Older man and woman riding bicycles for exercise

How retirees should exercise to prevent cognitive decline (and for enjoyment)

Exercise is essential if you wish to prevent cognitive decline and enjoy your retirement. But what exercises should you do … cardiovascular conditioning, strength, flexibility, or balance exercises? And what exercises should you avoid? Let’s find out.

The new WHO Guidelines on Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour was released on November 24th, 2020. The last time the WHO issued physical activity guidelines was in 2010.

Adding years to your life and life to your years

The new set of guidelines states that all adults, including those with chronic conditions or who are living with disabilities, should undertake a minimum of 150 to 300 minutes of moderately intensive activity, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, each week.

The WHO guidelines note that the major factors in ageing healthfully are lung capacity, muscle-tone and coordination.

It states that those 65+ should add activities that emphasise balance, coordination and muscle strengthening to improve their health and prevent falls.

The guidelines also note that regular physical activity is key to preventing and managing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer, as well as reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, reducing cognitive decline, improving memory and boosting brain health.

‘Being physically active is critical for health and wellbeing,’ WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a media release. ‘It can add years to your life and put life in your years’.

Exercise is essential if you are to prevent cognitive decline and enjoy your retirement

During the 1970s, studies of healthy older people found that strength, stamina and flexibility drop after the age of 55.

The results of the Framingham Disability Study indicated that 62% of women aged 75 to 85 found kneeling or stooping difficult, 66% couldn’t lift more than 10 pounds (just less than 5 kilograms), and 42% couldn’t stand for more than 15 minutes.

Researchers at the time believed that these declines in strength, stamina and flexibility during aging were unavoidable.

Then in 1994 researchers in Harvard and Tufts universities published a study that showed that many functional losses could be reversed, even in women who are very old and very frail.

The researchers got 100 nursing-home residents, aged 72 to 98, to perform strength building exercises three times a week. At the end of 10 weeks, the exercise group could lift more weight, climb more stairs, and walk faster and farther than their sedentary co-residents.

At the same time, researchers with the MacArthur Study of Aging in America were discovering people in their 70s and 80s could become more physically fit, even if they had never exercised before.

In recent years, other researchers have confirmed the value of exercise for older people.

The message for retirees is clear: move as much as you can if you want to live long, stay physically healthy, resist cognitive decline and enjoy your retirement.

The four exercises you must do to prevent cognitive decline

Whether you’ve been sedentary all your life or just stopped exercising recently, you need to start work as soon as possible on the four cornerstones of fitness:

  • cardiovascular conditioning
  • strength
  • flexibility, and
  • balance.

Before you undertake any exercise program, get the ok from your doctor.

If you have medical conditions such as congestive heart failure (a chronic progressive condition that affects the pumping power of your heart), COPD or emphysema, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, or you have had a joint replaced, you may need professional help to develop a safe exercise routine.

Again, seek advice from you doctor.

Cardiovascular conditioning to prevent cognitive decline

The heart, like other muscles, becomes weak when you don’t exercise.

Reducing the demands you place on your heart leads to its contractions becoming weaker and it pumps less blood with each beat.

But cardiovascular loss can be reversed through regular exercise. But which exercises are best?

Walking, cycling, swimming, and similar aerobic exercises increase cardiovascular capacity.

Thus these aerobic exercises boost your energy and endurance. They also reduce the risk of developing conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and depression.

Studies have shown that 30 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise a day, even if broken up into 10-minute sessions, can increase fitness and substantially reduce the risk of the diseases just mentioned.  

First off, try walking. Walking is one of the best aerobic exercises for retirees as it also helps us maintain our bones.

Walk at the fastest pace that allows you to sustain a conversation.

All you need is a decent pair of shoes.

Warming up … be sure you warm up beforehand by stretching your leg and back muscles.

Stand, feet together, a metre (yard) or so from a wall. Lean forward and place your hands flat on the wall.

You should be at an angle of 40 to 50 degree, you knees slightly bent, feet flat on the ground. Adjust the position of your feet as necessary.

