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Exercise Guide for Seniors in Assisted Living Communities

Published: June 20, 2022
Reviewed by: Marc Levesque

Exercise Guide for Seniors in Assisted Living Communities

Many seniors view their retirement years as a time to relax and put up their feet after many years of hard work and sacrifice. While it’s true that you should enjoy your retirement, it’s important not to spend too much time sitting or lying in bed. As you age, your muscle fibers shrink, leading to a loss of muscle mass. Cartilage also dries out, causing friction between the joints and increasing the risk for osteoarthritis.

The good news is that physical activity can help you combat some of the effects of aging, increasing your quality of life and preventing some chronic diseases. Unfortunately, not every senior has gotten the memo about the importance of exercise. According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 27% of adults aged 50 and older don’t perform any physical activity outside of their jobs. The problem is even worse for older adults, with the CDC reporting that 35.3% of adults aged 75 and older don’t get any exercise that isn’t job-related.

If you reside in an assisted living community, it’s even more important to stay active. Moving around as much as possible strengthens the joints and muscles, making it easier to participate in social events and attend local events. Getting enough physical activity can even help you avoid serious health problems, delaying or even eliminating the need to move from assisted living to a nursing home.

The following guide outlines the physical and psychological benefits of physical activity, busts some of the common myths regarding senior fitness and explains how wellness programs can help the residents of assisted living communities stay fit. It also includes a list of exercises to help you get moving, with special consideration given to exercising with chronic health conditions.

Exercise Guide for Seniors

The Importance of Participating In Wellness Programs at Assisted Living Communities

Exercise has physical and psychological benefits for seniors of all ages. Unfortunately, many older adults avoid exercise due to some pervasive myths about fitness and nutrition. We’ve debunked some of these myths to help you reap the benefits of regular physical activity.

Physical Benefits of Wellness Programs

Weight Maintenance

If you’re at a healthy weight for your height and frame size, exercising regularly can help you avoid weight gain. For people who are overweight or obese, physical activity is essential for shedding unwanted pounds. Whether you’re trying to lose weight or maintain your current weight, it’s important to make good decisions regarding your physical activity.  Even if you exercise daily, burning 200 calories on a long walk can’t erase 1,000 calories from a large restaurant meal.

Disease Prevention

Regular physical activity reduces the risk of several chronic diseases. If you’ve already been diagnosed with a chronic disease, exercise may help you manage the symptoms or avoid serious complications. These are just a few examples of diseases that are prevented or managed with physical activity:

  • Heart disease: Exercise has many benefits for the cardiovascular system. In healthy individuals, exercise improves circulation, normalizing heart rate and blood pressure. This leads to a lower risk of stroke and heart attack. Exercise may even benefit people who already have plaque deposits on the walls of their arteries. Arterial plaque is a sticky substance composed of cholesterol, calcium and other substances. When a piece of plaque ruptures, a clot forms, blocking blood flow and increasing the risk of a heart attack. According to an article published in Circulation, people who engage in regular physical activity may have arterial plaque that’s less likely to rupture and cause complications.
  • Diabetes: When you eat carbohydrates, your body uses a hormone called insulin to transport glucose from your bloodstream to your cells. Glucose, commonly called “blood sugar,” serves as a source of energy. In people with diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin. As a result, glucose builds up in the bloodstream, which may cause headache, fatigue, blurred vision and other symptoms. Over time, elevated glucose levels can lead to eye damage, heart disease, kidney disease and other serious complications. Exercise makes your body more sensitive to insulin, allowing glucose to enter your cells instead of staying in the bloodstream.
  • Osteoarthritis: If you have arthritis, physical activity helps reduce pain and stiffness. It may seem counterintuitive to exercise when your joints hurt, but regular physical activity makes you more flexible and improves your range of motion, both of which can help with stiffness. Exercise also strengthens your muscles, making them better able to support your joints, which often helps reduce arthritis-related pain. It also improves bone density as you age.
  • Cancer: Physical activity helps prevent several types of cancer, leading to improved quality of life for many seniors. Researchers have proposed that exercise helps prevent cancer by reducing inflammation, strengthening the immune system and altering human metabolism to reduce exposure to cancer-causing compounds. Exercise also helps lower the levels of sex hormones that are involved in certain types of cancer. Physical activity has been shown to play a role in reducing the risk of bladder cancer, colon cancer, endometrial cancer, breast cancer, kidney cancer, esophageal cancer and stomach cancer.

