top of page
  • Dr. Norbert Martin, DPT

Healthy Aging: A Guide to Meeting Nutritional and Physical Needs for Older Adults

Updated: May 10, 2023


Older adults having fun. Elders going to a soccer game.


Aging is inevitable, but how you age is largely up to you. You can influence your health and well-being by making smart choices about what you eat and how you move. Nutrition and physical activity are two key factors that affect your health as you age. They can help you prevent or manage common health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, and cognitive decline. They can also help you maintain your independence, mobility, and mental health.


But what does it mean to eat well and stay active as you age? How do your nutritional and physical needs change over time? And what are some practical ways to meet those needs? In this article, we’ll answer these questions and more. We’ll provide you with a guide to healthy aging that covers the following topics:


  • Benefits of nutrition and physical activity for older adults

  • Dietary guidelines and recommendations for older adults

  • Physical activity guidelines and recommendations for older adults

  • Common nutritional and physical challenges faced by older adults

  • Tips and strategies to overcome those challenges


By the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of how to eat well and stay active as you age. You’ll also have some practical ideas on how to implement these changes in your daily life. So, let’s get started!


Benefits of Nutrition and Physical Activity for Older Adults

Nutrition and physical activity are essential for your health at any age, but they become even more important as you get older. Here are some of the benefits of eating well and staying active as you age:


  • Nutrition can help you meet your nutrient needs, which may change or increase as you age. For example, you may need more calcium and vitamin D to keep your bones strong, more protein to preserve your muscle mass, more fiber to prevent constipation, or more vitamin B12 to prevent anemia.

  • Nutrition can help you maintain a healthy weight, which can reduce your risk of obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some cancers. It can also help you prevent or manage chronic conditions that affect your appetite or digestion, such as ulcers, gastritis, or dental problems.

  • Nutrition can help you boost your immune system, which may weaken as you age. This can help you fight off infections and diseases more effectively. It can also help you heal faster from injuries or surgeries.

  • Nutrition can help you support your brain health, which may decline as you age. Some nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, folate, and vitamin B12, may help protect your brain cells from damage or inflammation (DeSilva & Anderson-Villaluz, 2021). They may also help improve your memory, concentration, mood, and cognitive function.

  • Physical activity can help you maintain or improve your physical fitness, which may decline as you age. This can help you preserve your strength, endurance, balance, flexibility, and coordination. It can also help you prevent or delay the loss of bone density or muscle mass that occurs with aging.

  • Physical activity can help you prevent or manage chronic diseases that affect your heart, lungs, blood pressure, blood sugar, or cholesterol levels. For example, regular aerobic exercise can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease by improving your blood circulation and oxygen delivery (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018). It can also lower your risk of type 2 diabetes by improving your insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018).

  • Physical activity can help you reduce pain and inflammation that may result from arthritis or other joint problems. It can also help you improve your range of motion and mobility. This can make it easier for you to perform daily activities, such as walking, climbing stairs, or carrying groceries.

  • Physical activity can help you enhance your mental health, which may deteriorate as you age. Exercise can stimulate the release of endorphins, which are natural chemicals that make you feel good. It can also reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. It can also improve your self-esteem, confidence, and social interaction.


These are some of the benefits of eating well and staying active as you age. However, these are not the only ones. You may experience other benefits that are specific to your individual situation and goals. The important thing is to recognize the value of nutrition and physical activity for your health and well-being and to make them a priority in your life.


Dietary Guidelines and Recommendations for Older Adults

As you age, your nutritional needs may change or increase due to various factors, such as changes in your metabolism, body composition, appetite, digestion, absorption, or medication use. Therefore, it’s necessary to follow the dietary guidelines and recommendations that are specific to older adults. These guidelines and recommendations can help you choose foods and beverages that provide adequate nutrients, calories, and fluids for your health and well-being.


The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 provide general advice on what to eat and drink to meet nutrient needs, promote health, and prevent disease. They also provide guidance for healthy eating by life stage, from birth through older adulthood. Some of the key messages from the guidelines for older adults are:


  • Follow a healthy dietary pattern that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages from all food groups: vegetables, fruits, grains (preferably whole grains), protein foods (including seafood, lean meats, poultry, eggs, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, and soy products), dairy products or fortified soy alternatives (such as milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages), and oils (such as olive, canola, sunflower, or soybean oil) (U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020).

