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Physical Activity and Older Americans - benefits and strategies
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Although growing older means to many people that life will get worse, there is good news when it comes to physical activity and aging. First, it is never too late to become physically active. Second, even a small amount of activity can result in better health. Third, research has shown key strategies for helping older Americans to become more active.

This report describes the importance of physical activity, the prevalence and costs of inactivity, and the health benefits of regular activity; it also recommends levels of physical activity in older adults.


For many adults, growing older seems to involve an inevitable loss of strength, energy, and fitness. But it need not be so. The frail health and loss of function we associate with aging, such as difficulty walking long distances, climbing stairs, or carrying groceries, is in large part due to physical inactivity. When it comes to our muscles and physical fitness, the old adage applies: "Use it or lose it."

Yet with physical activity and aging, there is lots of good news:

First, it's never too late to become physically active. No one is too old to enjoy the benefits of regular physical activity (U.S. HHS, 1996). In fact, older Americans have more to gain than younger people by becoming more active. Older people are at higher risk for the health problems that being active can prevent. In addition, physical activity can be an important part of managing problems that might already be present, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or elevated cholesterol. Finally, physical activity can improve the ability to function well and remain independent in spite of health problems. Few factors contribute as much to successful aging as having a physically active lifestyle.

Second, investing a small amount of time in becoming more active can produce big dividends in better health. Nature has been kind in how physical activity affects our health. We need not spend hours a day in vigorous activity to obtain health benefits. Significant health benefits can be obtained by including a moderate amount of physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week. Spending at least 30 minutes in moderate activity, such as a brisk walk or raking leaves, on all or most days of the week has remarkable health benefits for older adults (U.S. HHS, 1996).

Third, research has identified a number of key strategies for what we can do, as individuals and in our communities, to help older Americans become more active. Although the reasons that older people aren't more active are varied, the solutions for helping them stay active are within our grasp.


Millions of Americans, most of them older adults, suffer from chronic illnesses that can be prevented or improved through regular physical activity. In a 1993 study, 14 percent of all deaths in the United States were attributed to insufficient activity and inadequate nutrition (McGinnis and Foege, 1993).

Lack of physical activity is an important contributor to many of the most important chronic diseases for older Americans, including heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, and high blood pressure. Lack of physical activity, along with poor nutrition, is a major contributor to the growing epidemic of obesity in the United States.

Prevalence of Inactivity in Older Adults

Few older adults achieve the minimum recommended 30 or more minutes of moderate physical activity on 5 or more days per week. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that about 28 percent to 34 percent of adults aged 65 to 74 and 35 percent to 44 percent of adults ages 75 or older are inactive, meaning they engage in no leisure-time physical activity. Inactivity is more common in older people than in middle-aged men and women (Figure 1). Women were more likely than men to report no leisure-time activity.

Figure 1. Physical Inactivity for U.S. Men and Women, 2000 (Percent Inactive)

Bar chart depicts levels of physical inactivity among men and women in three age ranges: 45 to 64, 65 to 74, and 75 and above. For ages 45-64, nearly 30 percent of both women and men are inactive; for ages 65-74, nearly 35 percent of women and nearly 30 percent of men are inactive; for ages 75 and over, more than 40 percent of women and 35 percent of men are inactive.

Source: Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

National data indicate that few older persons engage in regular physical activity. Only 31 percent of individuals aged 65 to 74 report participating in 20 minutes of moderate physical activity 3 or more days per week, and even fewer (16 percent) report 30 minutes of moderate activity 5 or more days per week (U.S. HHS, 2000). For those aged 75 and older, levels of activity are even lower: 23 percent engage in moderate activity for 20 minutes 3 or more days per week and only 12 percent participate in such activity for 30 minutes 5 or more days per week.

Thus, many older Americans are inactive and even more do not get enough physical activity to provide important health benefits. There has been no improvement in the levels of physical activity among older adults over the past decade in the United States.

