Cardio Health Guide for Seniors


Meet The Expert

Sabrena Jo has been actively involved in the fitness industry since 1987. As a Certified Group Fitness Instructor, Personal Trainer, and Health Coach, she teaches group exercise and serves as Senior Advisor for Science and Research for the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

If you’ve celebrated 65 birthdays or more, you’ve been doing something right!

But could your cardiovascular system use extra attention? Probably. After all, heart disease is the #1 killer of American men and women, and everyone’s risk increases with age. This free guide was created to help seniors make smart heart-related choices.

What’s included? Our website is focused on cardiovascular (cardio) trainers, so this guide emphasizes cardio exercise: why exercise is important for seniors, what activities are recommended, and so forth. But cardiovascular health is complex. For example, mental stress can make blood pressure soar! This guide takes a holistic look at cardio health by including resources about exercise, diet, genetics, environmental factors and mental well-being.

Why Move? Great Reasons for Seniors to Exercise.

As we age, our motivations for exercise tend to change. Why should you take long walks, mow the lawn or otherwise keep moving? The following seven benefits of cardiovascular activities can be especially motivating for seniors.

  1. Delay Physical Aging: When a person stays active, 75 years old can feel like 60. That’s because cardio activity helps offset natural aging processes. For example, the simple activity of walking helps counteract a natural decrease in muscle mass in the lower body, a drop in heart capacity, and the loss of flexibility in the joints.
  2. Stay Sharp: Avoid “brain fog!” Forgetfulness naturally increases with age, but cardiovascular exercise can literally help you think more clearly. A healthier cardiovascular system can more efficiently deliver blood to your organs, including your brain.
  3. Struggle Less: The more you exercise your heart, the easier your daily activities may become. The heart and other muscles respond to exercise by becoming stronger, almost as if they’re expecting to be called upon for the workout again. With help from exercise you can walk farther, play with grandchildren for longer and generally have a better quality of life.
  4. Prevent Disease: Cardiovascular disease is the top overall killer of men and women in the USA. (For some subgroups it’s the #2 killer, which is also nothing to ignore.) The most common form of cardiovascular disease is coronary artery disease or CAD. It’s often the culprit behind arrhythmia, heart attack, and heart failure, but with regular cardio exercise the risk of CAD is reduced. Cardio activity can also help prevent other types of diseases. For instance, long walks can help keep diabetes at bay by naturally regulating blood sugar.
  5. Manage Weight: Our metabolisms naturally slow down as we age, but this slowdown can be offset with regular exercise. In fact, your metabolism can remain revved up even a day or two after intense activity! Maintaining a healthy body weight helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancers, and other health complications. It also helps people feel more confident and energized.
  6. Feel Happier: Everybody is susceptible to negative moods, and the risk for depression grows as we age. Regular cardio exercise is a natural mood-booster partly because it releases endorphins, your natural opiates. A brisk 30-minute walk or a session of serious housecleaning can be enough to elevate your mood. See below for a list of recommended cardio activities.
  7. Keep Your Freedom: Preserving our independence becomes more of a concern with age. The above six benefits of exercise can all help seniors maintain independence by keeping their minds and bodies strong. Start exercise now and thank yourself later!

Heart, body, mind – all great reasons to make cardio exercise a habit.

25 Examples of Cardio Training for Seniors

Countless activities count as cardio training. The key is boosting your heart rate and burning fat for an extended period of time. Here are 25 classic and not-so-common examples.

With the exception of playing tennis, the activities above are typically low-impact. In other words, they cause relatively little stress on ankles, knees, hips, and vertebrae. The most popular exercise for seniors is walking, and it’s low-impact too. This guide suggests ways to make walking even gentler on your body.

Read on for general tips about training times and intensities.

How Much Training is Enough?

Although everybody is different, it’s helpful to know general recommendations for cardio fitness.

Please note that it may be important to check with a doctor before starting aerobic exercise, especially if you’re new to exercise, have been inactive for a while, or are taking medication. For example, your doctor might have critical advice about your maximum heart rate or about medication timing in relation to exercise.

General Recommendations for Exercise Time and Intensity

  • Experts suggest that you exercise at least five days/week for heart health.
  • To help your body recover from exercise and build strength, alternate the days of intense exercise, moderate exercise, and rest.
  • Each week, have three, 15-minute or longer sessions of high intensity cardio activity. “High intensity” and “moderate intensity” are defined below.
  • Each week, have two or three longer sessions at least 30 to 60 minutes each of moderate intensity cardio activity.
  • Include warm-ups and cool-downs of about 10 minutes each. These processes can involve gradually increasing or decreasing the intensity of your activity and stretching. Warm-ups and cool-downs may help reduce the risk of injuries.
  • Start slowly. Although your motivation to exercise might be especially high, exercising too much in the beginning could cause soreness (or worse) and delay your progress.

How to Measure Cardio Intensity

The terms “moderate intensity exercise” and “high intensity exercise” refer to how hard your heart is working. Here are ways to judge your cardio activity level.

Check Your Pulse

Checking your heart rate is an easy way to assess workout intensity. Here are general guidelines about your heart rate zones. However, for safety, your doctor might advise that you set lower numbers.

