The Senior's Guide to Exercise

Amir Khan

Exercise is important at any age, but as you get older, regularly exercising could mean the difference between living independently and needing someone to care for you. However, exercising in your golden years isn't the same as exercising in your youth, and fitness experts say there are types you need to do and precautions you need to take once you're over 65.

What types of exercises are most important?

Balance training. Falls are the leading cause of injury among adults over 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so working on exercises to maintain your balance can help keep you upright and prevent your family from worrying. "Balance exercises focus on building leg muscles," says John Higgins, a sports cardiologist and exercise physiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. "It's crucial for maintaining independence and preventing falls."

To improve your balance, he recommends walking heel to toe, placing one foot in front of the other, with your heel touching the toe of your other foot, and walking forward 20 steps three times, three days per week.

Strength training. Muscle loss is common in older adults and begins around age 40. A strength training program is a great way to help combat that, says Sheldon Zinberg, a former clinical professor of medicine at the University of California-Irvine and founder of Nifty after Fifty, a fitness center for seniors located in five states. "We lose about 1 percent of our muscle strength each year [after 40]," he says. "This increases to about 1.5 percent per year in our 60s and even higher in our later years. It is responsible for weakness, it exacerbates diminished aerobic exercise capacity and bone mineral density, and causes a decrease in reaction time."

But you don't have to be a bodybuilder to fight muscle loss. Use light weights, even as low as 5 pounds, and do bicep curls or arm lifts two to three times per week, and you'll see benefits.

Flexibility training. Stretching, whether it's bending over to touch your toes or doing yoga at home or at a class, is an exercise seniors often overlook, Higgins says, and should be done two to three times per week. "Stretching helps you maintain your range of motion and freedom of movement," he says.

Cardio training. Getting your heart rate up, whether you're on a machine at the gym or going for a walk in the park, can help keep your weight down and ward off cardiovascular disease. Higgins recommends walking for 20 to 30 minutes three times per week. "Brisk walking can be incorporated into your daily life," he says. "Even if you just go to the mall and walk through it." Household chores such as mowing the lawn or gardening count as cardio, too.

How often should you exercise?

The current U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommendations for seniors is the same for younger people -- 150 minutes per week. However, Higgins says, don't overdo it. "Try to space your various workouts within each of the four groups by at least 48 hours," he says, "as it can take elderly muscles that long to fully recover from a workout."

What precautions should you take?

Before starting any exercise program, Zinberg recommends discussing it with your doctor -- so he or she can answer any questions you have and also give advice on what areas you need to focus on. "By doing a complete fitness evaluation and identifying the individual's overall level of fitness and their specific areas of need, a customized program can be developed to improve their overall health," he says. "Moreover, their exercise program can be tailored to help overcome specific frailties associated with their specific chronic diseases."

Also make sure to take it slow when you start, Higgins warns. Don't rush to do too much, and don't ignore any pain. "A little discomfort is normal, but pains in the joints or muscles are not normal, and you should get it checked out." Other precautions seniors, and anyone who exercises, should take include staying hydrated and not exercising in extreme heat.

Finally, Higgins recommends exercising with a friend or group. You can keep an eye on each other to see if anything goes wrong, and the added social component can be beneficial for your mental health. "Being engaged in a group activity promotes social support, and helps develop new friendships and friendly competition," he says. "It helps ensure you're doing the exercise properly and encourages seniors to share tips on exercise and coping with life's stressors. When exercising in a group, they feel part of something and get encouragement and the feeling of 'we're all in this together.' This can improve their emotional, cognitive and social well-being."

Amir Khan is a Health + Wellness reporter at U.S. News. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn or email him at akhan@usnews.com.