Vigorous physical activity—activity that causes heavy sweating or large increases in heart rate—is better than moderate activity for maintaining cardiorespiratory fitness, but relatively few older persons engage in regular vigorous activity (i.e., three times per week or more), and the numbers decline steadily with age (Figure 2). Estimates for 2000 indicate that, only 13 percent of individuals between ages 65 and 74 reported engaging in vigorous physical activity for 20 minutes 3 or more days per week, and only 6 percent of those 75 and older reported such exercise (U.S. HHS, 2000).

Figure 2. Vigorous Physical Activity, 2000

Bar chart depicts levels of vigorous physical activity in 2000 for people in three age ranges: 45 to 64, 65 to 74, and 75 and above; the following findings are reported in the graph: for ages 45 to 64 nearly 21 percent engaged in  vigorous physical activity; for ages 65 to 74 nearly 13 percent engaged in  vigorous physical activity; for ages 75 and over nearly 6 percent engaged in  vigorous physical activity.

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Healthy People 2010, 2nd ed. With Understanding and Improving Health and Objectives for Improving Health. 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, November 2000. Note: Data are based on 1997 data adjusted to the age of the U.S. population in 2000.

Research studies have suggested that muscle-strengthening exercises may protect against the decline in bone mass experienced by post-menopausal women and protect against falls. However, in 1998 only 10 percent of Americans between ages 65 and 74 report engaging in activities 2 or more days per week that enhance and maintain strength and endurance.

Incorporating activity into normal daily routines (for example, walking or bicycling rather than driving) is one of the most effective strategies for becoming more active. However, in 1995, only 16 percent to 19 percent of adults over age 65 reported making trips of 1 mile or less by walking. In addition, less than 0.3 percent of those over age 65 reported using a bicycle to make trips of 5 miles or less (U.S. HHS, 2000).

Costs of Inactivity

By 2030, the number of older Americans is expected to double from 35 million to 70 million. The percentage of the total population that is aged 65 or older is expected to grow from 12 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2030. The growing number of older adults will place increasing demands on the public health system and on medical and social services. Lack of physical activity and poor diet are the major causes of an epidemic of obesity that is affecting the elderly as well as middle-aged and younger populations. An estimated 18 percent of adults over age 65 in the United States are obese, and another 40 percent are overweight, putting them at substantially increased risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, along with other chronic diseases (NHLBI, 2001) (Figure 3). In 2000, the total costs of overweight and obesity combined was estimated to be $117 billion (U.S. HHS, 2001).

Figure 3. Percentage of Obese, Overweight, and Healthy Weight Adults > Age 65, 2000

Pie chart depicts the percentage of obese, overweight and healthy weight adults over the age of 65 in 2000; the following findings are reported: 42 percent of adults have a healthy weight; 40 percent are overweight; and 18 percent are obese.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Trend Data, Nationwide. April 1, 2002.

This represents a substantial increase over the past decade. Since 1990, the prevalence of obesity has increased more than 50 percent in the elderly, and even more in some younger age groups (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Graph of Body Mass Index

Line graph depicts the median percentage of obese persons from 1990 to 2000 grouped by age; obesity is measured by body mass index; the following findings are reported: for all age groups, the median percentage rises over the 10-year period; 50 year olds have the highest level of obesity, followed by 35 year olds, 65 year olds, and finally 18 year olds.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Trend Data, Nationwide. April 1, 2002.

Currently, almost one-third of total U.S. health care expenditures is for older adults (over age 65). Health care expenditures for people aged 65 years or older are four times that for 40-year-olds. By 2030, health care spending will increase by 25 percent, simply because the population will be older, before inflation or new technologies are taken into account. Estimates from a study by Harvard researchers calculated that the direct medical costs attributable to inactivity and obesity accounted for nearly 10 percent of all health care expenditures in the United States (Colditz, 1999). Being inactive results in loss of muscle strength and balance and increases the risk of falls. Every year, fall-related injuries among older people cost the nation more than $20.2 billion. By 2020, the total annual cost of these injuries is expected to reach $32.4 billion.

The impact of a lack of physical activity on medical care costs is likely to grow as a result of an aging population, unless trends in physical activity change. One study (CDC) has shown that the direct medical costs of inactive adults are substantially higher than those of active adults. These excess costs increase with age and is especially notable in women (Figure 5). The data imply that society may be able to reap larger benefits in terms of lower health care costs by improving physical activity levels in older adults, as compared with any other age group.

