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Health Tips for Older Adults
This publication is part of the Healthy Eating & Physical Activity Across Your Lifespan Series from the Weight-control Information Network (WIN). The series offers health tips for readers at various life stages, including adulthood, pregnancy, parenthood, and later life. The entire series is also available in Spanish.
How can I use this publication?
This publication is one of many handy guides from WIN that you can use to develop and maintain healthy habits.
As you age, your body and life change, and so does what you need to stay healthy. Changes in your home life, health, medicines, income, and sense of smell and taste may affect your interest in healthy eating and physical activity. Perhaps you have had some of these thoughts about food and exercise:
- “The dishes I’ve always liked the most just don’t taste the same as they used to.”
- “Now that I live alone, it’s too much trouble to cook for one.”
- “I don’t feel like going outside because I might slip and fall.”
Healthy eating and regular physical activity are your keys to good health at any age. They may lower your risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. They may even help you ward off depression and maintain orthopedic health (related to bones and muscles).
Why is keeping a healthy weight important?
As you age, you may notice changes in your body’s makeup. You may lose muscle mass, which may increase frailty. You may also burn fewer calories, especially if you are not very physically active. To prevent weight gain, you may need to eat fewer calories than you did when you were younger. This means you have fewer calories to help you get the nutrients your body needs for energy. So, you need to eat foods that are high in nutrients or are “nutrient dense.”
Keeping a healthy weight is crucial, but what is healthy varies from person to person. Ask your health care provider about what a healthy weight is for you.
Among older people, being underweight is of concern and may be related to not having enough to eat, not eating enough foods that are nutrient dense, or having an illness or disease.
Being overweight or obese is also of concern as extra weight may increase your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and bone issues. Eating wisely and being physically active to preserve muscle and bone may help you maintain strength and a healthy weight as you age.
What is a healthy weight for me?
Two standard measures for seeing if you are at a healthy weight are these:
- The body mass index (BMI) is a measure of weight in relation to height. While a BMI score of 18.5 to 24.9 usually indicates a healthy weight for adults, the BMI is limited in how well it gauges body fat in older people or those who have lost muscle.
- Measuring around your waist may tell you if you carry extra fat. A waist circumference of more than 35 inches for women or 40 inches for men indicates increased risk for a number of health problems.
Check with your health care provider if you have concerns about your weight.
See the For More Information section for a link to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website, where you can find an online tool for measuring BMI and learn more about measuring your waist circumference.
What kinds of foods do I need to eat as I age?
When you get older, your body begins to need fewer calories, but you need just as many nutrients. Nutrient-dense foods pack a lot of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients your body needs into a small amount of calories.
Eat more of these nutrient-dense foods
Older adults, along with other Americans, are advised to “eat from the rainbow” of foods rich in nutrients, like these:
- fruits and vegetables (choose a range of types with vibrant colors)
- whole grains, like oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, and brown rice
- fat-free or low-fat milk and cheese, or soy or rice milk that is fortified with vitamin D and calcium
- seafood, lean meats, poultry, and eggs
- beans, nuts, and seeds
Eat less of these foods
Some foods have many calories but offer few nutrients. Older adults should eat less of these foods:
- sugar-sweetened drinks and desserts that have added sugars
- foods with butter, shortening, or other fats that are solid at room temperature
- white bread, rice, and pasta made from refined grains
How can I learn more about healthy eating for older adults?
Adults over the age of 50 have different dietary needs from those of younger adults. Based on Federal Government dietary guidelines, What’s On Your Plate? Smart Food Choices for Healthy Aging provides healthy eating information for older adults. The guide includes tips on nutrients, food groups, and grocery shopping, as well as healthy sample menus. See the For More Information section for details on how to download or order this guide.
How can I follow a healthy eating plan?
You can use this publication and other materials and links located in the Resources section to develop a healthy eating plan that works for your specific weight, budget, and dietary needs.
Control portion sizes
A portion is the amount of one food you eat in one sitting. Many people eat more than they need, especially when eating out or getting takeout. Try these tips:
- Avoid eating in front of the TV, computer, or other screen. You may not notice how much you are eating if you are distracted.
