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Creating Exceptional Senior Fitness Experiences: The Basics

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

To create exceptional senior fitness experiences, first you need to start with the basics!

Being physically active has so many amazing benefits including increased attention and information processing, promoting a positive emotional state, and of course, the physical benefits. The brain and the body are not separate - they work together. When you get the blood pumping through the body it is also getting pumped through the brain. You can see the brain on the left looks blueish green, and after 20 minutes of physical activity, you see it is colorful and full of energy. There are also endorphins that get released when we exercise which help to elevate our mood and make us feel more energized.

Why is the topic of physical activity and older adults so important?

Our population is ageing globally. Approximately 90% of seniors over 65 years of age live with at least one chronic condition and 33% of seniors over 65 years of age experiences a fall each year. Just the physical benefits of ensuring that we have really great senior fitness programs will help our population to age successfully, but there are so many other benefits too. The intellectual, emotional, and social benefits are huge. Older adults are worried about getting Alzheimer’s and dementia. Social isolation and aging is a concern. Being physically active is a way to ensure overall wellness.

Before we can get into the art of creating exceptional fitness experiences, we need to start with the basics.

In order to create exceptional senior fitness experiences, we need to start by challenging our beliefs and assumptions about exercise and aging. There is a widespread misconception that once an individual is a certain age, they are no longer able to do certain things. You may have heard someone say, “I am 86, I can’t do that anymore”. This shows how a personal belief leads to lack of physical activity, which then leads to further physical decline and a whole host of issues. You may have heard a well-meaning caregiver say, “Take it easy, you’re 86. It’s time to slow down”. There is no age at which we need to slow down. In fact, many of the negative consequences associated with aging are actually associated with inactivity. Therefore, it is incredibly important that we rewrite the aging narrative and encourage individuals of all ages to be active in a safe way.

Why do you think images of seniors stretching are the most popular images used to advertise senior fitness?

Health, Recreation and Fitness Professionals who are unsure about how to safely engage older adults in exercise often default to stretching. Stretching seems like a low risk way to get older adults moving, but it is not enough. To help older adults maintain or increase their current level of fitness and independence much more than stretching is required.

Let’s debunk these three common myths about aging and exercise:

  1. “I’m too old”: Research tells us that older exercisers are able to see increases and gains similar to younger exercisers. Our muscles don’t know how old we are. Muscles simply respond and react to the tensions that are placed upon them and they adapt accordingly. If we take away those tensions and resistance, then our muscles atrophy, or lose their strength. This happens at every age but accelerates as we age.

  2. “I have a chronic condition”: Research shows that individuals with chronic conditions can benefit from taking part in regular physical activity. This includes individuals with heart disease, arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease, cancer and more. In one study that looked at individuals with heart blockages, one group got a stent to restore blood whereas another group completed 20 minutes a day on an exercise bike and a weekly 60-minute aerobics class. One year later, 88% of the group that exercised were cardiac event free compared to only 70% of the group that received the stents. It’s remarkable that exercise can sometimes prove more impactful than modern medicine.

  3. “Exercise could be dangerous”: More often than not, and when approved by a primary physician, the benefits of exercise more than outweigh any potential risks.

Now that we have challenged our thinking and debunked some common myths about exercise and aging, where do we start? Creating a high-quality senior fitness offering starts with understanding the physical activity guidelines for older adults.

Many health, fitness, and wellness professionals have no problem rattling off these guidelines, but where programs fall down is in truly offering ways for older adults to meet these guidelines. To see if your program makes the cut, perform a program FITT Audit.

FITT stands for Frequency, Intensity, Time, and Type. These are the four elements you need to think about when trying to reach a fitness goal. In our case, the goals we are working toward are the physical activity guidelines for older adults.

Let’s start by applying the FITT Principle to reaching 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.

Type: Aerobic activity. This includes taking part in activities such as aerobics classes, walking, cycling, or any activity that gets the heart and lungs pumping.

Time: the guideline tells us older adults need to achieve 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week. The specific time in a single session will depend on the individual’s ability to maintain the moderate to vigorous intensity. We will address this below in frequency.

Intensity: Moderate to vigorous. To obtain this intensity, older adults should work between a 5-7 on a scale from 1-10. At this intensity, the individual should be able to talk but feel breathy and could not sing.

Frequency: To determine the frequency, we need to determine how much time on average the older adult can spend exercising at the moderate to vigorous intensity. For example, maybe the older adult can maintain the moderate to vigorous intensity for 20 minutes. We also need to take into consideration the warmup and cool down. Warmups should range between 5-10 minutes. A warmup is important at every age, but it is especially important for older adults whose bodies sometimes require more time to adjust to the demands of physical activity. A warmup allows our heart and lungs to adapt to the new demands being placed on the body. Therefore, to obtain 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic activity, it takes at least 30 minutes of exercise when you consider the addition of a warmup and cool down. For example, a 30-minute walking group includes a warmup where the walking pace slowly increases until the moderate to vigorous pace is achieved. At the end of the workout, the pace is gradually decreased as the exerciser prepares to complete a stretch at the end. If the older adult chooses to perform bouts of 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic activity per workout, the frequency required is 7.5 times per week. If we use the example of a walking group, the older adult should perform 30 minutes every day with an additional 10 minutes on one of the days to meet this guideline.