Figure 5. Annual Medical Costs of Active and Inactive Women (Aged 45 or Older) Without Physical Limitations

Line graph depicts medical costs by activity level (active and inactive) and by the following age ranges: 45 to 54, 55 to 64, 65 to 74, and 75 and above; the following findings are reported in the graph; for ages 45 to 54 both inactive and active women pay a little more than $1,000 in annual medical costs; for ages 55 to 64 active women pay about $1,200 in annual medical costs and inactive women pay about $1,400 in annual medical costs; for ages 65 to 74 active women pay about $1,500 in annual medical costs and inactive women pay a little more than $2,000 in annual medical costs; for ages 75 and over active women pay about $2,000 in annual medical costs and inactive women pay about $3,200 in annual medical costs.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Promoting Active Lifestyles Among Older Adults. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Nutrition and Physical Activity.

Health Benefits of Regular Physical Activity

Regular physical activity has beneficial effects on most (if not all) organ systems, and consequently it prevents a broad range of health problems and diseases. Physical activity in older persons produces three types of health benefits:

  1. It can reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease.
  2. It can aid in the management of active problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, or high cholesterol.
  3. It can improve the ability to function and stay independent in the face of active problems like lung disease or arthritis.

Although the benefits of physical activity increase with more frequent or more intense activity, substantial benefits are evident even for those who report only moderate levels of activity—i.e. washing a car for 60 minutes, raking leaves for 30 minutes, or brisk walking or swimming for 20 minutes. All of the benefits of physical activity are especially important for older men and women since they are more likely to develop chronic diseases and are more likely to have conditions such as arthritis that can affect their physical function.

Regular physical activity has beneficial effects on a variety of health outcomes, effects that are supported by consistent scientific evidence. These include:

  • Lower overall mortality. Benefits were greatest among the most active persons but were also evident for individuals who reported only moderate activity.
  • Lower risk of coronary heart disease. The cardiac risk of being inactive is comparable to the risk from smoking cigarettes.
  • Lower risk of colon cancer.
  • Lower risk of diabetes.
  • Lower risk of developing high blood pressure. Exercise also lowers blood pressure in individuals who have hypertension.
  • Lower risk of obesity.
  • Improved mood and relief of symptoms of depression.
  • Improved quality of life and improved functioning.
  • Improved function in persons with arthritis.
  • Lower risk of falls and injury.

Additional possible benefits of physical activity (research is less consistent) include:

  • Lower risk of breast cancer.
  • Prevention of bone loss and fracture after the menopause.
  • Lower risk of developing depression.
  • Improved quality of sleep.

Research studies have demonstrated these benefits in both middle-aged and in older persons, and in men and women. Because these chronic diseases increase with age, older persons may benefit even more than those in middle-age from physical activity. A recent study of older men in Baltimore demonstrated that leisure time activity was more important for protecting against heart disease in men over 65 than in younger men (Talbot, Morrell, Metter et al., 2002).

Of great importance to older adults, regular physical activity sustains the ability to live independently. Research has shown that virtually all older adults can benefit from regular physical activity. In particular, the mobility and functioning of frail and very old adults can be improved by regular physical activity. The large potential ability of regular physical activity to prevent chronic diseases and sustain active living means that an active lifestyle is a key component of healthy and successful aging.

In those older adults with chronic diseases, physical activity can play an important role in treatment. Physical activity is effective in treating cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chronic lung disease, diabetes, obesity, and osteoarthritis.

Recommended Levels of Physical Activity in Older Adults

Substantial health benefits occur with a moderate amount of activity (e.g., at least 30 minutes of brisk walking) on 5 or more days of the week. Additional health benefits can be gained through longer duration of physical activity or more vigorous activity. Brief episodes of physical activity, such as 10 minutes at a time, can be beneficial if repeated. Sedentary persons can begin with brief episodes and gradually increase the duration or intensity of activity.

