Aerobic and Muscle-Strengthening Physical Activities for Older Adults

People doing aerobic activities move large muscles in a rhythmic manner for a sustained period. Brisk walking, jogging, biking, dancing, and swimming are all examples of aerobic activities. This type of activity is also called endurance activity.

Aerobic activity makes a person’s heart beat more rapidly to meet the demands of the body’s movement.

Over time, regular aerobic activity makes the heart and cardiovascular system stronger and fitter.

The intensity of these activities can be either relatively moderate or relatively vigorous, depending on an older adult’s level of fitness.

How intense?

Older adults can meet the national guidelines by doing relatively moderate-intensity activity, relatively vigorous–intensity activity, or a combination of both. Time spent in light activity (such as light housework) and sedentary activities (such as watching TV) do not count.

The relative intensity of aerobic activity is related to a person’s level of cardio respiratory fitness.

  • Moderate-intensity activity requires a medium level of effort. On a scale of 0 to 10, where sitting is 0 and the greatest effort possible is 10, moderate-intensity activity is a 5 or 6 and produces noticeable increases in breathing rate and heart rate.
  • Vigorous-intensity activity is a 7 or 8 on this scale and produces large increases in a person’s breathing and heart rate.

A general rule of thumb is that 2 minutes of moderate–intensity activity count the same as 1 minute of vigorous-intensity activity. For example, 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week is roughly same as 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity.

Muscle-Strengthening Activities

At least 2 days a week, older adults should do muscle–strengthening activities that involve all the major muscle groups. These are the muscles of the legs, hips, chest, back, abdomen, shoulders, and arms.

Muscle-strengthening activities make muscles do more work than they are accustomed to during activities of daily life.

Examples of muscle-strengthening activities include lifting weights, working with resistance bands, doing calisthenics using body weight for resistance (such as push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups), climbing stairs, carrying heavy loads, and heavy gardening.

Muscle-strengthening activities count if they involve a moderate to high level of intensity, or effort, and work the major muscle groups of the body. Whatever the reason for doing it, any muscle-strengthening activity counts toward meeting the national guidelines. For example, muscle-strengthening activity done as part of a therapy or rehabilitation program can count.

No specific amount of time is recommended for muscle strengthening, but muscle-strengthening exercises should be performed to the point at which it would be difficult to do another repetition without help. When resistance training is used to enhance muscle strength, one set of 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise is effective, although two or three sets may be more effective. Development of muscle strength and endurance is progressive over time. This means that gradual increases in the amount of weight or the days per week of exercise will result in stronger muscles.

Balance Activities for Older Adults at Risk of Falls

Older adults are at increased risk of falls if they have had falls in the recent past or have trouble walking. In older adults at increased risk of falls, strong evidence shows that regular physical activity is safe and reduces the risk of falls.

Reduction in falls is seen for participants in programs that include balance and moderate-intensity muscle-strengthening activities for 90 minutes (1 hour and 30 minutes) a week plus moderate-intensity walking for about 1 hour a week. Preferably, older adults at risk of falls should do balance training 3 or more days a week and do standardized exercises from a program demonstrated to reduce falls.

Examples of these exercises include backward walking, sideways walking, heel walking, toe walking, and standing from a sitting position. The exercises can increase in difficulty by progressing from holding onto a stable support (like furniture) while doing the exercises to doing them without support. It’s not known whether different combinations of type, amount, or frequency of activity can reduce falls to a greater degree. Tai chi exercises also may help prevent falls.

Many factors influence decisions to be active, such as personal goals, current physical activity habits, and health and safety considerations. Adults as well as older adults older adults should consult a health-care provider before becoming physically active. A health-care provider can help people attain and maintain regular physical activity by providing advice on appropriate types of activities and ways to progress at a safe and steady pace that is appropriate for the individual.

Adults with chronic conditions should talk with their health-care provider to determine whether their conditions limit their ability to do regular physical activity in any way. Such a conversation should also help people learn about appropriate types and amounts of physical activity.

Examples of Aerobic Activity and Muscle Strengthening Activity

Aerobic Muscle-Strengthening
  • Walking
  • Dancing
  • Swimming
  • Water aerobics
  • Jogging
  • Aerobic exercise classes
  • Bicycle riding (stationary or on a path)
  • Some activities of gardening, such as raking and pushing a lawn mower
  • Tennis
  • Golf (without a cart)
  • Exercises using exercise bands, weight machines, hand-held weights
  • Callisthenic exercises (body weight provides resistance to movement)
  • Digging, lifting, and carrying as part of gardening
  • Carrying groceries
  • Some yoga exercises
  • Some Tai chi exercises


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