4 steps to starting a fitness habit in your 60s, 70s and beyond

Now’s the perfect time get up, get moving and get fit. Here’s why — and how.

K. Aleisha Fetters
Mature Hispanic woman stretching

The desire to thrive as we get older leads many older Americans to lace up their sneakers and commit to moving more. Case in point: 67% of baby boomers who made 2021 New Year’s resolutions put “improving my fitness” at the top of their list, according to the market research group YouGov.

And as far as goals go, it doesn’t get much better than exercise. In fact, staying active is one of the best moves you can make for your overall health, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) notes. Lack of exercise can set older adults up for more provider visits, more use of medications to treat chronic conditions, and more hospitalizations.

Unfortunately, exercise isn’t an easy habit to solidify: On average, eight out of 10 goal setters (of all ages) typically abandon new exercise routines in just a few short weeks, according to Florida State University. If that sounds familiar and you’ve quit and restarted dozens of times, don’t worry — you can always get back on track. Make 2021 the year you commit to fitness once and for all.

Here’s how to find your groove and stay motivated all year long:

Step #1: Find an Activity You Enjoy

The NIA encourages older adults to take advantage of every opportunity to move more and sit less. Physical activity is good for your body, mind and health, helping to lower your risk of many chronic diseases, the NIA notes.

Stuck for ideas? Think back to what was fun when you were a kid, suggests Katrina Pilkington, a personal trainer and wellness coach in Tampa, Florida, who’s certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Dust off that bicycle in your garage, dance around the house to your favorite tunes, or buy yourself a soccer ball to kick around in the yard.

“Find something you enjoy, and you’ll be more likely to keep at it,” says Pilkington. When researchers in Germany chatted with people about their exercise habits for a study in Frontiers in Psychology, they found that enjoyment was a common factor mentioned by regular exercisers.

At the same time, give some new activities a try. Renew by UnitedHealthcare®1 has a library of fitness videos with something for every fitness level and taste — yoga, tai chi, strength training, cardio and more. You’ll get a healthy dose of motivation from fitness instructors who lead the follow-along workouts, along with exercise tips and pointers. Curious to try one of the workout videos? You can find them here. Best of all, Renew is included with most UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage plans.

Whenever you test out a new workout or physical activity, says Pilkington, your body isn’t the only winner. Your brain gets a reward, too. The Alzheimer’s Society points out that regular exercise, along with new activities that challenge you mentally, can help lower your risk of dementia.

Take Advantage of Your Health and Wellness Resources

At-home workouts for all fitness levels. Online learning courses. Inspiring articles. It’s all part of Renew by UnitedHealthcare®, which is included with most plans. Sign in to MyUHCMedicare.com and click on Health & Wellness to get started. 

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Step #2: Make Exercise a Habit

For the next two weeks, commit to doing some kind of movement at the same time every day — maybe a walk after breakfast, or a quick Renew fitness activity after you put dinner in the oven. Sooner than you realize, this new action will become second nature.

Stanford University research reveals that when you attach a new practice to an existing habit (a concept known as habit stacking), you’ll have more success making the new activity automatic.

Chances are you don’t think twice about pouring a cup of coffee every morning or climbing into bed at night. Use these automatic habits and behaviors as cues for a new habit you’re trying to create. For example, your morning coffee ritual can be a cue for your new core-strengthening habit. Commit to doing a wall sit or other simple strength exercises during the time it takes your coffee to brew. The steaming cup of joe will be your reward. Eventually, the mini-workout will feel as automatic as the coffee.

Even better, try to make a habit of moving a few times a day, says Pilkington. A European Journal of Applied Physiology study suggests that a few minutes of exercise multiple times throughout the day is just as beneficial for cardiovascular health (if not more so) as one longer workout. Take a walk after every meal, stretch before bedtime, or do simple arm exercises while you watch TV, she suggests.

Step #3: Cover the Basics

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends older adults fit in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week, along with two total-body strengthening workouts. If you’re new to exercise or have a chronic health condition, be sure to check with your provider about ways to exercise safely.

Here’s what a sample week might look like.

M/W/F/Sat = Walk, bike, run, swim or press play on a cardio video. Any activity that gets your heart rate up and you enjoy is great, says Pilkington. Use the talk test to gauge your level of effort: If you’re exercising at a moderate intensity, you should be able to talk but not sing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Aim for 40 minutes each day; break it up into 10- or 15-minute bursts if needed.

T/Th = Strength train with your body weight, household items, dumbbells or resistance bands. Try this five-move bodyweight circuit.

1. Shoulder Blade Squeeze

  • Stand or sit tall and tighten your abs (abdominal muscles).
  • Pull your shoulder blades together and hold for 5 seconds.
  • Relax and repeat 10 to 15 times.