Older persons can benefit further from activities aimed at building or maintaining muscle strength and balance. A recent review of individually tailored programs for elderly people demonstrated that programs to build muscle strength, improve balance, and promote walking significantly reduced falls in older persons (Gillespie, Gillespie, Robinson et al., 2002). Experts recommend that older adults should participate at least 2 days a week in strength training activities that improve and maintain muscular strength and endurance. Older adults should also perform physical activities that enhance and maintain flexibility. However, older adults are sensitive to the effects of physical activity, and even small amounts of activity are healthier than a sedentary lifestyle.

Older adults with chronic illnesses or disabilities can gain significant health benefits with a moderate amount of physical activity, especially if it is done daily. Physical activity need not be strenuous to bring health benefits. What is important is to include activity as part of a regular routine. Moderate amounts of low-impact activities such as swimming, water exercises, or stretching are recommended for those who have difficulty with their mobility. There are various low-impact exercises that can be done by those who have certain disabilities, such as wheelchair exercises and games, muscle-strengthening activities to help improve the ability to perform daily tasks, and strength training exercises such as calisthenics or light weight lifting. Gentle forms of yoga and tai chi are designed to promote flexibility, improve balance, and increase strength as well.

Strategies to Promote Physical Activity in Older Adults

There are many reasons that older persons have low levels of physical activity, and as a result there is no single solution to the problem. The population of older men and women encompasses the whole range of health status—everyone from people who run marathons to frail adults confined to a wheelchair. There are no "one size fits all" approaches.

A variety of barriers may make it harder for older persons to increase and maintain their physical activity. Some neighborhoods and communities are poorly designed or unsafe, a particular obstacle for elderly persons who may feel especially vulnerable to crime or traffic. Many have chronic medical conditions that require more care and planning in how they exercise. Older adults may have trouble getting to facilities and programs, and those facilities may not provide adequate training and monitoring for older adults beginning a program.

Finally, health care professionals may lack the time or expertise to address problems of physical inactivity among their older patients. They often lack information about quality programs, about materials, and about how to make referrals to community resources. Finally, many older adults serve as caregivers for others, which can restrict their opportunities for regular physical activity. Often these caregiving responsibilities lead to poor health and depression for the caregiver.

Exercise can improve the physical and mental health of people who care full time for a family member. The Administration on Aging's National Family Caregiver Support Program provides support for family caregivers, and through its counseling and support services encourages proper eating and healthy lifestyles. The role of promoting physical activity involves diverse groups, including businesses, public health agencies, health care providers and organizations, transportation, housing, parks and recreation, and aging services organizations.

What Can Work to Promote Physical Activity in Older Persons

Despite the barriers described above, there are a number of proven and promising approaches that individuals, clinicians, and communities can take to help promote physical activity among older persons. Interventions to promote physical activity have been reviewed by two national task forces. The Task Force on Community Preventive Services, supported by CDC, reviewed over 250 studies of interventions in the community (CDC, 2001; Kahn, Ramsey, Bownson et al., 2002). The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (USPSTF, 1996), conducted a comprehensive review of numerous studies involving primary care practices. Additional reviews have focused on interventions in older adults (Gillespie, Gillespie, Robertson, et al., 2002; van der Bij, Laurent, and Wensing, 2002).

Taken together, this research has identified a limited list of key strategies that seem to be effective for promoting regular physical activity, strategies that are likely to be effective in older men and women as well as younger people. Notably, one review suggested that people over 60 were more likely to participate in programs to encourage physical activity than younger people (van der Bij, Laurent, and Wensing, 2002).

Resources summarizing strategies for communities have been developed (Partnership for Prevention, 2002). In 2000, about 50 government agencies and non-governmental organizations participated in the development of the National Blueprint: Increasing Physical Activity Among Adults Age 50 and Older. As one example, the Administration on Aging for its national network of State and area agencies on aging, tribal organizations, and service providers, has developed a pilot project—"USA On the Move: Steps to Healthy Aging"—highlighting nutrition and physical fitness.

What Individuals Can Do

  • Make activity a daily part of your life. Find activities that you enjoy that can become a regular part of your routine, and find others to join you. Partners can make it more fun, can provide encouragement, and help overcome problems of transportation or safety.
  • Consult your clinician about what level of activity is safe and appropriate for you. Discuss any medical issues that might be interfering with more regular activity and review any symptoms and problems that might affect what activities are safe for you.
  • Set specific activity goals. Start slowly and build up to increasing levels of activity. Try to be active for 30 minutes a day on a regular basis.