  • Limit foods and beverages that are higher in added sugars, saturated fat, sodium, and alcohol. These include sugary drinks (such as soda, juice drinks, or sports drinks), sweets (such as candy, cake, or ice cream), fatty meats (such as bacon, sausage, or hot dogs), processed foods (such as chips, crackers, or frozen meals), and alcoholic beverages (such as beer, wine, or liquor) (U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020).

  • Customize your dietary pattern to reflect your personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations. You can modify the amounts and types of foods and beverages you consume to suit your tastes, needs, and goals. You can also incorporate foods and dishes from your cultural or ethnic background or try new ones from other cuisines (U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020).

  • Pay attention to portion sizes and calorie intake. As you age, you may need fewer calories than before due to lower physical activity levels or changes in your metabolism. However, you still need the same or even more nutrients than before. Therefore, you should choose foods and beverages that provide more nutrients per calorie. You should also avoid overeating or under-eating by following the serving sizes and amounts recommended for your age group (U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020).

  • Drink enough fluids to stay hydrated. As you age, you may lose some of your sense of thirst or have difficulty swallowing liquids. You may also lose more fluids due to certain medications or health conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease. Therefore, you should drink enough fluids throughout the day to prevent dehydration. Water is the best choice for hydration, but you can also drink other fluids such as low-fat or fat-free milk, 100% fruit juice, tea, or coffee (with little or no sugar). You should also eat foods that contain water such as fruits, vegetables, soups, or yogurt (DeSilva & Anderson-Villaluz, 2021).


In addition to the general dietary guidelines and recommendations for older adults, there are some specific nutrients that you may need more or less of as you age. These include:


  • Protein: Protein is essential for building and maintaining muscle mass, which may decline as you age. Protein also helps support your immune system and wound healing. You should aim for 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (or about 0.36 grams per pound). This translates to about 56 grams of protein per day for a 154-pound man or 46 grams of protein per day for a 128-pound woman. You can get protein from animal sources such as seafood, lean meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy products or plant sources such as beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, and soy products (Lorbergs et al., 2022).

  • Calcium: Calcium is important for keeping your bones strong and preventing osteoporosis, which is a condition that causes your bones to become weak and brittle. As you age, your body absorbs less calcium from food and loses more calcium through urine. Therefore, you should consume enough calcium from food or supplements to meet your daily needs. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for calcium is 1,200 milligrams per day for men and women aged 51 and older. You can get calcium from dairy products or fortified soy alternatives (such as milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages), green leafy vegetables (such as kale, collard greens, or broccoli), canned fish with bones (such as sardines or salmon), tofu made with calcium sulfate, almonds, or fortified cereals (DeSilva & Anderson-Villaluz, 2021).

  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and supports your bone health. It also plays a role in your immune system, muscle function, and nerve signaling. As you age, your skin makes less vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, and your kidneys convert less vitamin D to its active form. Therefore, you may need more vitamin D from food or supplements to meet your daily needs. The RDA for vitamin D is 15 micrograms (600 IU) per day for men and women aged 51 to 70 and 20 micrograms (800 IU) per day for those aged 71 and older. You can get vitamin D from fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, or mackerel), egg yolks, liver, cheese, mushrooms, or fortified foods (such as milk, yogurt, cereal, or orange juice) (DeSilva & Anderson-Villaluz, 2021).

  • Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is important for making red blood cells, DNA, and nerve cells. It also helps prevent a type of anemia that can make you feel tired and weak. As you age, your stomach produces less acid, which reduces your ability to absorb vitamin B12 from food. You may also take medications that interfere with vitamin B12 absorption, such as proton pump inhibitors or metformin. Therefore, you may need more vitamin B12 from food or supplements to meet your daily needs. The RDA for vitamin B12 is 2.4 micrograms per day for men and women aged 51 and older. You can get vitamin B12 from animal foods (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products) or fortified foods (such as breakfast cereals or nutritional yeast) (DeSilva & Anderson-Villaluz, 2021).

  • Fiber: Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that your body cannot digest. It helps keep your digestive system healthy and prevents constipation. It also helps lower your cholesterol and blood sugar levels and reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes. As you age, you may have less appetite or chew less due to dental problems or dentures. This may make you eat less fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Therefore, you should try to eat more fiber-rich foods or take fiber supplements to meet your daily needs. The adequate intake (AI) for fiber is 30 grams per day for men aged 51 and older and 21 grams per day for women aged 51 and older (U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020).