Given all the important nuances described above, do you feel you are truly helping the older adults you work with to achieve this guideline? If yes, amazing! If no, identifying this gap is important and at the end of this blog we will offer a few suggestions for ensuring your program offers an opportunity for your participants to reach 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity.

2 days per week of muscle and bone strengthening activities for the major muscle groups

Type: Muscular strengthening or resistance exercises. This type of exercise includes bodyweight exercises like push ups and calf raises, using equipment like weights, bands, or exercising on strength equipment. It is also important to ensure the type of exercises target each of the major muscle groups. The major muscles/groups are the biceps, triceps, shoulders, chest, back, abdominals, glutes hamstrings, quadriceps, gastrocnemius, and anterior tibialis. The guidelines also identify that these activities should be “bone strengthening”. Resistance placed on your muscles is also going to strengthen your bones. Aquatic exercise is quite popular among older adults because it allows for a no-impact workout that does not place strain on the joints. There are strength based aquatic exercises that target the major muscle groups through the use of dumbbell floaties. Unfortunately, because exercisers are weightless in the pool, they do not receive the same bone strengthening as on-land exercisers. To truly reach this guideline, those who exercise in the pool should ensure they are also exercising on land to achieve the bone benefits.

Time: For muscular strengthening exercises, we focus on repetitions instead of time. To engage each muscle/group 8-12 repetitions should be performed for each muscle/group.

Intensity: When engaging the muscles, the resistance or weight selected should make it difficult to complete the last 2-3 repetitions of the 8-12 repetitions.

Frequency: The guideline tells us that all these major muscle groups need to be engaged at least 2 days a week.

It’s time once again to ask yourself, are you offering at least 2 opportunities per week for the older adults you work with to engage in muscular strengthening of all the major muscles?

Physical activity to improve balance and prevent falls (WHO recommends 3 days per week)

Type: When your goal is to prevent falls, it is important to improve walking ability, lower body muscular strength, and coordination. These are the skills that help an individual to stay upright and interact effectively with their environment. The types of activities that will help an individual to improve their balance and prevent falls include walking, muscular strengthening exercise, and activities requiring coordination such as: bean bag toss, ladder ball, darts, Wii bowling, and other physical games. Often when individuals picture balance exercises, they picture standing on one leg or performing other balance stances. Performing balance stances are a good way to test balance. For example, if while standing on one leg you start by holding on to a chair, then you are able to progress to taking the hands off the chair, then looking side to side or taking a ball and passing it back and forth in your hands while standing on one leg then you know your balance is improving.

Time: Activity Dependent

Intensity: The exercises should include elements of progression and challenge.

Frequency: The World Health Organization guidelines recommend individuals perform balance enhancing activities 3x per week.

Many times, if you are helping the older adults you work with to achieve the first two physical activity guidelines then you will also be helping them to achieve this guideline.

What to do if you’re not helping your participants to hit the mark?

150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic activity in bouts of 10 minutes or more: If after reviewing all the nuances involved in this guideline you realize you are not quite hitting the mark, then consider starting a walking club program. Walking is one of the easiest, most accessible, and a free way for you to improve your program and help your participants reach this guideline. Remember that the group should slowly increase the speed of their walking over a 5-10 minute span (the warmup) and maintain the moderate to vigorous intensity (working at about a 5-7 on a scale from 1-10) for at least 10 minutes before slowing down the pace and ending with a stretch (cool down). Another way to help your participants reach this guideline is through the addition of seated or standing aerobic/dance classes. If this is something you would love to offer, consider becoming a StrongerU Senior Fitness Instructor. As a certified StrongerU Senior Fitness Instructor, you’ll receive access to our StrongerU Cardio program. Through an instructional video, choreography notes, and suggested music you’ll be armed with the moves to get your participants moving and dancing toward a healthier heart and lungs.

2 days per week of muscle and bone strengthening activities for all the major muscle groups: If you are not a trained senior fitness instructor, or that training did not involved education on the major muscle groups and exercises to engage them, then it is a good idea to hire a senior fitness instructor who can help fill this gap in your program. As discussed, older adults can exercise at intensities similar to younger exercisers, but it is important that an individual teaching a strength class has a good understanding of muscular anatomy and the best ways to engage each muscle/group. If you would like to enhance your training and offer muscular strengthening to your participants consider becoming a StrongerU Senior Fitness Instructor. Gaining access to our StrongerU Strength program will show you how to use weights, bands, and air-light balls to engage all the major muscles.

Physical activity to improve balance and prevent falls (WHO recommends 3 days per week): As discussed, if you aim to meet the first two guidelines, then you will likely satisfy this guideline too. To improve balance and prevent falls help your participants work on the types of activities that will help them effectively interact with their environment including walking, lower body strength, and coordination. Engaging in activities like bean bag toss, ladder ball, darts, Wii bowling, and other physical games are a great way to improve coordination which improves balance. StrongerU Senior Fitness Instructors gain access to our StrongerU Circuit Program which features movements and drills using an air-light ball to improve coordination and muscular strength.

If you have questions about helping your participants to reach the physical activity guidelines for older adults send us an email at

Want to learn more about StrongerU Senior Fitness? Visit and subscribe to our newsletter. Click here to complete our free “Learn More Course” which provides an overview of the StrongerU Senior Fitness Course and shows snippets of the choreography.

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