Straighten your legs, keeping your feet and hands flat. You’ll feel pressure in your calf muscles.

Hold the position for a few seconds, relax and repeat.

Strength training to prevent cognitive decline

Maintaining your strength is one of the most important ways to ensure that you will stay out of a nursing home. Strength training (aka resistance exercises) will help you retain your independence.

All you need are some ankle and hand weights you can buy from a sports shop.

To build muscle, your exercises should be challenging but not stressful. It’s best to lift a weight you can manage comfortably for 8 repetitions and then try to keep going until you reach 15 repetitions.

Take three seconds to lift the weight, one second to hold it and another three seconds to lower it. Breathe in as you lift the weight and out as you lower it. Rest, then do a second set of repetitions. If you can easily lift the weight more than 15 times, add another half-kilo.

Take a day off between sessions for each muscle group, or exercise your upper body one day and your lower body the next.

Resistance bands … instead of weights you can use resistance bands. I find these more convenient as you can carry them around and use them any time.

Resistance bands usually cost 10 or so dollars or euros for a packet of five bands of with different degrees of resistance.

They usually come with an instructional video and an explanatory e-book that shows you exactly how to perform each exercise.

Boosting your flexibility to prevent cognitive decline

Loss of flexibility can be a real impediment to enjoying your retirement.

It can cause niggling annoyances such as not being able to trim your toenails, park easily and accurately, or other things that need precise control.

You can improve your flexibility by doing stretching exercises … see examples in a slideshow on webmd.

Because you should do stretching exercises only when your muscles are warm, do them at the end of your aerobic or weightlifting sessions.

Take about 15 minutes for your stretches.

Stretching shouldn’t hurt. You should only feel a slight pulling at most.

Repeat each stretch three to five times. As you gain flexibility, you’ll be able to stretch further and further.

Improving your balance to prevent cognitive decline

Balance exercises are especially important for retirees as they can help you prevent falls.

Nearly any activity that keeps you on your feet and moving, such as walking, can help you maintain good balance. Here are a few specific exercises designed to enhance your balance:

  • stand on one foot for a longish time when at home or out walking
  • stand up from a seated position without using your hands
  • walk in a line, heel to toe, for a short distance
  • practise tai chi moves

To do balancing exercises, all you need is a comfortable pair of shoes with low heels.

You can do balancing exercises as often as you like because they don’t stress muscles.

What exercises should retirees do to prevent cognitive decline?

Reconditioning your cardiovascular system is best done using aerobic exercises such as walking, swimming, cycling and similar exercises.

Below you’ll find some exercises to help you build your strength, make you more flexible and improve your balance.

Strength building exercises

Here are several strength building exercises to prevent cognitive decline:

Overhead press … sit on a straight-backed chair, holding weights in each hand. Start with your upper arms close to your sides, elbows bent, and forearms pointing upwards, perpendicular to the floor. Your palms should face forward, holding the weights at shoulder level.

Slowly push the weights upward until your arms are extended but without locking your elbows. The weights should be slightly forward, not directly overhead. Pause. Slowly return to the starting position. Rinse and repeat.


Hip extension … stand 30cm (12ins) an behind upright chair, holding the back for support. Lean the upper body forward 45 degrees, moving your feet back as necessary and keeping your feet flat on the floor.

Raise up one leg straight back behind you without bending your knee. Lift your straight leg as high as you can. Pause, then lower your leg slowly.

Do 8 to 15 repetitions, and then repeat with the other leg. Rest and repeat.

Add ankle weights when you are ready to do more.


Side-leg raise … hold on to the back of an upright chair back. Keeping your knee straight and your back upright, slowly lift one leg out to the side 15 to 30cm (6 to 12ins). Pause. Slowly lower the leg.

Do 8 to 15 repetitions, and then repeat with the other leg.

When you’re ready to do more, add ankle weights.


Curl up … lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor, your hands beneath the small of your back. Slowly raise your head and shoulders 8cm (3cm) off the floor, pause, then slowly lower them.