  • You’ll need to calculate your theoretical maximum heart rate. This is typically 220 minus your age. For example, if you are 70 years old, then subtract 70 from 220; your maximum heart rate is estimated at 150 beats per minute.
  • Moderate intensity activity keeps your heart rate at 50 to 70 percent of its maximum, according to the Mayo Clinic.
  • High intensity cardio exercise keeps your heart rate at 70 to 85 percent of its maximum.

You can check your heart rate with a mobile app, wear a heart rate gadget, or count heart beats the old-fashioned way by finding your pulse. Measure for 15 seconds, then multiply by four.

Listen to Your Body

Formally measuring your activity level isn’t always necessary. Here are a couple of more practical ways to judge your exertion.

  • Take the “talk test.” During moderately intense activity you should be able to say short phrases but not carry on a normal conversation.
  • If you feel pain during exercise, become dizzy, or are otherwise unwell, stop the activity and figure out what’s wrong. Forget the expression, “No pain, no gain!”

The Most Popular Cardio Exercise for Seniors: Walking

Of all possible cardio exercises, walking is the most popular. Here are some benefits of walking for seniors.

  • Manage Weight: Walking is an excellent way to drop pounds and maintain an ideal weight. If you’re especially interested in calorie burn, then include incline training in your walks. Walking up a hill or on an incline treadmill can more than double your usual rate of calorie burn, compared to walking on flat ground or a zero-grade surface.
  • Respect Your Joints: Choosing activities that are low-impact or don’t bring much jarring to the joints becomes more important as we age. Walking is low-impact when compared with running, so it’s less likely to lead to injuries. It can even relieve symptoms of arthritis because circulation is improved. To make walking even gentler on your body, you can wear well-cushioned shoes, choose a well-cushioned treadmill, and add a slight incline to your walk; incline training shifts your weight for more knee-friendly exercise. You could also minimize pressure by walking in a swimming pool.
  • Strengthen Muscles: Walking helps counteract sarcopenia, or a decrease in muscle mass. Walking is obviously best for muscles in the lower body, which tend to lose strength due to lack of physical activity as we age.
  • Strengthen Bones: Walking is a weight-bearing cardio activity that builds bone density and therefore helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis. In order to strengthen bones, cardio exercise needs to involve bearing weight. Cardio activities that partly support your body (such as biking and swimming) are less useful for building bone.
  • Lower Your Blood Pressure: Blood pressure naturally increases as we age but walking naturally helps bring it down. Regular walks can help reduce your risk of heart attacks and your need for blood pressure medication.
  • Control Blood Sugar: Just by walking, many people with diabetes have reduced or eliminated their need for insulin injections. This is because your muscles need more glucose when you walk, and they pull it from your blood.
  • Improve Balance: Maintaining good balance becomes more difficult as we age, but it’s more important than ever. After all, falling hurts more as you age and a broken hip or leg can be especially debilitating. Walking helps people maintain a good sense of balance. If you have balance issues now, consider using a medical treadmill or a treadmill with long side rails. Away from a treadmill, you may consider using a walking stick or a walker to help you maintain balance during walks. If you’re prone to falling, check with your physician about the best method of walking for you. Also, discuss your prescription medications with your doctor prior to beginning a walking program, as some drugs or combinations of drugs cause dizziness and may need to be addressed to prevent a fall.

Tips for Cardio Training at Home

Cardiovascular exercise can easily be accomplished at home. In fact, home is the most popular exercise center in America! See these suggestions to help ensure efficiency and safety for success.

Be Ready

Getting ready for exercise can slow you down. Here is a checklist to speed up the preparation.

  • Space: Keep a small area of your home clear for exercise. Your workout videos and equipment will all be in one place, and you won’t lose time straightening up before exercise can begin.
  • Hydration: Keep full water bottles on hand. Drink water before you dress so that you’re well hydrated by workout time.
  • Clothing: Don’t let laundry and lost socks defeat you! Have workout clothes ready to wear. You might also keep a stack of fresh workout towels.
  • Distraction: If you like to move with the distraction of music or Podcasts, have your audio ready to play. Also, consider minimizing other distractions, such as phone calls or texts, by clearing your calendar for your workout session and “unplugging” from electronic media or using the airplane mode setting on your smartphone.
  • Guidance: If you exercise with online workout programs, make them easily accessible with bookmarks.

Be Safe

Make sure that exercise is helpful, not harmful. Here are five basic tips to help keep workouts safe.

  1. Fuel Up: Exercise is best done with some food – not too much – eaten shortly before a workout. Treat yourself to a small serving of carbs and protein between 1 and 1.5 hours before exercising.
  2. Drink Up: Hydration is critical to comfortable and safe workouts. In fact, WebMD reports that losing just 2 percent of your body weight from water depletion can make performance drop by 25 percent! The website recommends drinking:
    • 15 to 20 ounces of water an hour before exercise
    • Eight to 10 ounces 15 minutes before you start
    • Eight ounces of water every 15 minutes during activity
  3. Wear the Shoes: Footgear makes a big difference to exercise comfort. This can be especially true as we age. Invest in a good pair of workout shoes, possibly orthopedic footwear, to help sidestep problems with joints, ligaments and tendons.
  4. Warm Up: Warming up is essential to trouble-free exercise. Before your workout, stretch the relevant muscles. When you start moving, ease into the workout over five to ten minutes.
  5. Cool Down: To avoid stressing your heart, be sure that exercise doesn’t end abruptly. Slow down your activity level as workout time comes to an end. After your workout, stretch the relevant muscles.

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