2. Squat

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart and tighten your abs.
  • Shift your weight onto your heels and push your hips back and down, bending at your hips and knees.
  • Lower yourself until your thighs are parallel (or almost parallel) to the floor. You can extend your arms out in front of you for balance if necessary, but keep your back flat.
  • Push yourself back up to standing. Repeat 10 to 15 times.

3. Incline Pushup

  • Stand facing a wall (or counter) and place your palms shoulder-width apart on the wall at chest height.
  • Step backward one or two steps until your body forms an angle.
  • Tighten your abs and lower your chest toward the wall, slowly and with control.
  • Push through the palms of your hands to propel yourself back to the starting position. Repeat 10 to 15 times.

4. Standing Crunch

  • Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. Make gentle fists and bring your hands to your shoulders.
  • Tighten your abs and curl your torso forward, slowly and with control. Return to standing and repeat 10 to 15 times.

5. Glute Bridge

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Tighten your abs and glutes (butt muscles) and slowly raise your hips to form a straight line from your knees to your shoulders.
  • Hold for three slow breaths in and out. Return to start and repeat 10 to 15 times.

Rest for 60 seconds; then repeat the circuit.

Sunday = Recovery. Stretch, do a few slow and gentle yoga poses, or meditate. Gentle activities like these can help reduce tension and soreness from a week’s worth of workouts. They also improve your range of motion and promote mental relaxation, says Pilkington.

When getting started, opt for brief bodyweight and low-intensity exercises and workouts that feel easy to you, she suggests. As you build momentum and a fitness foundation, you can dial it up by adding more time and/or light weights to hit your activity targets.

Step #4: Stay Motivated

When it comes to fitness, nothing happens without motivation. Some days you’ll feel inspired on your own, but on other days you may need a little push. One way to increase your motivation is to set small, realistic goals to work toward.

Make your goal specific. Instead of a general ambition like, “I’m going to exercise more,” try “I’m going to walk for 10 minutes after every meal.” Every milestone you hit will bring you one step closer to your bigger goal — and that will keep you going.

Using an exercise journal to track your progress is also a great way to keep that inner fire burning. Jot down how much weight you lifted, how far or how long you walked, and any other info you want to track (like blood pressure or weight).

In 2021, technology offers some novel ways to help boost your motivation. In an online fitness group, like the Fitbit® Community for Renew Active™, you can receive encouragement from other members who are also taking steps to improve their health. Renew Active2 is a leading Medicare fitness program for body and mind; it’s included with many UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage plans.

If your plan includes Renew Active, you can take advantage of the Fitbit Community even if you don’t own an activity tracker. The group chats are a handy way to keep tabs of your workouts, activity levels and steps.

Get Moving with Renew Active

If your plan includes Renew Active, you’ll enjoy a free gym membership, an online brain health program from AARP® Staying Sharp®, and more. Renew Active has something for everyone at every fitness level. Sign into your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then look for Renew Active to get started and receive your confirmation code

Social connections and community have always been great fitness motivators, the CDC points out. After all, if you know someone is holding you accountable, you’re probably more likely to work out. And sharing your workout experience with others — even if it’s only online — can make exercise more enjoyable, the CDC notes. Community is critical to mental health, overall well-being and even longevity, according to a Harvard Medical School report.

That said, old-school motivation strategies are as effective as ever, says Pilkington. A few to consider:

  • Give yourself a little reward for completing a week’s worth of workouts, like taking a bubble bath or ordering in instead of cooking.
  • Post a get-moving mantra (“Let’s go!” or “I can do this!”) to your bathroom mirror.
  • Turn your daily walk into a scavenger hunt. Create a list of must-sees — white dog, spiderweb, rosebush, iron gate and so on. Don’t turn toward home until you’ve crossed off at least half of your items.

The point, says Pilkington, is to be creative and have fun — and always remind yourself that your health makes all the effort worth it.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for the advice of a provider. Consult your provider prior to beginning an exercise program or making changes to your lifestyle or health care routine.

1. Renew is not available with all plans. 2. Participation in the Renew Active™ program is voluntary. Consult your doctor prior to beginning an exercise program or making changes to your lifestyle or health care routine. Renew Active includes standard fitness membership. Equipment, classes, personalized fitness plans, and events may vary by location. Certain services, classes and events are provided by affiliates of UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company or other third parties not affiliated with UnitedHealthcare. Participation in AARP® Staying Sharp® and the Fitbit® Community for Renew Active is subject to your acceptance of their respective terms and policies. UnitedHealthcare is not responsible for the services or information provided through third parties. The information provided by these services is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for the advice of a doctor. The Renew Active program varies by plan/area.