Improved Balance

As you age, your risk of falls increases, due in part to the effects of poor balance and reduced muscle strength. Good balance is essential for many activities, such as getting out of bed, standing from a seated position and walking around your assisted living community. You also need strong back and leg muscles to maintain your position as you carry out these activities. Exercise can reduce your risk of falls by improving your balance and making the muscles in your lower extremities stronger.

Better Sleep Quality

Exercise can even help you get a better night’s sleep, especially if you work out at certain times of the day. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals that improve your sense of well-being. Exercise also raises your core body temperature. Both of these things make you more alert; within a couple of hours, however, the effects start to wear off. As your body cools down, you may feel yourself getting sleepy.

Psychological Benefits of Wellness Programs

Improved Cognitive Function

Although exercise has many physical benefits, the psychological benefits of participating in a robust wellness program just can’t be overstated. One of the potential benefits is improved cognitive function or a slower decline in cognitive function. In humans, cognitive function is the ability to learn, make decisions, solve problems and think clearly, among other mental activities.

According to researchers from Harvard Medical School, physical activity stimulates the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, improving memory and thinking skills. Exercise also contributes to better brain health, which may prevent neurodegeneration, a process involved in Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions that result in memory loss. In people who are already experiencing some cognitive decline, regular exercise can prevent further impairment.

Reduced Depression Symptoms

For some people, exercise is also helpful for controlling the symptoms of depression. This is because of the feel-good chemicals released during physical activity. If you have depression, you may find it difficult to stay motivated, but doing something as simple as walking can trigger the release of endorphins, boosting your mood and reducing some of your symptoms. Although exercise is helpful, talk with your doctor before stopping any medications or discontinuing other prescribed treatments for depression.

Better Self-Esteem

When you exercise, you can take pride in knowing that you’re doing something good for your mind and your body. As you overcome exercise-related challenges, you’ll also feel a sense of accomplishment. For example, your self-esteem is likely to increase when you lift a heavier weight or finish an exercise video without having to stop to catch your breath.

Seniors and Exercise: The Truth About Common Myths

The health and fitness industry is rife with myths about how to exercise, when to exercise and whether you should even be exercising at all. There’s also a lot of conflicting information about nutrition and other aspects of senior wellness. These are some of the most common myths, along with an explanation of why each one is inaccurate.


Myth: You shouldn’t exercise if you have any health conditions.

Truth: Although you may have to modify or avoid certain exercises, a chronic health condition doesn’t eliminate the need to exercise. As noted earlier, physical activity is beneficial for people with heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and other medical conditions. If you’re concerned about exercising with a health condition, talk with your doctor to find out what exercises you can do safely.


Myth: Older people don’t need much exercise.

Truth: This is false because physical activity is important at every age. In addition to helping you prevent chronic disease, regular exercise can help you manage your existing health conditions and improve your mental health. It’s also important for maintaining a healthy weight, keeping your muscles and bones strong and preventing falls as you get older.


Myth: If you follow a healthy diet, you don’t need to exercise.

Truth: For people trying to lose weight, it’s easier to consume fewer calories than it is to burn them off with exercise, leading some people to believe they don’t need to exercise as long as they watch what they eat. Although it’s true that cutting calories is more effective than increasing exercise when it comes to weight loss, you still need to move around to keep your body strong and reap the physical and psychological benefits of physical activity.


Myth: There’s no point in exercising if you have to modify the activities to match your fitness level or health status.

Truth: This is flat-out false. You may not burn as many calories with a modified exercise routine, but even small amounts of exercise are better than none at all. Just 15 minutes per day of exercise at a moderate intensity reduces the risk of death, demonstrating that physical activity isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition.


Myth: You need expensive workout equipment to exercise effectively.

Truth: Many people enjoy using fitness equipment, but you don’t need anything special to exercise. If you’re on a budget, all you need is your body and a few household items. For aerobic exercise, you can walk outdoors or work out to an exercise video instead of buying an expensive treadmill. If you’re interested in lifting weights, you don’t need to run out and buy a set of barbells. Soup cans, water bottles and other cylindrical objects will do in a pinch. For resistance training, you can use your own body weight to build strength, eliminating the need for expensive workout gear.


