Medically Reviewed by Anthony Dugarte, M.D., C.S.C.S
Exercise is considered a key component to anyone’s healthy lifestyle – and seniors are no exception.
Studies show that seniors who engage in regular exercise reap substantial health benefits, including the ability to remain strong and fit for years to come. In some cases, seniors with diseases and disabilities can improve their overall health by making physical activity a part of their life.
With people living longer these days thanks to science and technology, the population of seniors 65 years and up numbered 46.2 million in 2014 – representing about one in every seven Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
This article takes a look at some of the most effective exercises for older adults. We’ve talked with experts to bring you the latest information on this vital topic.
Our list of exercises is divided into four types of routines: endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. According to the National Institute on Aging, engaging in these four activities can help senior citizens improve their overall fitness levels.
Simply put, an endurance exercise is any activity that gets you breathing and raises your heart rate.
As age-related decline in heart and lung function are common, adding endurance activities may slow or prevent these issues. More than 3 million deaths each year are directly related to insufficient physical activity.
The World Health Organization recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity for people aged 65 and older.
These exercises may also prevent or delay ailments faced by seniors, such as heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
1. Play Pickleball or Wheelchair Basketball
There are many sports that seniors can play that help hone endurance. These include golf, seated volleyball, and wheelchair basketball. Another activity considered ideal for seniors is Pickleball, a paddle sport for all ages that combines elements of badminton, tennis, and ping-pong.
2. Garden, Sweep, or Rake
If you prefer to stay at home instead of going to a gym, there are several endurance activities you can do. For instance, you can get exercise around the house through activities like gardening, housework, sweeping, and raking.
3. Walk on a Treadmill or Ride a Stationary Bike
If you’re a gym member, most fitness facilities offer Nautilus equipment such as treadmills, stationary bicycles, and rowing machines – all of which help you raise your heart rate. Some fitness centers have swimming pools, so you can swim laps or join a water aerobics class.
4. Ride a Bicycle Built for Two, or Walk with Friends
Do you enjoy exercising out in nature? Try tandem biking – also known as a bicycle built for two. You can also try hand-crank bicycling, which is similar to bike riding, only you use your arms instead of your legs to power the bike.
Walking is also one of the easiest physical activities that can be done alone or with friends.
Strengthening our muscles is important no matter what age we are – and these exercises simply involve moving against resistance. Muscle mass begins to decline around the age of 30. By the age of 80, the loss of as much as 40% of your muscle mass can lead to considerable disability.
In elderly subjects, regular strength training over three months increased muscle strength, power, and function. When your muscles are strong, daily tasks are more manageable, such as climbing stairs and carrying groceries.
Strength exercises that focus on the lower body are also known to help improve balance.
1. Squeeze a Tennis Ball
Do you have difficulty picking things up or grasping onto items? A simple exercise with a tennis ball can help. This exercise can be performed just about anywhere. Hold the tennis ball in your hand, and squeeze the ball as hard as you can for three to five seconds.
Repeat this exercise up to 15 times with both hands.
2. Workout Those Wrists
If you want to strengthen your wrists, performing exercises with a hand-held weight in a seated position can help.
Select a chair with a forearm, and rest your arm with your hand over the edge. Hold the weight with your palm facing upward, and bend your wrist up and down at least ten times.
It’s important to select a weight that feels comfortable to you – if you feel pain, choose a lighter weight.
3. Strengthen the Arms with Hand Weights
There are a wide variety of strength exercises for the arms, and many can be performed from both sitting and standing positions.
For instance, an overhead arm raise involves holding a weight – or weighted object like a water bottle – in each hand. Slowly lift and lower the arms for up to 15 repetitions. As you become stronger, try using a heavier weight.
The arm curl is another effective seated exercise that requires a resistance band and an armless chair. Place the band under both feet and grip the ends of the band with your palms facing inward. Slowly bring your hands to your shoulders, hold for one second, and then lower your arms.
Repeat this exercise at least ten times for maximum benefits.
4. Standing Push-Ups Strengthen Arms, Shoulders, and Chest
If you want to work out your arms, shoulders, and chest simultaneously, all you need is a wall to perform a variation of a push-up.
A wall push-up requires standing in front of a wall about an arm’s distance away with your feet shoulder-width apart.
With your palms flat against the wall, lean your body forward, hold for one second, then push yourself back into the starting position.