  • Fluids: Fluids are essential for keeping your body hydrated and functioning properly. They help regulate your body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and blood volume. They also help transport nutrients and oxygen to your cells and remove waste products from your body. As you age, you may lose some of your sense of thirst or have difficulty swallowing liquids. You may also lose more fluids due to certain medications or health conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease. Therefore, you should drink enough fluids throughout the day to prevent dehydration. Water is the best choice for hydration, but you can also drink other fluids such as low-fat or fat-free milk, 100% fruit juice, tea, or coffee (with little or no sugar). You should also eat foods that contain water such as fruits, vegetables, soups, or yogurt (DeSilva & Anderson-Villaluz, 2021).


These are some of the dietary guidelines and recommendations for older adults that can help you meet your nutritional needs as you age. However, these are not rigid rules that you have to follow strictly. You can still enjoy your favorite foods and beverages in moderation as part of a balanced diet. The key is to make healthy choices most of the time and listen to your body’s signals of hunger, fullness, and thirst.


Physical Activity Guidelines and Recommendations for Older Adults

Just like nutrition, physical activity is also vital for your health and well-being as you age. It can help you maintain or improve your physical fitness, prevent or manage chronic diseases, reduce pain and inflammation, and enhance your mental health. However, your physical activity needs may change or vary depending on your age, health status, and abilities. Therefore, you should follow the physical activity guidelines and recommendations that are specific to older adults. These guidelines and recommendations can help you choose the type, intensity, duration, and frequency of physical activity that suits your goals and preferences.


The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2018 provide general advice on how much physical activity adults need to stay healthy. They also provide guidance for physical activity by life stage, from children and adolescents to older adults. Some of the key messages from the guidelines for older adults are:


  • Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as brisk walking, cycling, or swimming) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (such as jogging, running, or aerobics) per week. You can also do a combination of both. Aerobic activity is any activity that makes your heart beat faster and your breathing harder. It can help improve your cardiovascular health, blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018).

  • Do muscle-strengthening activities (such as lifting weights, doing resistance exercises/using elastic bands) on 2 or more days per week. You should work all the major muscle groups of your body: legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms. Muscle-strengthening activities can help prevent or slow down the loss of muscle mass and strength that occurs with aging. They can also help improve your balance, posture, and bone health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018).

  • Do balance and flexibility activities (such as yoga, tai chi, or stretching) on 2 or more days per week. You can do them as part of your warm-up or cool-down before or after your aerobic or muscle-strengthening activities. Balance and flexibility activities can help prevent falls and injuries by improving your stability and range of motion. They can also help reduce stiffness and pain in your joints and muscles (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018).

  • Do more physical activity than the minimum recommended amount if you can. The more physical activity you do, the more health benefits you will get. However, you should start slowly and gradually increase the intensity, duration, and frequency of your physical activity. You should also listen to your body and avoid overexertion or injury (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018).

  • Do physical activity that is appropriate for your age, health status, and abilities. You should consult with your health care provider/physical therapist before starting a new physical activity program or increasing the intensity of your current one. You should also modify or adapt your physical activity to suit your needs and preferences. For example, you can choose low-impact activities (such as walking, cycling, or swimming) if you have joint problems or arthritis. You can also use assistive devices (such as walkers, canes, or wheelchairs) if you have mobility limitations. You can also talk to your healthcare provider or physical therapist about specific exercises or programs that suit your needs and abilities (Lorbergs et al., 2022).


These are some of the physical activity guidelines and recommendations for older adults that can help you stay active and fit as you age. However, these are not strict rules that you have to follow exactly. You can still enjoy your other favorite physical activities and hobbies as tolerated as part of a balanced lifestyle. The key is to find physical activities that you like, that are safe, and that challenge you.


Common Nutritional and Physical Challenges Faced by Older Adults

While nutrition and physical activity are beneficial for older adults, they may also pose some challenges or difficulties for them. Some of the common nutritional and physical challenges faced by older adults are:


  • Changes in appetite and taste: As you age, you may experience changes in your appetite and taste due to various factors, such as hormonal changes, medications, dental problems, or illnesses. These changes may make you eat less or more than you need, or make you crave foods that are high in sugar, salt, or fat. These changes may also affect your enjoyment of food and your social interaction around meals.

  • Changes in digestion and absorption: As you age, you may experience changes in your digestion and absorption due to various factors, such as reduced stomach acid production, slower intestinal motility, or decreased enzyme secretion. These changes may make you feel bloated, gassy, or constipated after eating certain foods. They may also affect your ability to absorb nutrients from food, such as vitamin B12, calcium, iron, or zinc.

