobility and functional independence that deteriorate with age.

That’s why older people are more prone to falling over.

When our balance is disturbed, the amplitude of the postural response is higher in older people than in younger people.

Aging is therefore characterized by an increase in postural instability.

There is also a global remodeling of the spatiotemporal characteristics of walking during aging. Walking speed and step length decrease while the double ground phase increases (the amount of time that both feet are on the floor).

Numerous causes, such as damage to the neuromuscular, central and peripheral nervous systems, have been associated with balance instability and gait disorders in the elderly.

The main effects of aging on the functions essential to motor skills will explain this further.

Cognitive functions

Memory, language, attention, perception, and coordination of movement are all areas of cognition essential to human mobility, autonomy and sociability.

As we age, all of these cognitive functions deteriorate. However, as the effects of physiological aging vary according to the cortical areas (parts in the brain), certain cognitive functions, such as memory or attention, are more affected than others in the elderly.

Even a mild cognitive decline has a functional impact on the quality of daily life. Cognitive status indicates postural stability and fall risk in the elderly.

The lower the cognitive status of the individuals, the unstable they are and you’ll find they fall over more.

In the United States alone, millions of people are estimated to be affected by dementia.

Implementing effective means to fight cognitive decline is essential to allow the elderly their independence.

Bone tissue

Bone is a living tissue in perpetual remodeling. Bone mineral density is a reliable index of its mechanical qualities.

A peak is generally observed around the age of 30.

After that, bone density slowly and progressively declines, and this is particularly pronounced in women after menopause.

For example, it is estimated that

  • about 30% of women aged 60 to 70, and
  • 65% of those over 80

suffer from osteoporosis, which leads to an increased risk of bone fracture.

So it’s easy to understand how keeping our bones healthy to avoid fractures (and loss of independence) is therefore a major public health issue.


Endurance or aerobic fitness is an essential quality for locomotor movement. Maximum oxygen consumption (VO2 max) is a very good predictor of the health status and functional capacities of the elderly.

VO2 max decreases with age. This decline would result, among other things, from changes in lung volume, the efficiency of the cardiac pump and arteriovenous system, hemoglobin levels and the proportion of mitochondria in the muscle.

In addition, the energy cost of locomotion, i.e. the amount of energy expended per unit of distance traveled, increases with age.

A more energy-intensive locomotion combined with an alteration of the aerobic capacities is one of the causes of a greater susceptibility to fatigue of the elderly.

Neuromuscular function

Aging is associated with impaired neuromuscular performance. The term sarcopenia is defined as the decrease in muscle mass and strength, associated with a loss of autonomy.

The main reason sarcopenia is the degeneration of muscle cells (cell apoptosis), i.e. the programmed loss of neurons that stimulate muscles (motor neurons).

The consequence of motor neuron apoptosis (cell death) is a decrease in the number of motor units (motor neurons and the muscle cells they stimulate), which is more evident after the age of 60.

This decrease mainly concerns the contractile muscle surfaces. In contrast, the muscle’s rate of non-contractile tissues (connective and fatty tissues) increases with age.

So impaired motor skill is the result of both quantitative and qualitative damage to muscle tissue, which affects the capacity to produce force.

For example the strength deficit per decade is around 9% after the age of 29.

The decline in muscle force production capacity appears to be related to the decline of walking speed, postural stability and increased risk of falls in the elderly.

Thus, the fight against frailty and dependence of the elderly inevitably includes the fight against sarcopenia.

The effect of physical activity on functional and cognitive abilities

One of the main strategies to limit the decline of power of our body cells is regular physical activity.

It is now well established that regular participation in an exercise program is an effective way to reduce or prevent the functional and cognitive decline associated with aging and increase longevity.

Physical activity reduces the risk of obesity, hypertension, anxiety, osteoporosis, colon cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer and depression.

Related post: What are the benefits of physical activity for youth, teenagers and seniors?

And it also prevents or delays cognitive alterations.

Cognitive functions

Physical activity is a sure way of improving cognitive function in older adults both acutely and chronically.

Aerobic exercise in particular is advised to prevent the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

For example, it has been shown that 45 minutes of aerobic exercise 3 or 4 times a week for 2 months can improve certain cognitive functions.

So with the right guidance, training to improve cognitive functions is essential to prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The bone system

Mechanical stresses applied to bone during physical activity positively affect bone structure, particularly bone mass.

However, bone mineral density appears to increase only for those parts of the body directly involved in the activity itself.

Nevertheless, it seems that the effect of physical exercise on bone mineral density in elderly subjects is relatively small overall.

There are indeed so many confounding factors that make it impossible to draw real conclusions about the exact effect of exercise on bone mass:

  • The variety of training programs in terms of duration, intensity, frequency, age, gender, individual characteristics such as medication
  • Initial bone density
  • The coexistence of other pathologies
  • Lack of information about calcium and vitamin D intake

The neuromuscular system

In the elderly, resistance training improves muscle strength in both the upper and lower limbs.

Strength gains following a strength training program are the same between older and younger people.

The improvement in muscular capacities is associated with changes in the muscle itself, nerve control and connective tissue.

However, muscle development is more limited in older individuals than in younger subjects.

The cardiovascular system

The primary cardioprotective mechanisms associated with physical activity affect blood vessel health and improved control of risk factors.

Exercise is needed for a better cardiorespiratory function.

Maximum oxygen consumption values in endurance-trained older subjects may be similar to those of young sedentary individuals.

Related postHow to fix a sedentary lifestyle and reasons to fight this disease

And regular exercise can partially minimize the loss of maximal oxygen consumption classically observed per decade.

Endurance training can increase oxygen consumption even in older individuals, but the greatest gains are generally seen in individuals that start early.

Physical activity for older adults: Conclusion

Gone are the days when the older adult is encouraged to rest. Doctors nowadays encourage the elderly to keep active, and if you’ve always been on the go and practiced sports, then it is even more beneficial to keep up some sort of activity.

This post has shown how physical activity for older adults prevents falls and the onset of age-related diseases, and has explained the mental benefits of living a healthy active life.

Tip: While physical activity is recommended for all ages, this needs to go hand in hand with adequate rest. Check out our other post for the best plus size furniture that’s great for having a rest.

About Megan Smith

Megan has been fighting overweight and her plus size since her teenage years. After trying all types of remedies without success, she started doing her own research. Megan founded Plus Size Zeal to share her findings. She also developed various detailed buying guides for plus-size people in order to make their lives easier and more comfortable. Read More