Cardio Exercise Guidelines for Seniors

Older couple running
Getty Images/Alistair Berg

Regular cardio exercise is important for any age group, but older adults probably have the most to gain from starting (or continuing) an exercise program. Not only does cardio strengthen your heart and lungs, it gives you more energy, sharpens your mind, helps you manage your weight, can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and may even keep you young.

The question often is, how much cardio should you do and what's the best way to get started?

The ACSM/AHA Physical Activity Recommendations for Older Adults suggest three different options (see Figure 1 below):

Setting Up Your Cardio Workouts

The recommendations sound simple, but making them a reality can be confusing. Use these steps to set up your cardio workout:

  1. Choose an Activity - Pick any activity where you can work at a moderate or vigorous intensity level (or about 65% to 80% of your maximum heart rate). Choose something you enjoy, that's accessible, and that fits your needs. For example, if you have joint pain or problems, you might prefer a no-impact exercise like swimming or biking. Other options:
  2. Choose How Long to Exercise - While the ACSM recommends 20-30 minutes, you may need to work up to that if you haven't exercised before. It takes time to build endurance in your heart and muscles, so start with what you can handle and add a few minutes to each workout to work your way up gradually. For example, a beginner might start with 10-15 minutes of walking or cycling and build from there.
  1. Choose Your Intensity - The guidelines suggest moderate intensity, which is around Level 5-6 on this perceived exertion scale. Start with a comfortable pace to get a feel for the exercise. Once you feel comfortable, you can push a little harder.  Basically, you want to work at a level where you can talk, but only in short sentences.  A great way to work on endurance without having to work hard the entire workout is with interval training.  Try walking fast for 1 minute and then slowing down a bit for 1-2 minutes, alternating that for 20 or so minutes.
  1. Choose How Often You Exercise - If you're a beginner or not sure what you can handle, start with three days a week with rest days in between. You can add more days once you feel ready for more frequent exercise.

Cardio Workout Resources

Sources:

Lanza I, Short D, Short K, et al. Endurance Exercise as a Countermeasure for Aging. Diabetes. 2008 November; 57(11): 2933–2942.

Nelson M, Rejeski W, Blair S, et al. Physical Activity and Public Health in Older Adults: Recommendation from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2007;116;1094-1105.

Figure 1: Cardio Guidelines for Older Adults

Type of ExerciseCardioCardioCardio
Frequency5 Days a Week3 Days a Week3-5 Days a Week
IntensityModerate IntensityVigorous IntensityA mix of moderate and vigorous workouts
Duration30 minutes per workout/150 minutes per week20-25 minutes per workout/75 minutes per week20-30 Minutes

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