Repeat 10 to 15 times.
5. Lift Those Legs
The back leg raise targets the buttocks and lower back, and all you need is a sturdy chair. To perform this exercise, stand behind the chair and use at least one hand to hold on for balance. Gently lift one leg back – and try not to bend your knee or point your toes.
Hold the position for one second and repeat 10 to 15 times on both legs.
Another exercise targets the abdomen and thigh muscles. This involves simply sitting and standing from a chair – preferably a chair without arms.
Start in a seated position with your hands crossed over your chest; place your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart. Now, extend your arms parallel to the floor and slowly rise to a standing position.
Repeat 10 to 15 times, depending on your comfort level.
Every year in America, more than two million seniors go to the emergency room due to fall-related accidents. Exercises that improve balance can help prevent these falls.
The benefits of good balance were demonstrated in a recent study. Subjects aged 60–80 treated with balance exercises over 6-weeks improved balance control and confidence – benefits that can reduce the risk for dangerous falls considerably.
Many of these activities can be done in the comfort of your home, or even while standing in line at the grocery store.
1. Stand on One Foot
One of these exercises involves the use of a chair for balance and simply standing on one foot. Stand behind the chair, hold this position for up to 10 seconds, and repeat up to 15 times on each foot.
2. Stroll Heel to Toe
Another exercise, called the heel-to-toe walk, is simply that. If you feel unstable, stand next to a wall while performing this exercise to steady yourself if needed.
In a standing position, with both arms out to your sides, slowly and gently walk heel to toe moving forward. It helps to focus on a spot in front of you to steady your movements.
Repeat this exercise for at least 20 steps.
3. Try the Balance Walk
Practicing the balance walk can also help you feel more confident about walking safely without falling. This exercise can be performed anywhere.
Begin in a standing position with your arms raised to your sides at shoulder height. Focus on an object in front of you and walk as steadily as you can toward that object in a straight line, with one foot in front of the other.
Try lifting your back leg and pausing for at least one second before moving forward.
Try to repeat this at least 20 times, alternating both legs.
4. Take Tai Chi
If you have access to Tai Chi classes, this practice is known to help significantly reduce falls, especially for the senior population.
Tai Chi is considered a “moving meditation” that improves balance through slow and gentle movements. Doing Tai Chi can also promote better sleep, improve bone and heart health, and help ease the pain of ailments such as osteoarthritis.
While flexibility exercises cannot improve endurance or strength, activities that hone flexibility can make daily tasks a bit easier, like getting dressed or reaching for items on a bookshelf.
10-weeks of daily stretching enhanced balance in 60 elderly subjects. Thus, flexibility may reduce the risk of dangerous falls.
There are several flexibility exercises – also known as stretching – that can be performed at home. Some of these require items you already have on hand, like a chair, towel, and a wall.
1. Stretching for the Shoulders and Upper Arms
One exercise that stretches the shoulders and upper arms can help ease simple tasks, like reaching for your seatbelt. All you need is a towel to perform this exercise. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart.
Hold the top end of the towel with your right hand behind your back at neck level, and hold the bottom end of the towel with your left hand at waist level. From this position, raise and bend your arms a few inches while grasping the towel in both hands.
Try to repeat this exercise at least three times, then reverse the arm positions.
2. Stretch the Neck
The tension in the neck can be alleviated with an easy exercise performed in a standing or seated position.
Start by facing forward with your feet flat on the floor shoulder-distance apart. Gently turn your head right or left until you feel a stretch, and try not to bend your head forward or backward.
Hold this position for 10 to 30 seconds and repeat on both sides at least three times.
3. Bend the Back
This exercise can be performed while sitting in a chair. Start with your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-distance apart.
Gently bend forward from your hips while keeping your neck and back as straight as possible. If this feels comfortable, try bending down a little bit farther while sliding your hands down your legs.
Try to hold this position for 10 to 30 seconds. If you feel discomfort, stop immediately.
4. Flexibility for Hips and Thighs
Exercises that stretch the hips and thighs can be performed on a mat or towel on the floor. Start by lying on your back.
Keep your legs together with knees bent and your feet flat. It’s important to keep your shoulders on the floor during this stretch. Gently lower one knee to the floor while not moving the other leg.
Hold the position for 10 to 30 seconds and repeat at least three times before switching to the other leg.
5. Calf Stretch
Many seniors deal with tight calf muscles. But there are easy ways to stretch them, and all you need is a sturdy wall.
