Exercise for Seniors: Simple-to-Challenging Exercises that Can Improve Your Health
“Aging is not ‘lost youth’ but a new stage of opportunity and strength,” activist Betty Friedan famously said. And while she may have been speaking generally, science literally backs up her thinking: When it comes to exercising as a senior, even if you only began your first workouts at age 85, you’ll likely live up to three years longer than someone who doesn’t exercise at all.
“Physical activity is one of the most important things that seniors can do to improve their health for the rest of their lives,” said Dr. Catherine Sarkisian, director of the Los Angeles Community Academic Partnership for Research in Aging.
Perhaps the most beneficial physical activity to undertake is strength training. And once you start, you won’t have to wait long to see the results, according to Dr. Roger Fielding, Senior Scientist of the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. He points out that “if you begin a supervised program of resistance exercise training, and you do it at a moderate to high intensity—meaning that you train at or near your maximum strength, which varies between from one individual to the next—the measured gains in strength can be realized within the first two to three weeks of the program.”
That’s right: You’ll likely see and feel improvement within the span of a college kid’s spring break. But Dr. Fielding advises that seniors don’t stop there. “If that program continues to be performed at a high enough intensity and it is progressive, those strength gains will continue. For healthy older people in particular, those gains can be pretty substantial up through 12 to 24 weeks of training. And gaining this kind of strength can really reduce the risk of falls and injuries as we age.”
Even if you aren’t able to commit to a daily or every-other-day routine, you can still reduce loss of muscle tissue (known as sarcopenia) with fewer gym visits and exercise for seniors that give you the best bang for your buck. “Aim to do one to two strength training session a week, as well as to walk at least 20 minutes three to four times a week,” Fielding said. “With just some effort, the benefits can be enormous.”
Why Seniors Should Exercise
Researchers are working hard to give outdated ideas on aging a long-overdue upgrade. “We are trying to undo decades of stereotyping, in which people have gotten it into their heads that getting older means slowing down, getting weaker, getting frailer,” said Jennifer Ailshire, Ph.D.
As an Assistant Professor at USC’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, Dr. Ailshire has concluded that strength training, which is one form of exercise for seniors, can turn back the clock for seniors who want a steadier balance and freer mobility. “Sarcopenia—the loss of muscle mass as you age—puts you in a very vulnerable physiological state for a whole bunch of problems,” said Dr. Ailshire. “So, you really are trying to safeguard yourself against some of the declines that come with aging. Strength training reduces your risk of having balance problems, particularly your risk of falling.”
Even if you’re in your eighth or ninth decade, strength training can make you more stable on your feet and stronger all around. A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that eight weeks of high-intensity resistance training boosted the physical abilities of frail residents of nursing homes who were 90 and above. It recorded strength increases of a whopping 174 percent on average. That’s certainly not a bad return on investment.
Exercise has positive effects on more than just the body. When it comes to the mind, a good weight-training regimen may be just what the doctor ordered. Exercise has been proven to lift spirits and combat depression, a frequent malady for those suffering from chronic physical conditions. Studies have shown that resistance training combined with aerobic exercise can stimulate brain cells and delay brain aging by as much as ten years.
Better still, exercise can replace unnecessary medications. Get this: moderate physical activity may actually control depression in the elderly better than antidepressant prescriptions. Take that, medicine cabinet! According to a team from the Duke University Medical Center, 30 minutes of exercise three times a week may be all that’s needed. “One of the conclusions we can draw from this is that exercise may be just as effective as medication and may be a better alternative for certain patients,” said James Blumenthal, a psychologist at Duke and the lead author on the study. “Almost one-third of depressed patients in general do not respond to medications, and for others, the medications can cause unwanted side effects. Exercise should be considered a viable option.”
Depression also sometimes hits seniors who are isolated and feeling lonely, which points to the benefits of making a set plan with a dedicated workout buddy or group. The feeling of community is enriching and, at the same time, a sense of responsibility toward someone else is a great motivating force for sticking to an exercise routine. No one wants to wind up in the doghouse for being the one who bails.