Components of an Effective Wellness Program for Seniors

Components of an Effective Wellness Program for Seniors

One of the many benefits of moving to an assisted living community is that you’ll have access to a wide range of activities planned by staff members. Most communities have formal wellness programs designed to help residents maintain their health and avoid some of the most common ailments associated with aging. If your community doesn’t have a formal wellness program, don’t be afraid to ask staff members to create one. A good wellness program should have the following components.

Nutritious Meals

Exercise is just one component of your overall wellness. To ensure you have enough energy to stay active, you also need to eat balanced meals with a variety of nutrients. The wellness program at your assisted living community should include nutritious meals planned to meet the needs of each resident. Staff members should strive to have options available for residents with diabetes, food allergies and other medical conditions requiring dietary adjustments.

Fitness Classes

If you don’t like to exercise alone, attending fitness classes is a great way to stay active and form new friendships. Many assisted living communities offer classes designed to get your heart pumping, make your body stronger or increase your flexibility. If your community doesn’t have any fitness classes, you may want to suggest aerobics, yoga, Zumba, cardio dancing or another favorite activity.

Educational Opportunities

A good wellness program should also include educational events to help residents learn more about fitness, nutrition and other important health topics. Depending on the needs of the people in your community, you may want to suggest classes on preparing healthy snacks, preventing chronic diseases, avoiding exercise-related injuries or getting the right amount of nutrients in each meal.

Family Involvement

An effective wellness program also promotes family involvement, making it easier for residents to improve their health while maintaining cherished relationships. Even if your assisted living community doesn’t allow non-residents to attend fitness classes, you may want to invite your loved ones to participate in educational programs or at least take a walk around the grounds with you.

Social Activities

Many people underestimate the importance of social activities for maintaining good health. Participating in these activities prevents isolation and loneliness, gives seniors a sense of purpose and may help prevent depression. Some activities even reduce the risk of cognitive decline and help seniors improve their coping skills, both of which are important for healthy aging. Your assisted living community’s wellness program should include social activities to suit a variety of tastes.

Senior Exercise Guidelines

Adults of all ages should strive to do aerobic exercise and strength training to improve their fitness. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week; if you’re fit enough to engage in vigorous exercise, the minimum is 75 minutes per week. Adults should also do strength-training exercises at least 2 days per week. For best results, these exercises should involve all the major muscle groups.

Here are some examples of moderate-intensity exercises to get you started:

  • Walking up and down stairs for 15 minutes
  • Walking at a pace of 15 minutes per mile
  • Swimming laps for 20 minutes
  • Engaging in water aerobics for 30 minutes
  • Working in the garden for 30 to 45 minutes
  • Dancing for 30 minutes

Exercise and Assisted Living

It’s possible to follow the HHS guidelines even if you reside in an assisted living community. In fact, it may be a little easier to follow the exercise guidelines if you have other people around to motivate you. Attend a fitness class, get some friends together for a morning walk or plan a trip to the local shopping mall to get in as many steps as possible. If you prefer to exercise alone, all you need is a clear space in your bedroom or living room.

Many people wonder if it’s better to exercise in the morning, afternoon or evening. Although exercising in the morning does appear to have some benefits, such as lower blood pressure and improved appetite suppression, it’s more important to pick a time that works with your schedule. If you have a hard time getting moving in the morning, for example, there’s a good chance you won’t stick with a fitness routine that requires you to start exercising at 7 a.m.

If you plan to participate in your community’s wellness program, you may have to adjust your schedule to accommodate fitness classes and other events. You’ll also need to account for the preferences of your exercise buddies — if one prefers to work out in the morning and the other in the evening, you may have to compromise by exercising in the afternoon.

Activities to Get Seniors Moving

Activities to Get Seniors Moving

Now that you know how important it is to exercise regularly, here are a few things you can do to slowly increase your fitness level. Before starting any fitness routine, talk with your doctor to make sure that each exercise is safe to do. If you have a chronic health condition, you may need to modify the exercise to match your current fitness level.

  • Take a walk: Walking has many benefits for seniors, including reduced joint pain and improved immune function. It can also help you lose weight and avoid severe complications associated with chronic diseases. Best of all, you don’t need any special equipment to do it. Simply walk around your community or hit a local nature trail for fresh air and spectacular views.
  • Lift “weights”: You don’t need to spend money on weights to enjoy the benefits of strength training. Just turn a few ordinary objects into makeshift dumbbells to make your fitness routine more effective. Fill up two empty water bottles or get two large cans of soup out of your pantry, make sure you can grip them comfortably and incorporate them into your activity plan.
  • Dance it out: You’re more likely to stick with an exercise program if you choose fun activities. If going to the gym doesn’t get you excited, spend 30 to 45 minutes dancing. You’ll get to enjoy lively music as you get your heart pumping.
  • Hit the pool: If your assisted living community has a pool, take advantage of the opportunity to burn calories by swimming laps. Swimming isn’t hard on the joints like many other types of exercise, and the cool water may even soothe some of your aches and pains. If you decide to add swimming to your schedule, remember not to go in the pool when no one else is around.

