As we age, there are many changes to our musculoskeletal system. Some of the effects of aging can be delayed or diminished with regular exercise.

What happens to our bones, muscles, and joints as we age?

  • Loss of bone mass: Peak bone mass is achieved around age 30, and then we experience a gradual loss of bone density. Low bone density causes brittle bones, or osteoporosis, and can lead to increased risk of fractures. Changes in hormone levels during menopause can also increase the rate of bone loss.
  • Joints stiffen: Our joints can become stiff and lose fluid as we age as well, and the cartilage begins to wear down over time. This is known as degenerative joint disease, or osteoarthritis.
  • Decreased muscle mass: Muscle mass also progressively decreases with age and nerve conduction slows. All these factors can lead to gait and balance disturbances, loss of strength, increased risk of falls, difficulty completing daily tasks, and lower quality of life.

How exercise fights aging

Exercise plays an important role in maintaining musculoskeletal health. There are some exercises that are more beneficial as we age. Numerous studies show exercise can slow the decrease in bone density associated with aging. But what kind of exercise? There are many to choose from that have a variety of benefits.

  • Low impact cardiovascular exercise, such as biking and pool fitness, combined with strength training have been shown to decrease arthritis pain, and improve function, quality of life, and mental health in those that have osteoarthritis.
  • Weight bearing exercise, like walking, combined with adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D, is important to keep your bones strong and help prevent osteoporosis.
  • Activities like yoga or tai-chi can improve flexibility.
  • Activities that practice balance and coordination, combined with those that strengthen the core, can significantly reduce the risk of falls and decrease the chance of sustaining an injury during a fall.

How much exercise and how often?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise, divided over at least three days per week, and at least two days per week of strength training.

Cardiovascular exercise: There are many choices when it comes to cardiovascular exercise, so you can choose some you enjoy and mix it up. These include walking, biking, elliptical trainers, swimming, rowing, water aerobics, Zumba, tennis, and other activities that increase the heart rate for an extended period of time. Moderate intensity is defined as a five or six on a scale of zero to 10. An easier way to estimate intensity is the “Talk Test.” During moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise, you should be able to carry on a conversation, but not sing.

Strength training: Strength training can include use of weights, body weight resistance, bands or balls, and some yoga. You should be able to complete one to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions and include all the major muscle groups. In the aging population, exercises that combine cardiovascular activity with strength, flexibility, and balance training may have the most positive impact on overall health and functional outcomes.

The benefits of exercise are seen at every level. So even if you haven’t always been active, starting with just a few minutes per day and slowly increasing your intensity and duration can have significant benefits on musculoskeletal health, decrease the risk of injury, and prevent age related loss of function.    

If you are experiencing the effects of aging in your joints, we can help. Learn more about the Lifespan Orthopedics Institute. For more tips on keeping active as you age, visit the Moving section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.


Brett Owens, MD and Anita C. Tzovolos, NP

Dr. Brett Owens is an orthopedic surgeon with the Lifespan Orthopedics Institute and University Orthopedics. He specializes in sports medicine, and injuries to the knee and shoulder.

Anita Tzovolos is a board-certified family nurse practitioner with the Lifespan Orthopedics Institute in the Sports Medicine Division at University Orthopedics.