Adapting Exercise Regimens to Later Life

By Robert F. Bornstein, PhD and Mary A. Languirand, PhD

Some people can continue doing what they did in their 20's throughout their lives, not missing a beat along the way. Most televised marathons feature an 80-something runner who began training at 60, and feel-good evening news stories celebrate the oldest-ever Mt. Everest climber or English Channel swimmer. These achievements are laudable, but they are also statistically unusual-most of us simply aren't built to do these things. Insistence on trying will almost certainly lead to injury, or worse (many televised marathons also feature stories about runners who succumbed to heart attacks during the race).

For most of us staying active throughout our retirement years requires that we alter our routine to fit our current skill and fitness level. Three strategies help:

  • Dial it back

    Those of us raised in the era of "no pain, no gain" often believe that a workout isn't any good unless it makes you suffer. In fact, considerable data suggest that gentler movement may be almost as effective in terms of health benefits, while being much easier on the body. Walking won't get your heart pumping as fast as running on a treadmill, but if you keep it up longer the cardiovascular and pulmonary benefits are still great. T'ai Chi offers a low-stress alternative to more vigorous martial arts.
  • Pace yourself

    Coaxing your body into motion takes a little longer with age, and the importance of proper warm-ups and stretching before springing into action is more important now than ever before. Making sure that you're ready to progress from the initial phase of an activity to the more strenuous stage is also crucial in avoiding injury. A workout may take a little longer at 60 than it did at 40, and you'll probably have to spend more time ramping up to full speed, but it's worth it.
  • Portion control

    Some studies suggest that briefer, more frequent workouts yield better health results than fewer workouts of longer duration. They also increase the likelihood that you'll actually stay on track: It's easier to free up several 15- or 20-minute time blocks in the course of a day than a whole unbroken hour. (One of us uses this approach himself, taking three 20-minute walks around campus each day, rain or shine.)

Robert Bornstein and Mary Languirand are the authors of When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living, or In Home Care, which is available at, or may be purchased directly from HarperCollins Publishers.

Our latest book is entitled How to Age in Place: Planning for a Happy, Independent, and Financially Secure Retirement, published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House.