Exercising With Chronic Health Conditions

Don’t get discouraged if you have a chronic health condition and can’t do some of the recommended exercises. As mentioned previously, some exercise is better than no exercise at all. If you have any of the following conditions, your doctor may recommend specific exercises to help you stay active without putting yourself at risk for complications.

Medical Condition Type of Exercise Why It’s Good for This Condition
Long COVID Walking COVID-19 causes high levels of inflammation in the body, which may cause lung damage. Even if their lungs aren’t damaged permanently, people with long COVID may have difficulty breathing for several months after recovering from the disease. Walking is ideal for someone with long COVID because it’s easy to start out slowly and increase your intensity as symptoms improve.
Osteoarthritis Swimming Due to the buoyancy of the water, swimming is a lot easier on the joints than walking, jogging and many other types of exercise. The Arthritis Foundation recommends swimming in the deep end of the pool to reduce the load on your joints even further. You don’t even need to swim to enjoy the benefits of exercising in a pool; simply walking back and forth in the water is a great way to burn calories and improve your balance. Best of all, the cool water relieves joint pain and stiffness.
Type 2 Diabetes Dancing Managing diabetes requires an ongoing commitment to staying active and making good dietary choices. The more fun you have while exercising, the less of a chore it is, making dancing a good option for Type 2 diabetics. If your assisted living community doesn’t have any dance classes, pick up some dance DVDs aimed at seniors.
Hypertension Cycling Aerobic exercise strengthens your heart muscle, making it more efficient when it’s pumping blood to other parts of your body. As a result, aerobic exercise can also help you manage your blood pressure. Cycling is ideal because it’s something you can do indoors or outdoors. If you feel comfortable cycling outside, all you have to do is hop on your bike and ride it around your assisted living community. Otherwise, you can ride an exercise bike to get the same benefits. When you cycle, be sure to set aside time for warming up and cooling down. This can help you avoid rapid changes in blood pressure.
Cancer Walking It’s important to stay active during and after cancer treatment, as exercise improves immune function and may even prevent some cancers from returning after chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Walking is ideal because you can easily adjust your route based on how you’re feeling. If you’re tired from chemo, you can walk for 5 or 10 minutes and then turn around and head back to your room. Once your cancer is in remission, you can slowly work up to longer walks before moving on to more strenuous activities.
Parkinson’s Disease Balance training As Parkinson’s disease progresses, some people find it difficult to stay active. This is due to the physical changes caused by the disease, such as loss of flexibility and reduced muscle strength. Balance training reduces the risk of falls, making it easier for people with Parkinson’s disease to participate in other activities.
Multiple Sclerosis Swimming/water aerobics Working out in the water has several benefits for people with multiple sclerosis. For example, many people with MS have difficulty regulating their body temperature, causing them to get overheated when they do some types of aerobic exercise. Working out in a swimming pool helps people with this disease stay cool while they work to improve their fitness.
Spinal Cord Injury Hand cycling People with spinal cord injuries may have leg weakness that prevents them from riding a bike or walking long distances. Hand cycling is a form of aerobic exercise that involves operating a bike with hand controls instead of foot pedals. With a doctor’s permission, someone with a spinal cord injury can use hand cycling to keep their heart strong without putting themselves at risk for complications associated with SCI.
Stroke Seated exercises Depending on how severe it is, a stroke can make it difficult to walk, pick up objects and perform other activities. If you’ve had a stroke, your physical therapist may recommend starting with seated exercises to help you regain enough strength to tackle more difficult challenges. Leg lifts and seated marching are just two examples of exercises you can do while sitting down. To do leg lifts, extend your legs in front of you and lift one heel at a time. Be careful not to overdo it, or you could lose your balance and fall off the chair. Seated marching involves lifting and lowering one knee at a time. Wiggle your feet while lifting your heels. Check with your doctor or physical therapist before performing these exercises.