20 Essential Exercises for Older Adults
Exercise can keep seniors healthy, active, and enjoying life. Older adults who are physically active have lower rates of mortality from all sorts of diseases, such as stroke, heart disease, and some cancers, and exercise is an effective management tool for those with arthritis, hypertension, and even dementia.
The World Health Organization recommends 150 hours per week of at least moderate intensity activity for adults 65 and older, and muscle-strengthening exercises at least twice a week. In addition, the Office of Disease Prevention suggests that older people, who are in danger of suffering from falls -- a leading cause of injury and death -- should add some sort of balance training to the mix. Here are 20 essential exercises that can keep seniors on their toes.
As an all-around great exercise, it's hard to beat yoga. It is low impact and can be done by people at all skill levels. Doing yoga regularly increases flexibility, strength, and balance. It's good for the joints but is still weight bearing, which is a guard against osteoporosis. It's easy to find yoga classes at senior centers, community centers, and gyms, as well as at dedicated yoga studios.
Everybody knows how to do it, and it requires no special equipment save comfortable shoes. Taking a brisk walk 30 minutes a day meets health guidelines and has innumerable benefits, such as maintaining muscle mass, joint support, stopping the loss of bone mass, and increasing mental sharpness. Plus, it's fun, it feels good and it will keep you heart-healthy. It can even be done in the house in bad weather with the help of videos. Jane Fonda has one (she's back, without leg warmers, doing exercises for older adults).
Tai chi is a slow-moving, very low-impact martial art from China that is safe for people of all ages. Evidence from studies by the American Geriatrics Society suggests practicing tai chi greatly reduces the risk of falling, and can cut the incidence of injury from falls by half. Even following a short video can help seniors achieve better balance and strength.
The torso, or core, holds up the spine, so strength in the core is vital for any kind of movement, for spinal health, for coordination, and stability. Ab crunches as core training? They are a decidedly bad idea, several experts say. There are plenty of other exercises to do as a substitute, many of which use only a chair -- so they're convenient and can be done at any time. Some of these beginning core exercises for seniors have been gathered by Ab Machines Guide.
It's similar to yoga because it's low-impact and concentrates on the control and centering of the body, but Pilates focuses more on strengthening -- particularly of abdominal muscles -- to improve balance and posture. It's also weight bearing, so it's good for osteoporosis prevention. In a fitness center or dedicated studio, Pilates might use specialized equipment, but it's possible to do it at home as well with a DVD or video showing how to use body weight as resistance.
Seniors who have access to a pool, whether at home or at a fitness center, have it good: Swimming is great exercise. It is aerobic, so it contributes to heart health, and having water buoy body weight makes for less stress on the joints than other cardiovascular workouts might. Some studies have shown that swimming is good prevention for falls, because it builds core and leg muscles and promotes stability.
Resistance exercises with weights can put pressure on the joints when done on land; doing them in the water, weight-free, is better for some people. The water itself acts as resistance, and its buoyancy reduces stress on the joints. Classic weight room exercises such as the fly, leg raises, and biceps curls are easier in the water but have equal benefit, mobility experts say. Aerobic exercises such as flutter kicking, marching, and even jogging give the heart rate a boost without risk of pain or injury.
Strength training is important to keep muscles and bones strong, and resistance bands work muscle groups without the strain of using weights. Bands are cheap and portable, allow exercises to be done seated or standing, and adjust to seniors' capacity, so they can work slowly up to more resistance. Silver Sneakers offers a full set of exercises that can be done at home.
Aerobics classes of our youth may have been intense and full of leg warmers and tiny leotards, but most fitness, senior, and community centers offer classes meant specifically for older adults where there's less jumping around like Mick Jagger -- but the same benefits. Aerobics lower blood pressure, improve heart health, and raise energy and mood levels. The social setting makes it more fun.
Manufacturers are making biking more accessible for seniors, with step-through models that have no cross-bar, tricycles, and electrically assisted versions. Biking is low-impact exercise that raises heart rate and has many other health benefits, according to Loving Your Bike. There are many cycling groups across the country that offer a community of cyclists to join and ride with.
Strength training helps you perform everyday activities with more ease, but particularly benefits people with osteoarthritis, according to The National Center for Biotechnology Information. Those who are at a low level of fitness can exercise using body weight; the slightly more fit can use light hand weights or water bottles to give resistance. Many seniors meet strength-training recommendations in classes at senior and fitness centers or work out to videos.
Older adults with mobility issues or chronic conditions may not be able to meet recommended activity guidelines, but doing something is better than doing nothing -- depending on the advice of a health care provider, seniors should do as much as they can. It is also recommended that older adults who have been inactive for some time begin a regimen of exercise slowly, with care, and under the supervision of a health care provider so they can work within their limitations. Seniors with reduced mobility can take advantage of doing exercise routines in a chair, either a full-body workout or one designed to increase flexibility.
Strong legs mean being able to get up after a fall, and hip flexibility is one of the preventers of hip replacement surgery. Squats keep the quadriceps strong, making it easy to rise from chairs and get into and out of a car. They can be modified for people with bad knees and those who don't have a huge range of motion when done against a wall or using a chair.
Arm, shoulder, and upper back strength is increased by doing push-ups, but for many seniors, traditional push ups are close to impossible to do. Wall push-ups offer the same benefits to those without a lot of upper body strength, who have issues with their lower spine, or who are reluctant to do exercises on the floor.
Medical professionals suggest lunges as an exercise fit for every skill level, particularly for older adults, because they stretch the hip flexors, enhance core strength, and use body weight to strengthen the legs. Those who are just starting, have balance issues, or are less fit can do modified lunges using a chair for stability.
Flexibility is key to go on performing the activities of daily living that make independence a possibility, and is a must for preventing falls. The key to flexibility is stretching. (It's also important to stretch after any impact and aerobic exercises that might put strain on muscles or joints.) Stretch classes can be found at fitness centers and senior centers, but it's also possible to find videos, tips and examples geared to seniors.
Those at risk for falling will find balancing exercises particularly useful. The U.S. Office of Disease Prevention recommends doing them at least three days a week. Simple exercise include walking backward, walking sideways, heel-to-toe walking (as if on a tightrope), as well as raising one leg while standing, holding onto a chair if necessary.
Many yoga studios offer something called gentle yoga, which is meant for people with physical limitations of some kind. The movements are slower, which some yoga teachers say nurtures the joints and connective tissue. Generally, these classes offer more individual assistance geared to students' limitations.
People who can't lie on the floor in traditional yoga poses or prefer not to can do a more non-traditional practice in a chair. Assisted-living facilities often offer classes, as it has many benefits for people with mobility issues and other physical conditions, including relieving many kinds of pain and strengthening muscles and joints. It's great for people in wheelchairs.