Physical exercise can help combat signs of frailty in older adults

The Bottom Line

  • Frailty, characterized by weakness, disability and limited mobility is a common condition in older adults.
  • Frail older adults are at greater risk of becoming injured, disabled and hospitalized.
  • Physical exercise can help improve some conditions associated with aging and frailty including walking speed.

It’s inevitable: as we age we begin to lose a lot of what we took for granted when we were younger, such as strength, speed, endurance, balance and flexibility. At some point we may become “frail,” a term yet to be clearly defined but one that generally refers to older adults who are weak, exhausted, have limited physical function, and walk slowly – if at all (1;2).

There is no way to predict when someone will become frail. We know of seniors in their 80s and 90s who are still healthy and active and show no signs of slowing down, while people 20 or more years their junior are already struggling with mobility issues and performing routine tasks.

Keeping older adults active and independent for as long as possible – while promoting their health and safety – are priorities for our healthcare system. Seniors who become frail are at greater risk of falling, getting hurt, becoming disabled and being hospitalized (3). For seniors and their families, symptoms of frailty seriously detract from a good quality of life and enjoyment of those “golden years.”

So what can be done? Physical exercise has long been prescribed as a way to improve physical functioning in older adults and several relevant studies have shown promising results (4;5). Research specific to frail older adults was the focus of a systematic review to determine if exercise improved mobility, walking speed, muscle strength, balance and endurance (6). The review examined 19 randomized controlled trials involving more than 1,500 community-dwelling older adults. Participants took part in multi-component exercise programs including aerobic and strength training activities.

What the research tells us

The results were encouraging for at least some outcomes: physical exercise appeared to significantly increase walking speed and to modestly improve other aspects of movement and mobility in frail older adults (6). An even more recent umbrella review looking at multicompetent exercises—which included aerobic, balance, resistance, and flexibility activities—in community-dwelling older adults who were frail or at high-risk of becoming frail lent further support to previous findings on walking speed and physical performance. Additionally, it highlighted new benefits such as the potential for improvements in muscle strength and balance. In terms of stand-alone exercises, resistance training seemed to be especially effective in enhancing muscle strength, walking speed, and physical performance (7).

More research is needed on how often or at what intensity exercises should be performed for the best results. Research to address such questions will help in the design and delivery of more effective programs to help older adults stay active, engaged and moving with confidence (6;7).

Many of these types of exercise can be done at home. This is handy during instances that call for spending more time at home and physical distancing, similar to what we're experiencing with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Being at home for long periods of time can decrease activity levels, so for folks who are frail or pre-frail, keeping physically active in this setting is vital for reducing the progression of frailty.

Click here to read more about improving your walking speed.


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Author Details


  1. Fried LP, Tangen CM, Walston J, et al. Frailty in older adults: Evidence for a phenotype. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2001; 56:M146-56.
  2. Rockwood K, Stadnyk K, MacKnight C, et al. A brief clinical instrument to classify frailty in elderly people. Lancet. 1999; 353:205-6.
  3. Sternberg SA, Wershof Schwartz A, Karunananthan S, et al. The identification of frailty: A systematic literature review. J AM Geriatr Soc. 2011; 59:2129-38.
  4. Chodzko-Zajko WJ, Proctor DN, Fiatarone Singh MA, et al. American College of Sports Medicine position stand: Exercise and physical activity for older adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009; 41:1510-30.
  5. Gates S, Fisher JD, Cooke MW, et al. Multifactorial assessment and targeted intervention for preventing falls and injuries among older people in community and emergency care settings: Systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2008; 336:130-3.
  6. Gine-Garriga M, Roque-Figul M, Coll-Planas L, et al. Physical exercise interventions for improving performance-based measures of physical function in community-dwelling, frail older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2014; 95: 753-69.
  7. Jadczak AD, Makwana N, Luscombe-Marsh N, et al. Effectiveness of exercise interventions on physical function in community-dwelling frail older people: An umbrella review of systematic reviews. JBI Database System Rev Implement Rep. 2018; 16(3), 752-775. doi: 10.11124/JBISRIR-2017-003551.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.