Talking With Your Older Patient: A Clinician's Handbook
Considering Health Care Perceptions
Understanding Older Patients
Obtaining the Medical History
» Encouraging Wellness
Talking About Sensitive Subjects
Supporting Patients With Chronic Conditions
Breaking Bad News
Working With Diverse Older Patients
Including Families and Caregivers
Talking With Patients About Cognitive Problems
Keeping the Door Open
Publications At-a-Glance
Services At-a-Glance
National Institute on Aging > Health > Publications > Talking With Your Older Patient: A Clinician’s Handbook
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Encouraging Wellness

People of all ages can benefit from healthy habits such as regular exercise and good nutrition.

“I’d like you to try this exercise routine. Just start low and go slow.”
Mrs. Green is surprised when Dr. Lipton recommends that she exercise regularly. She responds with a list of excuses: exercise is for young people, it’s not safe for people over 65, it takes too much time, exercise equipment costs too much. Dr. Lipton listens empathetically and then tells her that exercise and physical activity are good for people of all ages and that being sedentary is far more dangerous than exercising. He explains that Mrs. Green can “start low and go slow” by walking for 10 minutes at a time and building up to at least 30 minutes of physical activity on 5 days or more each week. At her next office visit, Mrs. Green says that she has more energy than she used to; in fact, she’s ready to try a dance class at her senior center.

Exercise and Physical Activity
Exercise has proven benefits for older people. It reduces risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity, colon cancer, and breast cancer. It also decreases the risk of falls and fall-related injuries.

Like the rest of us, older people may know that exercise is good for their health, but they may not have the motivation or encouragement to do it. You can guide your patients by asking about their daily activities and whether they engage in any kind of regular exercise or physical activity.

There are several ways to encourage older patients to exercise:

  • Whenever appropriate, let them know that regular physical activity—including endurance, muscle-strengthening, balance, and flexibility exercises—is essential for healthy aging.
  • Help patients set realistic goals and develop an exercise plan.
  • Write an exercise prescription, and make it specific, including type, frequency, intensity, and time; follow up to check progress and re-evaluate goals over time.
  • Refer patients to community resources, such as mall-walking groups and senior center fitness classes.
  • Tell them about Exercise and Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging, NIA’s free book showing older adults how to start and stick with a safe, effective exercise program.

Too Old to Exercise? Studies Say ‘No!’

  • Together, exercise and lifestyle changes such as becoming more active and healthy eating reduce the risk of diabetes in high-risk older people. In one study, lifestyle changes led to a 71 percent decrease in diabetes among people 60 and older.
  • In another study, moderate exercise was effective at reducing stress and sleep problems in older women caring for a family member with dementia.
  • Older people who exercise moderately are able to fall asleep quickly, sleep for longer periods, and get better quality of sleep.
  • Researchers also found that exercise, which can improve balance, reduced falls among older people by 33 percent.
  • Walking and strength-building exercises by people with knee osteoarthritis help reduce pain and maintain function and quality of life.


For more information on exercise, nutrition, and older people, contact:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, Georgia 30333
800-232-4636 (toll-free)
800-232-6348 (TTY/toll-free)
Healthy Aging:
Physical Activity:
The CDC has resources on nutrition and physical activity for older adults. The Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity addresses how healthy eating habits and exercise can improve the public’s health and prevent and control chronic diseases.

Department of Agriculture
Food and Nutrition Information Center (FNIC)

National Agricultural Library
10301 Baltimore Avenue, Room 105
Beltsville, MD 20705
The FNIC website provides over 2,000 links to current and reliable nutrition resources.

National Institute on Aging (NIA)
Information Center

P.O. Box 8057
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8057
800-222-2225 (toll-free)
800-222-4225 (TTY/toll-free)
Exercise and Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging,, shows older adults how to start and maintain a safe, effective program of stretching, balance, and strength-training exercises.

National Resource Center on Nutrition, Physical Activity & Aging
Florida International University
University Park OE 200
Miami, FL 33199
A group serving nutrition programs funded by the Older Americans Act, the Center aims to increase food and nutrition services in home- and community-based social, health, and long-term-care systems serving older adults. Link to the program “Eat Better & Move More.”

Older patients may develop poor eating habits for many reasons. These can range from a decreased sense of smell and taste to teeth problems or depression. Older people may also have difficulty getting to a supermarket or standing long enough to cook a meal. And although energy needs may decrease with age, the need for certain vitamins and minerals, including calcium, vitamin D, and vitamins B6 and B12, increases after age 50.

Try these strategies to encourage healthy diets:

  • Emphasize that good nutrition can have an impact on well-being and independence.
  • If needed, suggest liquid nutrition supplements, but emphasize the benefits of solid foods.
  • If needed, suggest multivitamins that fulfill 100 percent of the recommended daily amounts of vitamins and minerals for older people, but not megadoses.
  • Offer a referral to a nutrition services program, such as Meals on Wheels. Programs in your area are provided by the local Area Agency on Aging or Tribal Senior Services. Contact Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116 for your Area Agency on Aging.
In Summary
  • Talk to your older patients about the importance of exercise and physical activity. Staying active can benefit older people in many ways.
  • Encourage your patients to get a free copy of Exercise and Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging.
  • Talk to your older patients about their eating habits.
  • Consider having your older patients keep a food diary, if necessary, to make sure they are getting the correct nutrients.

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Page last updated Dec 31, 2008