The Do’s and Don’ts of Exercise for Older Adults

Most of us have been to the gym to work out, or have participated in an exercise program at one point or another. Reasons for exercising may vary, from losing weight, building muscle to simply getting fit. For some of us, it is just a matter of going through the motions. You put on your shoes, grab your water bottle, hop onto the treadmill and hit “start” without a second thought. Have you taken into consideration what type of a workout you wanted? How about training weak muscle groups? Maybe you took some medication this morning. How will this affect the way you exercise? Most of us do not need to consider some, if not any, of these questions before we exercise, but for an older adult, it is something that must be considered.


Exercises for an older adult population must be adapted, and many things must be considered such as what medication are you on, what medical condition do you have, can you stand, for how long, how is your balance, have you had a hip replacement, do you have diabetes, arthritis, high or low blood pressure, and how will this affect exercise? It was not until I received my Senior Land Fitness Instructor certification that I really thought about all the various health factors that need that need to be taken into consideration in order to keep this population safe during exercise.


Here are some do’s and don’ts when facilitating an exercise program for an older adult population.


Do: Warm-up.

It is important to ensure that a proper warm-up is incorporated into every exercise routine to help prevent muscle and joint injury. A simple seated warm-up that lasts 15 minutes is ideal. There are different types of stretches that one can do to loosen various muscles in the body. The four types of stretches are static, dynamic, functional, and ballistic. Static stretches involves holding a stretch for a minimum of 25 seconds. Dynamic stretches use various range of motion (ROM) and dynamic movements, such as arm circles and leg raises. Functional stretching refers to stretches that assist with movements that are associated with an individual’s activities of daily living (ADLs). For example, simulating brushing your hair. Ballistic stretching involves bouncy or jerky movements.

During the warm-up, dynamic and functional stretches are recommended as it will increase the amount of oxygen that the muscles are receiving, will help to loosen the muscles and joints, and will safely and slowly raise the heart rate.


Do: Start a warm-up with a lower number of repetitions.

This is because the body is progressively warming up; therefore it is important to introduce movements with less intensity and also less repetition to reduce the risk of injury and strain. It would be advisable to revisit various movements at a more intense and faster rhythm as the warm-up progresses, as it will allow muscles the time it needs to loosen and warm-up to prevent injury.


Do: Alternate exercises for the upper and lower body.

This applies during warm-up, strength training, and cool down. By alternating the exercises between the upper and lower extremities, it will avoid excessive fatigue on joints, such as the shoulders and knees or hips, and it will ensure that the whole body is working together.


Do: Engage in exercises that will maintain or improve muscular endurance.

For older adults, improving muscular endurance is safer than resistance training. Muscular endurance is focused on doing lighter weights with a greater number of repetitions versus heavier weights with less repetitions, which would improve muscle strength. The benefit of focusing on muscular endurance is it places less stress on the heart and cardiovascular system, and it reduces the risk of injury to weak joints and muscles.


Do: Strengthening and weight bearing exercises slowly.

It is recommended that a weight be lifted for two seconds, held for two seconds, and then lowered for four seconds. It is also important to breathe while exercising to maximize the amount of oxygen that your muscles are receiving, and to also avoid increasing a participant’s blood pressure. Ideally, one would exhale on exertion and inhale on relaxation.


Do: Cool down.

After a workout, it is important to bring the heart rate back to its pre-exercise rate. The cool down should last about 10 minutes and will consist of static stretches that can be held for at least 25 seconds. If after a five to ten minute cool down period, the participant’s heart rate still has not returned to normal, it is advised to seek medical advice from a physician.


Do: Rest for 48 hours between exercises.

As people age, sufficient rest time is needed between exercising the same muscle group, to allow muscles time to repair themselves.


Don’t: Hold stretches while warming up.

Static stretches are to be done only at the end of an exercise program. Because the muscles have not yet had a chance to warm-up and loosen, there is a greater risk of muscle and joint injury. Instead, ROM stretches and dynamic movements should be used to increase blood flow to exercising muscles, to loosen up muscles and joints, and increase joint ROM and function (Best-Martinii & Botenhagen-DiGenova, 2003).


Don’t: Use exercise equipment during a warm-up.

By using equipment during the warm-up, it could increase the exercise intensity too quickly putting the participant at a higher risk for injury.


Don’t: Engage in only one type of exercise.

While walking is a great cardiovascular exercise, it is not enough for this population. There are four major fitness components: balance/coordination, cardiovascular, resistance/strength, and flexibility. As individuals age, all four components have major benefits for an older adult population. For example, good balance and coordination will decrease the risk of falling. Good cardio will ensure you will be able to walk comfortably without losing your breath too quickly. Good strength will ensure that you will be able to carry your own bags when you decide to buy bread and eggs from the grocery store. Good flexibility will decrease the risk of muscle or joint injury.


Don’t: Focus all your exercises on only strong muscles.

When exercising, you must keep muscle balance in mind. Muscle balance refers to working muscles and their opposing muscle groups. It is very easy to overwork certain muscle groups, such as your biceps when weight lifting. It is important to stretch the stronger muscles and balance out the entire body by strengthening the weaker muscles, for example, stretching your bicep and strengthening your tricep. This is the best way to reduce injury while promoting sustainable muscle health.


Don’t: Use heavy weights.

Any weight that is used by an exercise participant should be light enough that the weight can be lifted at least eight times at 50-80% of their maximum capacity. If the participant’s breathing rate increases, have a hard time speaking normally or their movements are shaky, chances are that the weights are too heavy. When in doubt, decrease the weight.


Don’t: Engage in ballistic stretching.

They are to be avoided as it puts the participant at risk for muscle and joint injury because the movement is too uncontrolled and erratic.


Don’t: Have a set exercise routine.

If you have memorized a routine, chances are, so have the participants. You want to ensure that exercises stay varied to ensure that participants are not bored, and are actively engaged in the exercises that they are performing, instead of simply just going through the motions.


Many factors need to be considered when facilitating an exercise program safely and comfortably for an individual or group alike. Always ensure that the warm-up is a minimum of 15 minutes, and a cool down is 10 minutes. Exercise sessions should last no longer than 45 minutes. When in doubt, lower the intensity, repetitions and resistance. The purpose of exercises for older adults is not to bulk up or to train them for marathons. The purpose is simply to grant them the tools to be physically independent to maintain and extend their lifestyle.




Best-Martinii, E., & Botenhagen-DiGenova, K. (2003). Exercise for frail elders. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.


Leitch, D., & Twynham, J. (2011). Waterart certified instructor: Senior land fitness. Lewiston, NY



Anna Luu

Anna Luu

Anna is certified with Water Art and is a seniors land fitness and water fitness instructor. Through her years of work experience and training, Anna has gained experience working with youth, adults and seniors in a variety of settings including in the home, at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Amica Retirement Residence, Vermont Square Long-Term Care, and Mackenzie Health Richmond Hill.