My Golden Rule for Senior Athletes

My Golden Rule for Senior Athletes

72 yo male in very good aerobic shape (swimmer)… I started weight lifting to maintain strength. I started with enough weight in each exercise to just make a set of 10 reps. Ended up with generalized soreness and achy feeling all over. What is the proper way to back off enough to avoid the negative after effects while still getting some benefit from the lifting routine? –Terry


The first thing I like to get out of the way when speaking with seniors that exercise is to consider yourself an athlete. What? I am 75 years old! How can I be an athlete? All I do is lift some weights in the morning, then take a brisk walk. How is that an athlete?


Athlete: a person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill.

Yes. If you exercise, then you are an athlete. Considering yourself as an athlete puts you in the proper state of mind when exercising. You will need to take care of your body like an athlete, including proper rest, nourishment, and training. This thinking will improve your functional abilities, help promote discipline, and most importantly, create self-confidence and engagement with life.

There are three types of senior athletes

The first is the former competitive athlete who has continued to exercise, like a football player or baseball player, who is using other conditioning methods like swimming, weight lifting, running, or cycling as a means to stay fit.

The second type of senior athlete is usually a lifetime recreational athlete. They participate in a number of sports like tennis, basketball, or swimming. They like playing in senior leagues and are reluctant to stop exercising even if they get injured.

The third type is the one where many seniors find themselves. These are the non-athletes that start late in life. They found themselves retired and in need of getting in shape. These seniors begin to exercise because of a new health condition like heart symptoms, diabetes, obesity, or arthritis.

Watch out for injuries

All these older athletes, regardless of which group, experience the same age-related changes. These include declines in flexibility, muscle mass, lower endurance, and difficulty regulating temperature. These changes affect the type of training used, and the increased likelihood of injury.

Unless you are participating in contact sports in a senior league, you will be less prone to an acute injury due to the nature of senior activities. Still, active seniors can sprain a ligament or tear a muscle. These types of injuries can be devastating to an older exerciser due to the longer recover of aging muscles.

Overuse injuries are more common among seniors. This is due to a decrease in flexibility, muscle mass, and an increase in osteoarthritis in the joints. These overuse injuries include, joint pain and swelling, pain with certain movements that is not joint pain, shoulder impingement, and plantar fasciitis.

Muscle soreness is very common especially at the beginning of an exercise program, or when new types of exercise are introduced to an existing program. Usually this is nothing to worry about unless the soreness lasts longer than 48 hours. Muscle soreness is due to microscopic muscle tears which are needed for muscle strengthening.

The Golden Rule of Senior Exercise

This brings us to the golden rule. I start all my videos with the same advice. “Start slowly!” Yes, that is my golden rule. Starting slowly will be the difference between continuing your exercise program and getting sore or injured and just stopping altogether.

How do you start slowly? Reduce your intensity, duration, and frequency.

There are three ways to apply the slow at first rule. First, start exercising with no weight at all, just your arms and hands. This will reduce your initial intensity. Add a weight when you can perform 12 or more repetitions.

Then think about how long you exercise or the duration. I recommend starting with a few minutes a day to start. Doesn’t sound like much but you can always increase as you improve.

Finally, begin with as little as two days of exercise a week, which is addressing your frequency or how often you exercise. Add another day as you improve.

Easy does it

Starting slowly will help protect you from an acute injury like and ankle sprain or torn muscle. It will help you avoid overuse injuries like painful and swollen joints, plantar fasciitis, shoulder pain, and muscle soreness after exercise. Take your time when starting to exercise. You’ve lived this long, there is no rush. Start with no weights, a few minutes a day, twice a week, and build up from there.

For more information, check out my getting started page.

Feel free to add your comments below with your experience with muscle soreness or how you started your exercise program.

Doug Schrift

Doug Schrift is a Physical Therapist, Certified Geriatric Specialist, and senior fitness coach. Doug helps seniors become strong and stable even if they have never exercised before.