Do 8 to 15 repetitions. Rest and repeat.


Bridge … lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Put your hands next to your hips with palms flat on the floor.

Keeping the back straight (do not allow it to arch), slowly lift your buttocks as high as you can off the mat, using your hands for balance only. Pause. Lower your buttocks without touching the mat, then lift again.

Do 8 to 15 repetitions. Rest and repeat.


Stretching exercises

Upper body stretch. … stand facing a corner with your arms raised, your hands flat against the walls, your elbows at shoulder height. Place one foot 30cm (12in) ahead of the other.

Bend your front knee and lean your body toward the corner, keeping your back straight (don’t bend at the waist) and your chest and head up. Hold this position for 30 seconds.

Repeat with the other leg forward. As well as stretching the upper body, this exercise also stretches the back calf.


Hip and lower back stretch … lie on your back with both legs extended. Look down toward your chest without lifting your neck off the floor.

Bring one knee up to your chest, pulling it in with your hands. Relax. Repeat. Then switch to the other leg.

After you master one leg at a time, try bringing both knees up at the same time.


Shoulder stretch … holding the end of a dish cloth in one hand, drop it down behind your back and grab the lower end with your other hand. Slowly pull up on your lower arm, stretching your shoulder gently.

Relax and repeat two or three times.

Reverse the positions of your arms and do the exercise again.


Balance exercises to prevent cognitive decline

Toe stand … stand up straight, holding on to the back of an upright chair. Slowly lift yourself up on your toes as high as possible. Pause. Then slowly lower your heels to the ground.

Do 8 to 15 repetitions. 

After that, try doing it holding the back of the chair with just one hand, then with just one fingertip, then no hands, ie without holding the back of the chair at all.

Then try it with your eyes closed.


Heel-toe walk … walk as if you were walking on a tight-rope, putting the heel of one foot in front of the toes of the opposite foot each time you take a step. You can hold your arms out at the sides for balance if necessary.

Walk as far as you can, then turn around and walk back.


One-legged stand … stand on one leg, then on the other. You can do this anywhere, even while waiting in the street, queuing for the till in the supermarket, or waiting for a bus or train.

But if quare looks from members of the public upset you, standing on one leg is probably best practiced at home.


How physical activity slows cognitive decline and the onset of dementia

Research has indicated that being physically active is associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline in retirees aged 65+ and a lower risk of developing dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease.

But how this works is not clear.

One theory is that physical activity prevents the formation of the damaging plaques and tangles in the brain that are typical of Alzheimer’s disease.

Another theory is that being physically active may improve or maintain the ability to function in the face of accumulating brain damage, a concept sometimes referred to as cognitive resilience.

A study published in Neurology in February 2019 aimed to test these two theories … to find an association between motor abilities (or motor skills) and cognitive performance, and a separate independent association between physical activity and cognitive performance.

It turned out that in both cases that better motor skills or higher levels of physical activity were associated with better cognitive performance.

Cognitive function was measured as a composite of 21 cognitive tests assessing memory, spatial reasoning, and the ability to rapidly perceive or compare objects.

Motor abilities were separately measured as a function of several measures of fine motor skills, walking ability, and grip and pinch strength.

Motor skills are movements and actions of the bone structures. They are divided into two types: gross motor skills and fine motor skills.

Gross motor skills are involved in the movement and coordination of the arms, legs, and other large body parts in actions such as running, crawling and swimming.

Fine motor skills are involved in the movement and coordination of the wrists, hands, fingers, feet and toes in actions such as picking up objects between the thumb and finger, writing carefully, and so on.

Brain tissue from 450 subjects of the study was examined after death for signs of Alzheimer’s disease, including plaques and tangles, both of which are thought to interfere with messaging within brain tissue.

Nine other measures of brain damage and disease, including those caused by cardiovascular disease, were also examined.

These were compared with measures of daily activity, motor function and cognition taken about 2 years before death.

42% of the subjects showed signs of dementia. But the researchers found that after accounting for the presence of signs of brain damage, more motor abilities and more physical activity were associated with better cognitive function.

