Day by Day: Immediate Benefits to Older Adults from Physical Activity

Although much evidence suggests that physical activity has physical and psychological benefits for older adults, less is known about how types of activity and time spent being active might be associated with day-to-day well-being benefits such as positive emotions, sleep quality, and stress. A recent study looked into how purposeful activity such as an exercise class compares to non-exercise physical activity (for example, housework, gardening, or non-exercise walking) in terms of daily well-being, and at whether the amount of time spent in these activities matters.

The study’s 127 participants ranged from 60 to 96 years old (average age of 79) and filled out daily surveys for two weeks about their physical activity, positive and negative emotions, stress, health, and sleep quality.

When the researchers examined the participants’ purposeful exercise, they found that more time spent in this kind of activity was associated with more positive emotions, fewer negative emotions, and better health ratings on the day the exercise was done. Purposeful exercise was also associated with less reported stress, but here the amount of exercise was not important. The researchers also found that the proportion of days with exercise was associated with higher levels of positive emotions overall.

When the researchers looked more closely at the amount of time spent exercising, they found that exercising 60 minutes or more per day was associated with significantly more positive emotion, but also that exercising for any period of time was better for positive emotions than not exercising at all. In terms of negative emotions, exercising more than 30 minutes had more benefit than less than 30 minutes.

For non-exercise activity, simply doing an activity was associated with more positive emotions on the day the activity was done. Additionally, a greater proportion of days in which a non-exercise activity was done (regardless of time spent) was associated with better sleep quality.

This research suggests that for older adults, physical activity, whether or not it’s purposeful exercise, is associated with a number of day-to-day benefits for well-being. While non-exercise activity does confer some benefits that exercise does not, this research suggests that exercise confers greater benefits for older adults. Since both have unique benefits, both should be encouraged.


Whitehead BR and Blaxton JM. Daily well-being benefits of physical activity in older adults: does time or type matter? The Gerontologist. (2017). DOI:

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