Building the habit of moving your body doesn’t have to be a drag!
You may not be able to get out as much as usual, and your favorite group exercise class may be canceled, but you still have to stay active. The benefits—strong heart and lungs, better sleep, improved cognition, and (especially important this year) a strengthened immune system—beat sitting on the couch by a landslide. You can unlock the key to living life to the fullest in only 20–30 minutes a day. Ready to get moving? Check out these best exercises for seniors!
The best exercise for you is something you enjoy. Beyond that, find a variety of activities that get your heart rate up and allow you to maintain or improve your quality of life. Always be sure to consult your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine.
“Seniors need a well-balanced diet of cardio, strength and flexibility,” says Jessica Ruiz, a NASM-certified personal trainer and Silver Sneakers instructor and FitRated expert based in Pittsburg, Kansas. “These ingredients can be put together in a recipe. When you follow the recipe, you’ll notice a range of improvements, such as better reaction time and coordination. If you start to fall, you’re more likely to shift your weight or put your arm out more quickly. Improved flexibility will help you tie your shoes and grab something on a high shelf.”
Older adults should incorporate strength training that hits all major muscle groups twice a week as well as balance training. If chronic conditions prevent you from doing the minimum amount of exercises, do as much as your doctor suggests and your conditions allow.
You can exercise indoors or out, solo or with a friend. You can use dumbbells and bands or only your body weight. You can move to a YouTube video or hire a virtual personal trainer. You can even join your neighbors for physically distanced doorway exercises offered at many Spectrum Retirement communities. The options are endless.
One easy way to incorporate cardio, aka aerobic activity, is to get outside. Walking, jogging, hiking, cycling, and swimming will all get your blood flowing.
“Just being outside and active with a friend has benefits,” says Marissa Axell, an ACE-certified personal trainer and coach who works with athletes of all ages and fitness levels. “The outdoors melts away stress: the warm sunshine, the green grass, the blue sky, all this decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol.”
Can’t get outside? You’ve got options. Chances are your community offers classes in the best exercises for seniors! If you don’t like aerobics, try dancing. You can also use the stationary bike, elliptical machine, or simply a flight of stairs for a solid workout. Work hard enough so it’s difficult to sing but easy to talk.
If you need to stay home, you can still exercise. March in place or step side-to-side for 10- to 15 minutes, twice a day. Jump rope or do jumping jacks if your joints allow. Extra credit: When you’re watching TV, walk, march or do chores during commercials.
The Secret Sauce: Strength Training
Strength training helps maintain muscle mass, slow bone density loss, and prevent falls. It’s also been shown to boost mood and prevent cognitive decline.
Aim for three times a week on nonconsecutive days, such as Monday-Wednesday-Friday. You can perform a simple strength routine that hits most major muscle groups in about 15 minutes. Add it to the end of a cardio workout or do cardio in the morning and strength/flexibility in the evening: whatever works best for your energy level and schedule.
Need ideas? Silver Sneakers offers the best exercises for seniors including a routine that includes a mix of upper- and lower-body exercises, with modifications to make them harder. YouTube offers thousands of options from certified trainers, including this one from the National Institute on Aging and these upper and lower body routines from Eldergym Fitness and AIM Fitness, respectively.
Functional Fitness Strength Routine
Axell developed a simple full-body routine that uses nothing but your bodyweight and a pillow. The series develops your muscles to make it easier and safer for you to perform functional activities: get up and down from a chair and reach into the dishwasher, for example. Again, be sure to consult your doctor to ensure this exercise plan works for you.
- Start with one set of 10 repetitions (reps) and work up to three sets of 8 to 12 reps. To make it harder, decrease the amount of rest between sets.
- Pushups. Start by performing pushups against a wall. When that feels easy, move to a counter, to a chair or bench (pushed against a wall to prevent sliding), and then to the floor.
- Pillow press. Lie on the floor (or your bed) in sit-up position. Push a pillow away from and back toward your chest.
- Pillow row. Stand tall. Hang your hips back a few inches and bend your knees slightly. Grab pillow edges with your hands, pull pillow to your chest, and release toward the ground. Keep your abs tight, spine long, and knees bent to support your back.
- Pillow raises. Sit in a chair. Hold pillow in your lap. Raise pillow with straight arms above your head (or as high as your mobility will allow).
- Bridge pose. Lie on your back on the floor (if possible), knees bent. Raise your rear off the ground while squeezing your glutes. Your torso and thighs should form a straight line. Hold for 5 seconds, lower and repeat. Here’s a picture with detailed instructions. To make it harder, use one leg.
- Lunges. Step forward, bending at the knee. Keep knees in line with your toes. A rep is one lunge, both legs. To make it harder, try walking lunges and/or backward lunges.
- Squats. Stand with feet hip-distance apart or slightly wider. With chest up, push hips back while lowering into a squat. Keep knees over ankles. Reach your arms straight out for balance (rest them on a chair or table, if needed, to stay steady). Push back up to standing position, keeping weight in the heels.
Stretch and Recover
Stretch after every workout (and at any other time) to maintain flexibility, as well as to keep you from “stiffening up” after exercise. Stretch the body parts you worked, especially your legs and back. Try Silver Sneakers’ stretching series for the basics.
Best Exercises for Seniors All Together
Does all this exercise sound overwhelming? Don’t worry. It will become routine in no time.
To get on track, write your plan down in a calendar or journal. “Plan workouts into your day,” Axell says. “And schedule it around another event to anchor the habit, such as before or after breakfast or dinner.”
Even better, find a buddy. “A workout buddy holds you accountable and helps you stay on schedule,” says Ruiz. “Even if you can only meet by video, it also helps bring back some of the social aspects of exercise that a lot of people are missing right now.”
Creating the habit, Axell says, will take you farther than motivation alone. Because let’s face it — we’re not going to feel like exercising sometimes. Overcoming the pull of the sofa requires habit, as well as action and awareness. Write down your goals. Lay out your clothes the night before. Pump your bicycle tires. “And give yourself permission to stop after five or ten minutes,” Axell says. “Something is always better than nothing.”
After each workout, check in with yourself. How do you feel? “Most likely you’ll feel confident, happy, and energized,” Axell says. “The more you focus on those positive feelings, the more motivated you’ll be next time.”
Lastly, remember to congratulate yourself for a job well done and affirm the new you. “Reinforce the mind-body connection by affirming, ‘I am someone who sticks to a routine’ or ‘who is active and strong’,” Axell says. “Soon you’ll feel like you can take on the world.”