What Clinicians Can Do

  • Assess how much physical activity your patients are getting and explore reasons that they aren't more active. A recent study found that only half of all adults were asked about their exercise habits by their healthcare provider (CDC, 2002). Older patients were asked less often than younger patients. Patients who had been asked reported being more active than those who were never asked.
  • The most promising interventions in primary care practices include patient goal setting, written exercise prescriptions, individually tailored physical activity regimens, and mailed or telephone followup.
  • Refer patients to community resources where they can join group activities to promote and reinforce physical activity.

What Communities Can Do

  • Conduct community-wide campaigns that combine highly visible messages to the public, community events, support groups for active persons, and creation of walking trails.
  • Establish community-based programs, such as those that take place at community centers and senior centers, that can provide individually tailored programs for seniors to become more active. Such groups help members set individual goals; teach participants how to incorporate physical activity into daily routines; provide encouragement, reinforcement, and problem solving; and help sustain progress.
  • Establish community programs that help build social support (at work or in the community) for physical activity.
  • Improve access to places that people can be active, such as walking or bike trails, classes at gyms or senior centers, athletic fields, etc. A review of 12 studies that created or enhanced access to places for physical activity found, on average, a 25 percent increase in the number of persons exercising at least 3 days per week (Kahn, Ramsey, Brownson et al., 2002).


To achieve our nation's physical activity and fitness goals, both public and private sectors will need to develop approaches that provide opportunities and encouragement for older adults to lead a physically active lifestyle. Approaches vary from interventions as simple as building a walking trail around a community park, to interventions that shift cultural norms and redesign our communities. With convergence of initiatives in the area of policy, social and physical environment, individual education and skill development, and heath care, it is clear that older adults can experience remarkable improvements in quality of life and health as a consequence of an active lifestyle.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of health care providers asking older adults about their physical activity levels—United States, 1998. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2002;51(19):412-4. URL:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Promoting active lifestyles among older adults. Atlanta: CDC, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Nutrition and Physical Activity. URL:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Increasing physical activity: a report on recommendations of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2001;50(No. RR-18):1-14. URL:

Colditz GA. Economic costs of obesity and inactivity. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1999;31(11 Suppl):S663-7.

Gillespie LD, Gillespie WJ, Robertson MC, et al. Interventions for preventing falls in elderly people (Cochrane Review). In: The Cochrane Library, Issue 2, 2002. Oxford: Update Software.

Kahn EB, Ramsey LT, Brownson R, et al. Task Force on Community Preventive Services. The effectiveness of interventions to increase physical activity. Am J Prev Med 2002;22(4S):73-107.

McGinnis JM, Foege WH. Actual causes of death in the United States. JAMA 1993;270(18):207-12.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults. [cited 2001 Dec 18] URL:

Partnership for Prevention. Creating communities for active aging. Washington, DC: Partnership for Prevention, 2002. (

Talbot LA, Morrell CH, Metter J, et al. Comparison of cardiorespiratory fitness versus leisure time physical activity as predictors of coronary events in men aged <65 Years and >65 Years. Am J Cardiology 2002; 89:1187-92.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical activity and health: A report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 1996. [cited 2001 Dec 18] URL:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Healthy People 2010, 2nd edition., with "Understanding and improving health" and "Objectives for improving health," 2 vols. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office; November 2000.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Surgeon General's call to action to prevent and decrease overweight and obesity. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Office of the Surgeon General; 2001. (Available from U.S. GPO, Washington)

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Guide to Clinical Preventive Services, 2nd edition. Baltimore, MD: Williams and Wilkins, 1996.

van der Bij AK, Laurent MGH, Wensing M. Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for older adults: a review. Am J Preventive Med 2002; 22(2):120-33.

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Current as of June 2002

Internet Citation:

Physical Activity and Older Americans: Benefits and Strategies. June 2002. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the Centers for Disease Control.


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