Strength Exercise for Seniors
A workout routine for seniors puts the focus on more important things than simply how you look. “We strongly recommend seniors do exercises that maintain strength, balance and flexibility. Our goal is to reduce their risk of falls and injuries, so they can stay healthy and independent,” said Jaza Marina, MD, a Kaiser Permanente physician who specializes in elder care. And you don’t have to already be trim and fit to embark on your fitness journey—anyone can participate. “The great thing is no matter what your age, size, or fitness level, it’s never too late to start exercising.”
Balance Exercises for Seniors
Putting the focus on the lower limbs in your workouts can leads to better balance, a key concern for many seniors keen to head off falls.
Kick off your balance training with three small, focused exercises recommended by the UK’s National Health Service. They’re doable in pretty much any location, from your living room to the grocery aisle as you pick up ingredients for dinner.
The first movement is a sideways walk. Stand with your feet together, knees slightly bent. Step to the side, slow and controlled, moving one foot then the other to join it. Avoid dropping your hips as you step. Try 10 steps in each direction and increase when ready.
The next exercise is a simple grapevine, which is a sideways walk but with the added action of crossing one foot over the other. Pro tip: The smaller the step, the more you work on your balance.
The last is a heel-to-toe walk. Standing upright, place your right heel on the floor directly in front of your left toe. Then repeat with your left heel. Look forward (not down) and try to perform at least five steps. If you need extra stability for any of these, work near a wall with your fingers lightly supporting your balance and move away as you progress over time.
Another excellent lower body strengthener is step-ups, a power move recommended by the Centers for Disease Control that hits the legs, hips and butt. Stand in front of a set of stairs with feet flat and toes facing forward. Place your entire left foot on the first step (use the handrail for balance if necessary). Count to two, then place your weight on your left leg and straighten it while slowly lifting your right leg until it reaches the first step. Keep the left knee straight and don’t let it shift forward past your ankle as you’re lifting yourself up. Tap your right foot on the first step, then lower it back to the floor as you count to 4. Repeat 10 times with the left leg and 10 times with the right leg for one set. Rest for about one minute. Then do a second set of 10 repetitions with each leg.
Chair Exercises for Seniors
Intimidated by gym equipment? Anxious about your balance? It’s totally understandable. “There is no question, you have to move, and you just have to find a safe way to do it,” said Dr. Ailshire. Happily, one of the most useful pieces of exercise gear can be found in almost every home, and chances are you’re sitting on it right now: a chair.
Dr. Ailshire notes that it’s often easiest to start with exercises that aren’t too far from actions we do during the course of most days. You might hear “squats” and think, Oh no, I can’t do those. But in this case, it’s just a series of repetitions in which you sit down and stand up again, an everyday movement that nevertheless strengthens your abdomen and thighs.
To begin these squats, stand in front of a sturdy chair, feet slightly more than shoulder width apart. Extend your arms so that they are parallel to the ground. Place your body weight more on your heels than on the balls of your feet. Bend your knees as you lower your rear toward the chair in a slow, controlled motion while you count to four. Pause there, then slowly rise back up to a standing position for a count of two. Position your knees over your ankles and keep your back straight. Repeat the squat ten times. Rest for about one minute, then complete a second set of ten.
For added stability and peace of mind, position the chair next to a table. “You can even hold onto it while doing the exercise,” said Dr. Ailshire. “It will make you feel safer and it might actually make you safer.”
Stretching Exercises for Seniors
For seniors who haven’t quite gotten up the resolve to start strength training, research shows that even gentle stretching has fantastic benefits. “Muscle stretching performed regularly can have a real impact by increasing blood flow to muscles in the lower leg,” said Dr Judy Muller-Delp, Professor of Biomedical Sciences at the Florida State University College of Medicine. “This highlights that even individuals who struggle to walk due to pain or lack of mobility can undertake activity to possibly improve their health.” Customize your own stretching routine with help from The University of California at Berkeley, which has compiled an excellent comprehensive guide to seated, standing and floor stretches.
And remember above all else, when you’re training, go at your own pace. You know what feels right. As Oscar-winner Frances McDormand put it, “With aging you earn the right to be loyal to yourself.”
Remember to talk to your doctor before embarking on any workout or exercise routine.