Knowledge Exchange

Actively Aging: A Look at Physical Activity in Older Adults

As a public health student, I've had the opportunity to study many different public health initiatives. Some of the most common examples that come up in class are programs that focus on increasing physical activity levels. Interestingly, these examples almost always focus on the youth population. In fact, society as a whole places a lot of emphasis on getting kids active. However, it is important to note that the advantages of physical activity exist throughout life, regardless of age. Physical activity has been shown to extend the number of years one is able to live independently, reduce disability, and improve overall quality of life for older adults. Furthermore, physical activity can reduce the risk of several health issues including arthritis, heart attacks and strokes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, hypertension, anxiety, back pain, and colon and breast cancer.1 The benefits can be seen even if participation in physical activity does not occur until later in life, as long as it is performed consistently.2


What is Recommended? 

According to the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for Older Adults (65 years and older), "to achieve health benefits, and improve functional abilities, adults aged 65 years and older should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate-to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more."3 Furthermore, the guidelines suggest that muscle and bone strengthening activities be performed at least two days a week and that those with poor mobility do activities that enhance balance and prevent falls. 


Where Are We At? 

The 2012 and 2013 Canadian Health Measures Survey found that only 12% of older adults aged 60 to 79 were meeting the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines.4 This is quite problematic as inactivity has been linked to premature death, chronic diseases, illness, disability, reduced independence, and reduced quality of life.1


A Focus on Physical Activity and Falls

20 to 30% of older adults in Canada fall each year and falls are the most common cause of injury and injury-related hospitalization among Canadian older adults.5,2 Being physically active can have a positive impact on falls and fall-related injuries. In particular, physical activity improves leg strength, flexibility, coordination, and balance, all of which can decrease the likelihood of experiencing a fall. Further, because physical activity leads to an improved mood and diminished symptoms of depression and anxiety, it can help alleviate two important risk factors for falls: depression and the fear of falling. Overall, being physically active decreases the likelihood of falls, decreases the probability of injury if a fall does occur, and increases the chance of recovery from a fall-related injury.6


Moving Forward

Although the benefits of physical activity have been known for decades, related promotion has not been effective enough, as can be seen by the limited number of older adults meeting physical activity guidelines. The value of physical activity cannot be overstated and, given our aging population, any action that can minimize the rates of chronic diseases should be taken. As the beautiful fall weather sets in, now is the time to get active. Go for a walk after dinner, join a community walking or running group, take the stairs instead of the escalator, or join a fitness class geared to your interests and ability. Your body will thank you! 


Rehana Jamani

Master of Public Health student, Queen's University


Useful Resources:

Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for Older Adults - 65 Years & older:

List of Physical Activity Resources for Older Adults developed by the City of Ottawa:

The Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging's Home Support Exercise Program:



1Health Canada. (2002). Healthy Aging: Physical Activity and Older Adults. Ottawa: Health Canada.

2Public Health Agency of Canada. (2010). The Chief Public Health Officer's Report on The State of Public Health in Canada 2010. Ottawa: Public Health Agency of Canada.

3Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. (n.d.). Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for Older Adults - 65 Years & Older. Retrieved June 22, 2016, from:

4Statistics Canada. (n.d.). Directly measured physical activity of adults, 2012 and 2013. Retrieved June 22, 2016, from Statistics Canada:

5Public Health Agency of Canada. (2014). Seniors' Falls in Canada: Second Report. Ottawa: Public Health Agency of Canada. 

6Alberta Centre for Active Living. (2012). Preventing Falls Through Physical Activity: A Guide for People Working with Older Adults. Edmonton: Alberta Centre for Active Living.