  • Changes in metabolism and body composition: As you age, you may experience changes in your metabolism and body composition due to various factors, such as reduced muscle mass, lower basal metabolic rate, or hormonal changes. These changes may make you burn fewer calories than before, or make you store more fat than muscle in your body. These changes may affect your weight, body shape, and health risks.

  • Changes in physical function and mobility: As you age, you may experience changes in your physical function and mobility due to various factors, such as loss of muscle mass and strength, decreased bone density, reduced joint flexibility, or impaired balance and coordination. These changes may make it harder for you to perform daily activities, such as walking, climbing stairs, or carrying groceries. They may also increase your risk of falls and injuries.

  • Changes in mental health and cognition: As you age, you may experience changes in your mental health and cognition due to various factors, such as stress, loneliness, depression, anxiety, insomnia, or dementia. These changes may affect your mood, memory, concentration, decision-making, or social interaction. They may also influence your food choices, eating habits, and physical activity levels.


These are some of the common nutritional and physical challenges faced by older adults that may interfere with their health and well-being. However, these challenges are not insurmountable. There are many tips and strategies that can help you overcome them and enjoy a healthy and active lifestyle as you age.


Tips and Strategies to Overcome the Nutritional and Physical Challenges Faced by Older Adults

If you are facing some of the nutritional and physical challenges mentioned above, don’t worry. You are not alone. Many older adults share the same struggles and concerns as you do. The good news is that there are many tips and strategies that can help you overcome them and improve your quality of life. Here are some of them:


  • To cope with changes in appetite and taste, try to eat smaller and more frequent meals throughout the day. This can help you meet your calorie and nutrient needs without feeling too full or too hungry. You can also try to add more flavor and variety to your food by using herbs, spices, sauces, or condiments. You can also try new foods or recipes that appeal to your taste buds. You can also make eating more enjoyable and social by sharing meals with family, friends, or neighbors.

  • To cope with changes in digestion and absorption, try to eat more fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Fiber can help prevent or relieve constipation by adding bulk and softness to your stool. It can also help lower your cholesterol and blood sugar levels by slowing down the absorption of fat and glucose. You can also drink plenty of fluids to help move the fiber through your digestive system. You can also take probiotics or prebiotics to help balance your gut bacteria and improve your digestion. You can also talk to your healthcare provider about taking supplements or medications to help with vitamin B12, calcium, iron, or zinc absorption.

  • To cope with changes in metabolism and body composition, try to eat more protein-rich foods such as seafood, lean meats, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fortified soy alternatives, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, and soy products. Protein can help prevent or slow down the loss of muscle mass and strength by providing the building blocks for your muscles. It can also help you feel fuller for longer by increasing your satiety hormones. You can also do muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days per week to help preserve or increase your muscle mass and strength. You can also monitor your weight regularly and adjust your calorie intake accordingly to prevent weight gain or loss.

  • To cope with changes in physical function and mobility, try to do aerobic activities on most days of the week to help improve your cardiovascular health, blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. Aerobic activities can also help you burn calories and maintain a healthy weight. You can also do balance and flexibility activities on 2 or more days per week to help prevent falls and injuries by improving your stability and range of motion. You can also use assistive devices such as walkers, canes, or wheelchairs if you have mobility limitations. You can also talk to your healthcare provider or physical therapist about specific exercises or programs that suit your needs and abilities.

  • To cope with changes in mental health and cognition, try to do physical activities that are fun, engaging, and social such as dancing, gardening, or playing games. Physical activities can help stimulate your brain cells and improve your mood, memory, concentration, and cognitive function. They can also help reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia by releasing endorphins and improving your self-esteem and confidence. You can also eat foods that are good for your brain health such as omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, folate, and vitamin B12. You can also challenge your brain with puzzles, games, or learning new skills. You can also socialize with family, friends, or community groups to prevent loneliness and isolation.


These are some of the tips and strategies that can help you overcome the nutritional and physical challenges faced by older adults and enjoy a healthy and active lifestyle as you age. However, these are not the only ones. You can also find other tips and strategies that work for you by doing some research, asking for advice, or experimenting with different options. The important thing is to be proactive, positive, and persistent in your efforts to eat well and stay active as you age.


Final Thoughts

Aging is a natural part of life, but it doesn’t have to mean giving up on your health and well-being. With some simple changes to your diet and physical activity, you can maintain or improve your quality of life and reduce your risk of chronic diseases. In this article, we shared some tips and advice on how to meet your nutritional and physical needs as you age. We hope this article helped you learn more about healthy aging and inspired you to take action.


