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Blog / 2014 / January / The Basics of Personal Training for Seniors
January 7, 2014

The Basics of Personal Training for Seniors


According to the 2012 Census, people over the age of 65 make up almost 14% of the US population. That means there are over 43 million seniors (adults 65 or older) today, with the numbers continuing to grow, reaching 70 million by 2030. ACSM Certified Personal Trainers (ACSM-CPT) will gain more and more clients from this ever-growing age group. Most seniors did not grow up attending an aerobics class, or working out at the gym. Because these types of activities are relatively new to them, seniors may be more apt to hire an ACSM-CPT to learn how to perform exercises properly to avoid injury.

Prerequisites to Training Seniors

Before training an older adult (defined by ACSM as 65 or older) the ACSM-CPT should first make sure there are no disease challenges that would prevent the client from exercising safely. A PAR-Q should be completed, and the trainer should obtain clearance from the client's doctor. Asking the client if they have preferences in certain activities will aid in program retention.

Cardiovascular Fitness for Seniors

For cardiovascular fitness, a walk outside, on a treadmill or pedaling a recumbent bike is a great starting point. Warm up the muscles and joints sufficiently so the rest of the workout can progress smoothly. Monitor your client to see if there is any discomfort in the hip and knee joint. Many older adults have hip and knee pain, often due to weight gain, lack of activity and/or lack of flexibility. This can be perceived as injury, so start your client out with a low level aerobic warm-up to warm up the hips.

Unless the client has been diagnosed with an injury, you can proceed with monitored aerobic activity at the beginning of training. Encourage your client to move often during the day, instead of sitting for long periods of time.

ACSM recommends

  • Intensity by heart rate: Moderate (e.g., 40%-60% heart rate reserve [HRR]) to vigorous (e.g., 60%-90% HRR) intensity aerobic exercise is recommended for most adults, and light (e.g., 30%-40% HRR) to moderate intensity aerobic exercise can be beneficial in individuals who are deconditioned.
  • Intensity by perceived exertion: Assess appropriateness of heart rate ranges using a scale of 0-10 for level of physical exertion, 3-4 for light intensity, 5-6 for moderate intensity and 7-8 for vigorous intensity.
  • Time: For moderate intensity, physical activities, accumulate at least 30 or up to 60 (for greater benefit) min/day in bouts of at least 10 minutes each to total 150-300 min/week, or at least 20-30 min/day of more vigorous intensity, physical activities to total 75-100 min/week or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous intensity, physical activity. Lower ranges are for adults who have not participated in any exercise program, or for frail individuals.
  • Type: Any modality that does not impose excessive orthopedic stress - walking is the most common type of activity. Aquatic exercise and stationary cycle exercise may be advantageous for those with limited tolerance for weight-bearing activity.

Strength Training for Seniors

Muscle strength declines significantly after age 50, at approximately 15% per decade. Weight training should be done with light weights, using a level that is comfortable for the client to lift at the start of training, and increasing repetitions as the muscles get stronger.

ACSM recommends:

  • Frequency: 2 days/week.
  • Intensity: Moderate intensity (i.e., 60%-70% one repetition maximum [1-RM]). Light intensity (i.e., 40%-50% 1-RM) for older adults beginning a resistance training program. When 1-RM is not measured, intensity can be prescribed between moderate (5-6) and vigorous (7-8) intensity on a scale of 0-10.
  • Type: Progressive weight-training program or weight-bearing calisthenics (8-10 exercises involving the major muscle groups; 1 set of 10-15 repetitions each), stair climbing, and other strengthening activities that use the major muscle groups.

Even though you are probably not training them for a body building competition, a small amount of weight increased at regular intervals will increase muscle mass and affect metabolism, bone density, decrease insulin resistance and even aid in better sleep patterns. Make sure to include sufficient core exercises to improve balance and stability, which will reduce the risk of falls. Add exercises that mimic daily activities in order to build functional fitness-strength that seniors can use on a daily basis.

Flexibility for Seniors

Flexibility is a key component in an exercise program, especially for older inactive adults, and a necessity at the end of each workout. Tight muscles will reduce the body's range of motion, can affect balance, reduces fluidity to the joints, and reduces the ability to perform daily tasks. Slow easy stretches are important due to lack of elasticity in the muscles. Stretches can and should be performed daily unless the client complains of too much discomfort the next day. Progressing to deeper stretches will begin to reduce discomfort until the muscles are accustomed to the stretching.

ACSM Recommends:

  • Frequency: 2 days/week
  • Intensity: Stretch to the point of feeling tightness or slight discomfort.
  • Time: Hold stretch for 30-60 seconds.
  • Type: Any physical activities that maintain or increase flexibility using slow movements that terminate in sustained stretches for each major muscle group using static stretches rather than rapid ballistic movements.

Improving day-to-day function in older adults reduces healthcare, provides independency, and allows for a better quality of life. By providing motivation and quality information, an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer can play an instrumental part in adding life to their years. What recent senior training routines have you been utilizing? Share your tips, favorites, and more in the comments below.

(For additional reference: ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription.)

Mindy Caplan is an ACSM Certified Health Fitness Specialist, Certified Advanced Yoga Instructor, Certified ACE Fitness Personal Trainer, Advanced Health & Fitness Specialist, and Group Fitness Instructor, and has been in the fitness industry for almost 30 years. She currently serves on the ACSM Certified Personal Trainers Committee for Certification and Registry Board.

Her passion is teaching yoga in groups and individually, and when she isn't teaching she loves interior design, the outdoors, and planning her next yoga adventure.

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