- Read the Nutrition Facts label found on food and drink packages to see how many calories and how much fat are in a single serving size of an item.
Eating healthy meals can be easier when you plan ahead and make them enjoyable. Try the tips listed below and see the For More Information section for more ideas:
- Cook ahead and freeze portions for days when you don’t want to cook.
- Keep frozen or canned vegetables, beans, and fruits on hand for quick and healthy meal add-ons. Rinse canned foods to remove extra salt. Drain juice and syrup from canned fruit to remove extra sugar.
- Eat often with someone you enjoy. If you can’t cook for yourself, contact the Eldercare Locator listed in the Resources section for local programs that deliver meals.
Ask your health care provider about healthy eating plans
You may want to check with your health care provider or dentist if
- you find chewing difficult, don’t want to eat, or have trouble with your dentures.
- you feel that life events such as the death of a loved one or moving from your home are keeping you from eating well.
- you think your medicines may be making your food taste bad or affecting your appetite.
- you think you should take a daily vitamin like iron or vitamin C.
Government dietary guidelines recommend these vitamins:
- Vitamin B12. If you are 50 years or older, choose foods high in vitamin B12, such as fortified cereals, or take a B12 supplement (2.4 mcg total of B12 a day). Vitamin B12 helps your brain, blood, and nervous system.
- Vitamin D. If you are older than 70, you need 800 IU (international units) of vitamin D a day (600 IU for adults under 70). Natural sources include sunlight, salmon and tuna, and foods fortified with vitamin D such as cereals, dairy products, and orange juice. Vitamin D can help prevent softening of the bones and reduce the risk of bone fractures.
Tips for Healthy Eating on a Budget
- Buy store brands of whole-grain breads, pastas, and other healthy items.
- Read weekly sales flyers to plan meals around healthy items at good prices.
- Buy and split bulk items or fresh produce with neighbors.
- Buy canned or frozen vegetables with low sodium. They are healthy, low-cost, and store well until you need them.
- Apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—SNAP.
- See “Healthy Eating on a Budget” and SNAP in the For More Information section for more tips.
Too much sodium (salt) can lead to high blood pressure.
- If you are 51 years or older, reduce your salt intake to less than 1,500 mg a day (about 2/3 of a teaspoon of salt).
- Read the Nutrition Facts label to find the sodium content.
- Limit how much packaged food you eat.
- Reduce salt when cooking or eating your food.
- Buy foods that are low in sodium.
Tips for a Healthy Eating Plan
- Eat breakfast.
- Do not skip meals, as doing so may make you hungrier later.
- Choose high-fiber foods, like whole-grain breads and cereals, beans, deeply colored vegetables (like kale and sweet potatoes), and fruits.
- Drink fluids throughout the day. You may feel less thirsty as you get older. But your body still needs water and other fluids to stay healthy and keep you regular.
Are my eating habits healthy?
Many factors may affect an older adult’s ability to eat well, including mouth pain, a fixed income, eating too little, living alone, and certain diseases. Review the checklist Determine Your Nutritional Health to see if any of the warning signs of poor nutrition apply to you.
See the For More Information section for a link to the checklist. If you have concerns, discuss your results with your health care provider.
How much physical activity do I need?
Physical activity is good for your health at every age. If you have never been active, starting regular physical activity now may improve your endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. Being active may help you live on your own for a longer time and keep you healthy.
Being active can be hard if your mobility is limited or if you have serious health problems. But, you can find activities to meet your needs. Slowly raising your arms or legs, for example, may help you when done on a regular, repeated basis.
Do a variety of physical activities
Healthy older adults should do four types of activities regularly: aerobic (or endurance) exercise and activities to strengthen muscles, improve balance, and increase flexibility. See the table below to learn more.
For any new physical activity, if you have not been active, start slowly and work up to your goal. To track your progress and stay motivated, keep a daily diary of what you do and how long you do it. See the For More Information section for a link to a sample workout and other exercise and physical activity materials.
Many activities give you more than just one benefit! Water aerobics with weights gives you strengthening and aerobic benefits. Yoga combines balance, flexibility, and strengthening. Choose what you like to do—some physical activity is better than none.
Types of Physical Activity
What is it?
