The Best Workouts to Do With Your Aging Dad

From gardening to canoeing to kickboxing, these are the movement patterns to prioritize

June 16, 2023 8:14 am
Madely Lake, Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, September 2003
Madely Lake, Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, September 2003
Mike Powell/Getty Images

One day, the man who taught you to ride a bike won’t be able to ride one himself.

That’s a little grim, yes. But it’s also a worthy reminder to spend as much time moving with your dad — cycling, hiking, playing pickleball, whatever — while you both still can. As for a longevity spin zone, consider this: The more your dad starts moving right now, the more he’ll be able to in his twilight years.

Around here, we’re fans of a broad and low-stakes approach to fitness, which is particularly pertinent when appraising the fitness of an aging parent. Begin with gentle workouts (Trojan Horse’d hobbies, essentially) and scale up from there. Don’t worry about personal records or performance. The goal is just movement, and the sort of movement that both of you will actually want to do again.

It isn’t possible to pay your parents back for everything they gave or taught you, but working out with them toward the end of their days is probably the closest you can get to reciprocating the gift of life. Plus, it can lead to a flat-out great time, and give your relationship a breath of literal fresh air. (When’s the last time you rented a canoe with your dad? It’s a little more dynamic than standing around an in-laws’ kitchen with a beer.)

We rounded up our nine favorite workouts for you to try with your aging dad, with three for each category: Gentle, Intermediate and Advanced. As always: Warm-ups and ice baths are your best friends.

How to Stay in Shape as a Young Dad
It’s not a great time to take up triathlon training. But with a shift in approach, fatherhood and physical fitness can coexist.

How to Work Out With Your Dad

Gentle: Golfing, Long Walks, Gardening

File these activities under “stuff he was probably going to do anyway.” If your dad’s at retirement age (or even multiple decades older), these are three accessible/approachable exercises that he should take full advantage of — and you should encourage if ever he starts to lose his way.

There are studies out there that show how golf leaps from “low” to “moderate” intensity when you walk the course instead of driving it, but don’t fret too much about that. Use golf to get outside, get a change of scenery and get some bonding time in. As infuriating as the game can be, it’s ultimately good for the soul. (And your neural pathways.)

The length, intensity and frequency of our walks tend to drip as we age, and especially in the winter, after an injury or illness, or in the wake of losing a pet. It’s well-established how critical walking is for longevity, though, so if you live nearby your dad, try to get in the habit of going for a long walk with him. Even just once a week. It isn’t as fun as texting over a surprise tee-time, but it could help you both to foster a “weekend super walk” habit. Hunt out uneven terrain where you can, and always keep a helpful elbow close by.

Finally: so long as your dad isn’t trying to be a backyard hero (e.g. digging holes in the middle of July, wielding a hedge trimmer from the top step of a ladder), yardwork is also a safe and surprisingly effective movement pattern. Numerous studies have linked regular gardening with lower levels of potentially harmful blood fats and improved biomarkers in strength and endurance. Read more about the benefits of yardwork here.

Intermediate: Tennis, Canoeing, Cycling

We’ve got pickleball fever like everyone else, so if that’s what your dad’s into these days, all power to him. (Grab some equipment so he can play when he’s visiting.) Don’t sleep on tennis, though, likely the most aerobically demanding of the retirement games. It’s a longevity bonanza, great for heart rate, blood pressure, metabolic function, bone density and reaction time. We like that it’s easy to pick up at any age, and a game that really rewards regular practice. Plus, he can use “matches” with you as a lily pad to play more frequently with friends at a local racquet club.

Canoeing, meanwhile, is a perfect intermediate exercise pattern: it’s somehow full-body and low-impact at the same time — pushing water builds up your back, arms, shoulders, chest and legs, sans the wear-and-tear risk that accompanies traditional strength training. It’s also a weight loss boon (you only need to paddle at around 3 mph to see serious caloric burn), and a great way to get an adventure — even just a field trip to the county over — on the books.

The great thing about cycling is it’s endlessly modifiable. The public-facing cycling community (all Lycra and single-file lines) might be unappealing to your dad, but he should feel free to do his own thing. Like: gravel biking, which involves taking one’s bike off a paved path and onto fire roads, power-line trails or farm tracks. Or rounds on an assault Wattbike, the preferred cardio weapon of the New Zealand’s famous All Blacks rugby side. Or even easier rides with a pedal-assisted steed. Whatever works. If traditional cycling is in his wheelhouse, help him work up to rides of 20 miles.

Advanced: Rucking, Open Water Swimming, Kickboxing

Some dads — the rare ones taking home master’s medals at local road races — don’t need much coaxing to get up and after it. You may find yourself sometimes struggling to keep up with them. We recommend introducing these guys to challenges they may have not read about or considered before. Basically: a chance for you both to make some memories, the sweaty way.

An activity like rucking, the foundational training method of military fitness, is a great place to start. “Rucking” requires carrying weight over distance, typically with a change in elevation or terrain, and it works wonders for the body; according to recent research, it’s capable of burning more fat than running, and that cutting doesn’t come at the cost of muscle loss. Ruckers actually tend to gain muscle on walks, while simultaneously burning an unholy amount of calories, upping their VO2 max and reducing their cholesterol counts.

Staying in that outdoor vein, open water or ocean swimming is likely one activity that an aging dad (however adventurous) will have trouble selling to his loved ones. So go with him. Follow the key tenets, some of which we learned from Ironman champion Timothy O’Donnell: the water polo-style stroke is your friend, know what the colored flags mean, mind rip currents, swim a course adjacent to shore (like around a buoy and back), and take it easy. For reference: a half hour of swimming is more than enough for a triathlete.

As for kickboxing, judo, Muay Thai, or really any demanding martial arts practice you think your dad might be interested in — joining a class can be intimidating, no matter his age (or advanced fitness level). We tend to overestimate the expertise/impatience of others when trying new things, so if he needs a nudge, go ahead and accompany him to a class. See how he does, he just might love it. And remember: he once did it for you.

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