This study was limited because the researchers could not establish a cause-and-effect link between physical activity and cognitive function.

Nor could the researchers establish whether the association between physical activity and cognitive function reflects the benefits of a lifetime of being physically active or whether becoming physically active later in life may also be protective.

However, the study does provide evidence that physical activity and motor skills are beneficial to cognitive functioning in old age and greater physical activity may even help to protect against the harmful effects of brain degeneration in diseases like Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

Health benefits of exercise for retirees

Exercise helps older people live longer, healthier and more enjoyable lives.

For retirees, the benefits of exercising include:

  • Staying independent longer … exercise is one of the best ways to stay out of the old people’s home
  • Improving balance … exercise makes falls 23% less likely according to some stats
  • Enjoying more energy … exercise releases endorphins which combat stress hormones, promote good sleep and make you feel livelier and more energetic.
  • Helping counteract diseases … such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis, and depression which are common among retirees and are often fatal
  • Improving brain function … retirees who exercise regularly have better cognitive health according to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information in the USA in a study published in January 2013. A more recent study by the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation shows that regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing dementia by nearly 50%.

The best exercises for retirees to prevent cognitive decline

The following exercises range from exercises that put minimal stress on your joints and other parts of your body to full-blown dumbbell strength training:

Water aerobics … improve your strength, flexibility, and balance with minimal stress on your body.

These exercises are thus ideal for those living with arthritis and other forms of joint pain because the buoyancy of the water puts less stress on your joints.

Water also provides natural resistance, which means you have no need for weights if you are strength training.

Chair yoga … refers to doing yoga stretches and poses while seated in an upright chair.

It is less stressful on muscles, joints and bones than conventional yoga, yet improves muscle strength, mobility, balance and flexibility.

It also enhances mental health in retirees, delivering better quality sleep, less depression, and a general sense of well-being.

Resistance bands … are stretchy loops of rubber that add resistance to workouts with less stress.

They are fairly cheap and are ideal for exercising at home. They are perfect for strengthening your core, which improves your posture, mobility, and balance.

They usually come in packets of five with varying degrees of resistance from light to very heavy, along with a downloadable instructional e-book (PDF format) and a link to a video.

Pilates … is another low-impact form of exercise. Its tools usually include mats, balls and other inflated accessories.

Pilates’ exercises develop core strength, improve balance and increase flexibility in persons aged 65+.

Walking … promotes a healthy lifestyle, while strengthening muscles, and reducing your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and colon cancer.

One study found that walking 10,000 steps a day lowers the 10-year outlook for mortality by 46%.

All walking is good but walking through countryside scenery and breathing clean air allows you to savour nature and boosts your spirit.

Bodyweight workouts … are strength-training exercises that use an individual’s own weight to provide resistance against gravity. Here’s some you can do at home.

Bodyweight exercises can enhance a range of biomotor abilities including strength, power, endurance, speed, flexibility, coordination and balance.

These exercises are one of the best ways to counteract the effects of muscle atrophy in older adults.

About a third of seniors live with severe muscle loss, which can cause hormone problems and a reduced ability to metabolize protein.

The cost is minimal … just some workout clothes and a mat to soften your impact on the floor.

Dumbbell strength training … uses a weighted bar that is held by one hand to develop the strength and size of skeletal muscles.

Strength training can alleviate the symptoms of diabetes, osteoporosis, back pain, depression and help you manage your weight. It also contributes to a higher metabolism and enhanced glucose control.

You can focus on strengthening specific groups of muscles, while improving your balance and flexibility.

Exercises to avoid … certain exercises are fine for young bucks and female body builders but if you are 65+ they could put an unhealthy strain on you especially if you have joint pain, atrophied muscles, issues with balance or problems with your posture.

You should avoid the following exercises:

Squats with dumbbells or weightsBench press
Leg pressLong-distance running
Abdominal crunchesUpright row
DeadliftHigh-intensity interval training
Rock climbingPower clean

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