- Aerobic (or endurance) exercise uses your large muscle groups (chest, legs, and back) to increase your heart rate and breathing.
- You can speak several words in a row but not have a long chat while exercising.
What are the benefits?
- Stay active as you age.
What can I do?
- Go for a brisk walk.
- Do heavy housework or gardening.
- Look into a water aerobics or tennis class for seniors. You may find free or discounted classes at a local community or senior center.
- Aim to spread at least 150 minutes of moderately intense activity throughout the week.
- Reach your 150-minute goal by exercising at least 10 minutes at a time.
Activity to Strengthen Muscles
What is it?
- This activity strengthens your muscles by making you push or pull against something, such as gravity, hand-held weights, exercise bands, or even soup cans.
What are the benefits?
- Increase your strength and independence.
- Reduce your need for a cane.
- Improve your balance at the same time.
What can I do?
- Raise and lower arms and legs for a number of counts. You can even do this while seated.
- Climb stairs in your house or at a mall if you can do so safely. Use your cane if needed.
- Dig in the garden, rake, and push a lawn mower.
- Aim for at least 2 days a week.
Activity to Improve Balance
What is it?
- Balance activity requires you to keep control of your body as you move.
- It may help strengthen muscles in your abdomen (stomach area), lower back, hips, and legs.
What are the benefits?
- Stay steady on your feet.
- Reduce the risk of a fall or injury.
- Improve your strength at the same time.
What can I do?
- Try walking heel to toe in a straight line.
- Practice standing on one foot.
- Stand up from a chair and sit down again without using your hands.
- Aim for 3 or more days a week.
Activity to Increase Flexibility
How can I become more physically active?
- Pick an activity you enjoy and start with small, specific goals, such as “I will take three 10-minute walks this week.” Slowly increase the total amount of time and number of days you are active.
- If you live in an assisted living or retirement facility, ask if the fitness center offers a free health checkup and fitness program.
- Start a walking group with one or more friends where you live or through your place of worship.
Remember to follow these safety tips:
- Ask your health care provider about ways you can safely increase the amount of physical activity you do now.
- Take time to warm up and cool down.
- Start slowly and build up to more intense activity.
- Wear a sturdy pair of shoes.
- Stop if you have pain, become dizzy, or feel short of breath.
- Drink water.
Ask your health care provider about being active
Healthy older adults generally do not need to check with a health care provider before becoming physically active. However, health care providers may be able to recommend types of exercise that are best for you and ways to progress at a safe and steady pace.
If you have a health issue or problem, you should talk with your health care provider to find out if there are any limits on what you can do. Your provider can help you plan for the types and amounts of exercise that are healthy for you.
How can I start or maintain an exercise program that works for me?
You can start slowly and increase your goals as you build your strength over time. For example, you can do many arm and leg exercises without weights to get started. As you progress, you can add hand-held weights, like soup cans, to improve your strength.
The Go4Life campaign, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), offers easy-to-use materials on health and aging. Try their tips on how to create an exercise program that works for you. Check the For More Information section for links to free NIA materials that you can download or order to start or maintain a healthy exercise program that is just right for you.
Being Good to Yourself
Due to loss of loved ones, health problems, trouble paying bills, or other reasons, many older adults may feel lonely, sad, low, or stressed. You may not feel like doing anything, not eat enough, or overeat. Being good to yourself may help you improve your “get up and go,” eating habits, and health.
- Here are some ideas for being good to yourself:
Get enough sleep.
- Stay in touch with family and friends to keep your spirits up.
- Join a walking group or other social group.
- Surround yourself with people you enjoy.
Remember, it’s never too late to improve your eating plan, be more physically active, and be good to yourself for a healthier life.
Lifespan Tip Sheet for Older Adults
- Eat breakfast every day.
- Select high-fiber foods like whole-grain breads and cereals, beans, vegetables, and fruits.
- Have three servings of vitamin D-fortified low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt, or cheese every day to help keep your bones strong as you age.
- Drink plenty of water or water-based fluids.
- Ask your health care provider about ways you can safely increase your physical activity.
- Fit physical activity into your everyday life. Take short walks throughout your day
- Stay connected with family, friends, and your community
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