African American woman walking with weights and smiling.

Older Adults Can Boost Heart Health Through Exercise

Bethesda Health | January 28, 2021

The human body was made to move, and thrives on it. For some older adults, however, this is easier said than done, although the benefits are tremendous, especially for the heart.

An exercise program can begin with building or augmenting daily activities. This could involve extra walking, mixing in household chores or some gardening to avoid sitting still for too long. Once you start, use your momentum to create a more structured exercise routine. You are never too old to begin, and your body will thank you for it.

The Benefits of Cardio for Your Heart

The heart is the power supply for your body; therefore, the heart is the most important muscle you have.

When you perform cardiovascular exercises, your breath and heart rate increase to pump oxygen and blood to your muscles. Your heart responds by becoming stronger, working more efficiently, and pumping out a greater volume of blood. Cardio exercise also helps open up other blood vessels, making them better at moving more blood throughout the body and therefore reducing blood pressure. This is important, as high blood pressure is a major risk for heart disease.

With a regular cardio exercise schedule, your muscles and tissues become better at extracting oxygen from your blood, even when you are not exercising. Weight loss may also be another benefit, which reduces how hard your heart has to work, simply because there is less tissue to supply with blood.

A minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity is recommended by the American Heart Association. However for senior adults, experts suggest using a “relative intensity” measure. Using this measure, moderate level activity is indicated by quickened breathing, without being out of breath, and the ability to converse but not sing.

If you are working out at a vigorous exercise level, 75 minutes per week is the recommended minimum amount of exercise per week. At this level of exertion, breathing is deep and rapid, and you can’t say more than a few words without taking a breath. This level of exercise is not recommended for most older adults. Silver Sneakers is a good resource for a low-impact cardio workout suited for seniors.

Don’t hesitate to spread out your exercise over the entire week. For example, 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week. You can also split up a 30-minute session into two 15-minute workouts, or three 10-minute workouts.

The type of exercise, the level of its intensity, and its frequency and duration is unique to each person, depending on age, weight, medications, health conditions, and other factors. Seek guidance from your doctor and the professionals he or she recommends to create the routine that’s right for you and your heart health.

Note: Some drugs and medications can lower your heart rate. If you have a heart condition or take medication, consult your physician.

Resistance Training

Research shows that cardio training and resistance training in combination can lower bad cholesterol levels (LDL) and raise good cholesterol levels (HDL).

According to an Iowa State University study, lifting even light weights for less than an hour a week may reduce your risk for a heart attack or stroke by 40 to 70 percent.

Resistance training also can help lower blood pressure, and enables the body to burn more calories and thereby maintain a healthy weight.

At least two non-consecutive days per week of strength training is recommended for older adults. Dumbbells, elastic bands, and exercises using body weight like push-ups and squats can be used. Common household items can also serve as weights, including water and laundry bottles, milk jugs, or canned goods.

The focus of the resistant training should be on major muscle groups:

The exercises should be performed at an intensity at which it would be difficult to perform another repetition. One to three sets of 8 to 12 repetitions per set are effective. As your strength builds, add more weight to stay in this repetition range. It is a good idea to have someone with you while you are completing your repetitions if you can.

Silver Sneakers provides examples and information on exercises specifically for older adults.

Balance and Flexibility

Balance and flexibility exercises are important because they improve a person’s ability to perform the exercises that are good for the heart.

Balance is key to fall prevention, to which older adults can be susceptible when exercising. Walking heel-to-toe and standing from a seated position without using your hands can improve balance. There are balance exercises that use a chair or wall for extra support and safety.

Flexibility and stretching exercises can reduce joint pain and muscle cramping, which is an important aid to performing cardio and strength training movements.

Note: Please consult your physician before beginning or significantly altering an exercise program.

Find more tips to stay active as you age on our blog!

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