Begin this exercise by facing a wall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Your standing distance from the wall should be a little bit further away than arm’s length.
Lift your arms to shoulder height and place your palms flat on the wall. Next, step forward with your right leg and bend your right knee. While both feet flat on the floor, bend your left knee until you feel a stretch in your left calf.
Hold this position for 10 to 30 seconds and repeat on both legs.
6. Buddy Stretch Works Arms, Back, Shoulders, Legs
It can be super motivating working out with a friend. This “buddy stretch” involves two people, and targets the shoulders, arms, back, and legs.
You’ll also need a towel or resistance band, and a floor mat. Start by sitting on the floor facing your friend, and place your feet against your buddy’s feet.
Next, using your resistance band or towel, have your friend hold one end while you hold the other. Slowly and gently pull the towel or band, so your friend bends forward, and you lean backward.
Hold this stretch for 10 to 30 seconds. Switch back and forth until you have both repeated the stretch three to five times.
Seniors should start their exercise programs slowly and safely.
This might mean checking in with their physician to make sure that there aren’t any conditions that certain types of exercises could worsen, according to Michele LeBlanc, a professor of biomechanics at California Lutheran University.
She has done extensive research with older adults, including simple training programs involving strength and balance.
Normal aging includes a loss of strength and balance, she said. That’s because the signals sent to our muscles move slower, and so our ability to move instantaneously is lessened.
LeBlanc noted a study that showed significant changes in strength, mobility, and balance from exercising twice a week for 20 to 30 minutes for six weeks. While exercising just once a week can be helpful, she recommends working out one to four times per week.
“The very best exercises are those that seniors will do and will enjoy,” LeBlanc said. “It is important that the exercise is something that doesn’t feel like a chore or the routine will not be followed.”
Exercises that increase strength and balance are ideal, she said, and these do not need to be complicated or use a lot of equipment.
A person’s body weight often provides enough resistance – or if not, simple elastic bands or light weights can be used to create resistance. If you don’t have a light weight, a can of food or a bottle of water can be used.
Walking is another excellent exercise that can provide multiple benefits. Walking can strengthen the legs and even the arms if you incorporate arm swings during your walk.
“If done outside, the person also gains the benefits of being around nature and getting some vitamin D from the sun,” LeBlanc said. “Depending on their fall risk, seniors should be advised to be careful of uneven surfaces, like sidewalks with an unsettled pavement.”
LeBlanc warned that any exercise that puts the back or shoulder into an awkward position is problematic.
Additionally, avoid any exercise that challenges balance too much and becomes a fall risk. You can help prevent falls by paying attention to the surface you are on, such as loose rugs and electric cords, which are known to create hazards.
Make sure that you add activities that are appropriate for your fitness skill level. While it is optimal to progressively make sessions more challenging over time, beginning with exercises that are too intense can place dangerous strains on your muscles, bones, and heart that can increase the risk for harm.
For these reasons, it’s best to speak with your doctor before making any drastic changes to your daily physical activity. Together, you can work to develop a plan that incorporates all of the important elements of fitness in the safest way possible.
Kathy Bailey teaches several senior exercise classes per week at the Goebel Adult Community Center in Ventura County, California.
In her Stretch, Tone & Balance class, seniors perform some exercises on a mat, including yoga postures for stretching. Her students also use a chair to perform upper body toning exercises with light hand weights.
She also teaches line dancing, which is a popular offering among seniors. Dancing not only works the body through movement but engages the mind as well.
“It’s also motivating to know that by dancing for three hours, you will burn as many calories as five miles of walking,” Bailey said.
When it comes to exercises seniors should avoid, Bailey notes that each person has individual needs and limitations, so it depends on the person and the exercise.
For example, if someone has a knee injury, they may not be able to bring their heel to their buttocks. Or, if they have a bulging disc, they may not be able to do a spinal twist.
However, if there are no limitations, a senior should not feel restricted simply due to their age.
“There are plenty of older adults who do marathons, which proves that the body is trainable at any age,” Bailey said.
As we age, our bodies talk to us more – and we need to listen, she further emphasized.
“Perhaps we used to run track, and now we can only walk,” Bailey said. “It’s difficult to accept that we can’t do everything we used to do easily, or even at all. The challenge is to find an activity that you enjoy doing that stimulates the mind, body, and soul.”