Exercise for all older adults: NIA guide shows and tells

May 1, 2009
Cover of excercise guide

The NIA’s new exercise guide for older adults has something for everyone. Whether healthy, chronically ill, or disabled, most older people can be physically active. The newly updated guide shows them how.

“A central goal of aging research is the identification of what can be done to promote healthy aging,” says NIA Director Dr. Richard J. Hodes. “One of the best-established interventions capable of improving health at all ages, including older ages, is exercise. It is therefore critically important that NIA communicate this fact to the public and provide information on how to go about it.”

The guide is based on decades of research that shows the benefits of physical activity for older adults, including those with heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and other chronic conditions.

“We’ve expanded the target audience for the guide to include people who might not think they can be physically active,” says Dr. Chhanda Dutta, chief of the NIA’s Clinical Gerontology Branch. Dr. Dutta, along with Dr. Jack Guralnik, chief of the NIA’s Laboratory of Epidemiology, Demography, and Biometry, co-chaired a 12-member task force that advised NIA on updating the guide.

The exercise guide is one of NIA’s most popular products. More than 1 million print copies of the guide have been distributed since the original version was published in 1998, and it is a popular online fitness resource as well. The new guide, Exercise & Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging, updated in January 2009, is also getting a warm reception from the public and health and aging experts.

While the first guide focused on healthy seniors, the completely revised version offers practical guidance for all older adults, Dr. Dutta says. This broader focus reflects recent research, including studies showing that exercise is an effective treatment for some chronic conditions as well as for preventing falls and reducing high blood pressure.

“You’re actually harming yourself if you don’t exercise,” Dr. Dutta notes.

The goal of the guide is to encourage people 55 and older to be more physically active. To that end, it describes the benefits of physical activity and healthy eating, explains how to get started, and demonstrates four types of exercises—endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility—that can be done at little or no cost, often at home. It also suggests ways to modify activities so that people with chronic conditions and disabilities can exercise safely.

There is new information in a variety of areas. For example, the revised chapter on healthy eating discusses the importance of drinking enough fluids, and the 20 new “frequently asked questions” (and answers) at the end of the book are based on inquiries that NIA has received over the years.

The new guide couldn’t come at a better time. Just over half of adults 65 years and older are inactive, according to recent statistics from the National Health Interview Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many seniors know that regular physical activity is good for them but, like many younger adults, they can have trouble getting started and staying on track.

Addressing barriers to physical activity, such as lack of motivation, illness, and caregiving duties, was a key part of the update, Dr. Dutta says. Along with reviewing hundreds of studies on the health benefits of exercise, the NIA’s Task Force on Exercise and Physical Activity reviewed the literature on the behavioral aspects of exercise. Panel members included leading scientists in physical activity and aging, as well as officials from the CDC, the International Council on Active Aging, and the American College of Sports Medicine.

“We used the expertise of the panel to guide us on recommendations for behavioral interventions,” Dr. Dutta says. “We did our best to help people be creative. Physical activity doesn’t mean they have to pound it out at the gym. People can start walking instead.”

Older couple walking

The guide takes a flexible stance on physical activity by including household chores and hobbies, such as raking leaves and dancing, as well as traditional exercises such as strength training, jogging, and aerobics classes. The message is to be active in ways that suit your lifestyle, interests, health, and budget. Along the same lines, the guide offers practical tips on when to talk with the doctor about exercise and information on being active in specific situations, such as walking in rural areas.

Updating the guide revealed not only a growth in knowledge about seniors and exercise, but a shift in attitudes toward the topic, Dr. Dutta says. “Ten years ago, there was a mindset that as you become older, you become frail. Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about the capabilities of older adults to exercise….Just because you’re older doesn’t mean you’re going to become frail.”

Although the general benefits of exercise are well established, current research continues to expand our understanding of the relationship between aging and physical activity, Dr. Dutta says. Researchers are studying, for example, the molecular changes that occur and exactly why resistance training increases muscle mass. A better understanding of these mechanisms will help identify the most effective interventions and tailor them to the needs of individuals.

The NIA’s exercise guide for older adults complements the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). “The HHS guidelines tell you what to do. We tell you how to do it,” Dr. Dutta says.

Exercise & Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging is available free in print and online at

Page last updated: February 26, 2015