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We Get Happier as We Get Older (As Long as We Stay Fit)


You can build a better old age with exercise

By Kimberlee Bethany Bonura, PhD

Ponce de Leon was wrong: We’re not looking for the Fountain of Youth.

Life gets better as we get older. Gallup research shows that Americans over the age of 55 have higher levels of life satisfaction than younger adults.

In fact, happiness follows a U-shaped curve. In middle age, the demands of building careers and raising children put a damper on our moods; around the world, people in their mid-40s are the least happy people. Around 50, a combination of wisdom, perspective, and accomplishment come together and happiness begins a steady rise.

People over the age of 85 have more life satisfaction and less negative affect (in other words, less stress, anxiety, and depression) than people in midlife – as long as physical health and functioning are considered. According to the AARP Attitudes of Aging Study, health is the greatest predictor of life satisfaction for older adults – older adults who rate their health as good are twice as satisfied with life (84%) as older adults who rate their health as poor (44%). As Hamlet would say – “Aye, there’s the rub.” Life gets better as we get older – as long as we stay fit and healthy.

We are fine with getting older. Getting older brings stability, connection, and increased satisfaction with life. What we want is to stay healthy, fit, and functionally independent as we get older. Maybe what Ponce de Leon should have been searching for is the Fountain of Good Health.

Fortunately for all of us, we can tap the fountain of good health with some relatively simple tweaks to our lives. The most important thing we can do is to take good care of ourselves. A formula for good self-care includes:

  1. sufficient sleep,

  2. a healthy diet,

  3. appropriate stress management,

  4. regular exercise.

First, you need enough sleep. Research consistently shows that people who skimp on sleep are more likely to get sick. Being sleep-deprived increases your vulnerability to colds and flus, and increases your risk for major and chronic conditions, including diabetes and heart disease. Learn more about why sleep matters and how to improve your sleep.

Once you are rested, you will have enough energy to exercise – and exercise may be the best thing you can do for your health and well-being as you get older. New research shows that people with the best cardiovascular health have the best cognitive abilities in older age. Unfortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 21% of American adults meet minimum standards for physical activity.

Let’s set a goal, together, to get exercise and stay healthy as we get older. The minimum amount of exercise you need to promote health and well-being is moderate and manageable. The basic requirements, according to the CDC:

  1. 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise every week.

  2. Muscle-strengthening activities that work all the major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms) at least twice per week.

Your plan starts with finding exercise you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t keep doing it. It’s that simple. You can only guilt and force yourself to exercise because you “should” for so long before your willpower runs out. So, the first and more important part of building an exercise plan is to find an activity you enjoy. Make exercise fun – make it something you love – make it time for you to enjoy life.

Consider these options and suggestions:

150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity every week.

  1. Timing: It can be 30 minutes, five days per week. It can be about 20 minutes, seven days per week. It can even be 15 ten-minute blocks per week. It doesn’t matter how you get the time, as long as you get the time.

  2. Options: walk the dog, walk the kids, walk with a friend, walk with your spouse. Ballroom dance, line dance, salsa dance, square dance, try cardio dance aerobics. Jump rope, ride a bike, ride a scooter. Go swimming, go hiking, go for a run. Just pick something you enjoy – or even better, a bunch of different things you enjoy – and then do it, consistently, so that your heart beats fast and you feel a little bit out of breath. It’s good for your heart, your lungs, your brain, and your entire body.

Muscle-strengthening activities that work all the major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms) at least twice per week.

  1. Timing: At least twice a week.

  2. Options: Get a personal trainer and try weights. Find a yoga or Pilates teacher and try a body-weight resistance program. Get stretchy bands and exercise balls and an at-home resistance DVD. Work in your garden with manual tools and dig, pull, and carry. Clean your own house and push the vacuum, move the furniture, lift and tote. Try a ballet class and learn pliés and abdominal control.

While you’re building an exercise plan to stay healthy with age, add two more things:

  1. Pelvic floor exercises: because incontinence limits your quality of life. More than 50% of older adults living independently have experienced an incidence of incontinence. Strengthening the pelvic floor muscles through exercise can help you maintain control. Learn more about how to do pelvic floor exercises.

  2. Mindfulness exercises: to help you relax and improve your ability to manage stress. Mindfulness practice can you help you to reduce stress and anxiety, reduce depression, and improve overall wellbeing. Learn more about the benefits of mindfulness, then, try a simple (free) mindfulness meditation practice.

We are, ultimately, like wine: we just keep getting better with age. I look forward to toasting that on my 85th birthday, and every year after that!


Dr. Kimberlee Bethany Bonura is the Division 47 (Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology) representative to APA’s Committee on Aging (CONA). Dr. Bonura is a fitness and wellness educator; her work focuses on the benefits of exercise for health and wellness promotion. She is a contributing faculty member in the Walden University College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and a Professor for The Great Courses. Learn more at and contact Dr. Bonura at

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