Now it’s your turn. What are some of the steps that you can take to eat well and stay active as you age? How can you overcome some of the challenges that you may face? What are some of the resources that you can use to support your efforts? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments section below.


And don’t forget to share this article with your family, friends, or anyone who may benefit from it. Together, we can make healthy aging a reality for everyone.

Thank you for reading this article and we wish you all the best in your journey to healthy aging!


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Nutrition and Physical Activity for Older Adults

You may have some questions or doubts about nutrition and physical activity for older adults that are not covered in this article. Here are some of the frequently asked questions (FAQs) about nutrition and physical activity for older adults and their answers:


  • Q: How do I know if I am eating enough or too much?

  • A: One way to know if you are eating enough or too much is to monitor your weight regularly and see if it changes over time. If you are losing or gaining weight unintentionally, you may need to adjust your calorie intake accordingly. Another way to know if you are eating enough or too much is to listen to your body’s signals of hunger and fullness. You should eat when you feel hungry and stop when you feel satisfied. You should also avoid skipping meals or snacking mindlessly.



  • Q: How do I know if I am drinking enough fluids?

  • A: One way to know if you are drinking enough fluids is to check the color of your urine. If it is clear or pale yellow, you are well hydrated. If it is dark yellow or brown, you are dehydrated. Another way to know if you are drinking enough fluids is to pay attention to your thirst. You should drink fluids whenever you feel thirsty and not wait until you are very thirsty. You should also drink more fluids when it is hot, and humid, or when you exercise.



  • Q: What are some examples of moderate-intensity and vigorous-intensity aerobic activities?

  • A: Moderate-intensity aerobic activities are those that make your heart beat faster and your breathing harder but not too hard. You should be able to talk but not sing while doing them. Some examples of moderate-intensity aerobic activities are brisk walking, cycling, swimming, dancing, or gardening. Vigorous-intensity aerobic activities are those that make your heart beat much faster and your breathing very hard. You should not be able to say more than a few words without pausing for breath while doing them. Some examples of vigorous-intensity aerobic activities are jogging, running, aerobics, or playing sports.



  • Q: How do I measure the intensity of my physical activity?

  • A: One way to measure the intensity of your physical activity is to use the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale. This is a scale from 0 to 10 that reflects how hard you feel your physical activity is. A 0 means no exertion at all (such as resting), a 5 means moderate exertion (such as brisk walking), and a 10 means maximal exertion (such as sprinting). You can use this scale to adjust the intensity of your physical activity according to your goals and preferences. Another way to measure the intensity of your physical activity is to use a heart rate monitor or a fitness tracker that can measure your heart rate during exercise. You can use this device to calculate your target heart rate zone based on your age and fitness level. Your target heart rate zone is the range of heart rates that corresponds to the intensity of physical activity that you want to achieve. For example, if you are 65 years old and want to do moderate-intensity physical activity, your target heart rate zone is 78 to 132 beats per minute (50% to 85% of your maximum heart rate of 155 beats per minute).



  • Q: How do I prevent or treat injuries or pain from physical activity?

  • A: One way to prevent or treat injuries or pain from physical activity is to warm up before and cool down after your physical activity. Warming up can help prepare your muscles, joints, and heart for exercise. Cooling down can help relax your muscles, joints, and heart after exercise. You can warm up and cool down by doing some light aerobic activity (such as walking) and some stretching exercises for 5 to 10 minutes. Another way to prevent or treat injuries or pain from physical activity is to rest and recover between your physical activity sessions. Resting can help your body heal and repair itself from the stress of exercise. Recovering can help your body replenish its energy and nutrients. You can rest and recover by taking a day off from exercise every week or by alternating between different types of physical activity on different days. You can also rest and recover by getting enough sleep, eating well, drinking fluids, and managing stress. If you have an injury or pain from physical activity, you should stop the activity and seek medical attention if needed. You can also apply the RICE method (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) to the affected area to reduce swelling and inflammation.


These are some of the frequently asked questions (FAQs) about nutrition and physical activity for older adults and their answers. However, these are not the only ones. You may have other questions or concerns that are not addressed in this article. If so, you can do some research, ask for advice, or consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, or a physical therapist for more information and guidance.



References





Comments


Subscribe to Our Blog

Thanks for subscribing!

bottom of page