Not everybody is cut out to join a gym. Maybe you’re a little body conscious. Maybe you don’t feel like it’s worth the money. Maybe there’s not one nearby that’s a good fit for your needs. Maybe you’re just antisocial (aren’t we all, at different points in our lives?).
Those are all common and reasonable feelings. But they’re less reasonable when they lead to people not exercising at all instead of exercising outside of a traditional fitness facility. You don’t have to fall into that trap.
“Exercising doesn’t have to be complicated,” contends Julie Lohre, an International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness fitness pro, certified personal trainer, and certified nutrition specialist based in Cincinnati. “The best exercises can even be done from home.”
Here, Lohre and other health experts suggest 10 exercises for aging adults that require little more than your time and motivation.
Know yourself first
Before you try any of these exercises, be sure you follow some best practices.
Angel Stone, a certified personal trainer at fitandhungry.com, says she doesn’t believe in the theory that seniors should avoid any particular activities on the basis of their age. “I know plenty of seniors in phenomenal shape who can do any exercise I throw at them,” she says.
“That being said, my biggest tip is to avoid exercises that are painful,” adds Stone. “If you experience a sharp pain in your knee when you do squats, don’t do squats. Or limit your range of motion by going as far as you can without pain. The key is to stop before the pain starts.”
The exercises you do should depend on your own, personal fitness level, notes Tony Cosenzo, whose certifications include being a health coach, personal trainer, and dementia practitioner at Fibonacci Health Care in Sarasota, Fla. He recommends weight training for seniors because it strengthens both muscles and bones. He also advises against balance and explosive exercises because of the risk of injury.
And don’t push to far too quickly. “It’s important not to jump in too fast if you’ve been away from exercising for some time,” advises Lohre. “Start slowly with exercises that will build your strength and flexibility. I recommend both low-impact aerobic exercise like walking, biking, or swimming along with three-times-per-week of strengthening exercises.”
If you have health limitations or issues, advises Lohre, check with your doctor before beginning any exercise routine, including the exercises included here.
1. Lunges. You’ll find that simple acts like walking or stair climbing will be much easier if you do lunges regularly, says Caroline Topperman, a Toronto-based former dancer and owner of a Pilates studio who operates styleontheside.com.
Start in a standing position and take as large a step forward as you can. Drop your back knee toward the floor while bending your front knee to a 90-degree angle—but no further. Keep your abdominal muscles engaged the entire time. Then push off from your back foot and leg to return to your start position. Do 12 on each leg.
If you’re having problems with balance, do lunges next to a wall. And if you get strong enough that lunges become too easy, hold some weights or try doing them while walking up stairs.
2. Sit to stand. This is one of the most beneficial at-home exercises, according to Kim Evans, who is Athletics and Fitness Association of America certified, ACE paddlefit certified, and a USA Track & Field certified coach and official; she’s a group exercise instructor at Spring Lake Community Fitness & Aquatic Center in Michigan.
“As we age, we lose muscle mass and strength, and doing things like walking, going up and down stairs, and getting up from the couch can be a challenge,” she says. “So a simple sit to stand strengthens the legs.”
Using a hard chair, such as a kitchen or dining room chair, move forward toward the front of the chair so there’s some weight on your feet as well as over your hips. Without using your hands or putting them on your legs, stand up. Then sit back down again. Try to stand up as tall as possible each time, and use your feet to push into the ground; this will engage your posterior chain muscles.
Evans recommends starting with one set of 10 repetitions and going up from there. “This exercise takes less than a minute to perform and, if done consistently, will give great results and more strength,” she asserts.
3. Plank hold. For a proper abdominal plank, explains Lohre, your body should form a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles. Then brace your abs by drawing your belly button inward and keeping your stomach tight; Lohre suggests you imagine someone is about to punch you in the gut. You can do this hold—for 20-30 seconds—on your knees if necessary.
4. Glute bridge. Lie on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, notes Stone. Press into your heels as you lift your butt off the ground as high as you can. Pause at the top, then gently lower your butt. This is a hip opener and activates your glutes; it’s also good for hamstring strength.
5. Straight leg raise. Falls in people 65 and older are the leading cause of injury deaths, hospitalizations, and emergency department visits in New York, according to the state’s Podiatric Medical Association. It recommends exercises to help you avoid falls.
The straight leg raise is a total leg workout that will help you with walking, transferring, and especially with getting in and out of bed, and it works muscles in your stomach and back, reports Paul Liswood, a Brooklyn-based podiatrist.
Lie on your bed, straighten your right leg, and place your left foot flat. Raise your right leg with your knee locked. Lower your right leg slowly, but don’t allow it to go all the way down to the bed. Do a set of 10 with each leg.
6. Reverse lunge and reachback. Start with your feet together, explains Stone. Step back into a lunge. Hold the lunge as you lift both arms overhead and toward the back. Feel the stretch. Lower your arms and return your back foot to the start position. Repeat with your other leg. The benefits are to your lower body and core and to lower-back mobility.
7. Russian twist. Start seated, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, explains Lohre. With both hands in front of your chest, keep your spine long and your abdominals tight. Lean back slightly and lift your feet a few inches off the floor. If that’s too difficult, you can let your feet or heels continue to touch the floor. Lohre suggests eight of these in each direction, with an option to add weight, such as a med ball or dumbbell.
8. High knee run or jog. Run in place lifting your knees as high as you can, recommends Stone, who says this improves cardio conditioning, aerobic capacity, and heart strength. It’s good to lean back slightly so that your knees can go higher. Your choice: jog or do a high-knee march.
9. Kneeling pushups. Ten reps of these are wise, Lohre says, and they’re great because pushups on the toes are too difficult for many people.
Begin on your knees with both hands on the floor directly underneath your shoulders, explains Lohre. Align your body so there’s a straight line from your shoulders down through your knees. Keep your elbows close into your body and slowly lower your body, bringing your chest as close to the ground as possible. Be sure to maintain a tight core and neutral head position throughout. Then push back up to the starting position.
10. Belly dance. Have some fun, why don’t you? “Belly dancing is an exceptional type of fitness for seniors,” according to Milana Perepyolkina, who works to spread the lessons from her Romani ancestry; she’s the author of Gypsy Energy Secrets: Turning a Bad Day into a Good Day No Matter What Life Throws at You.
Perepyolkina says the best move is the Turkish figure eight, and she suggests performing it for 10 minutes every other day. Move your right hip forward and up, then back and down with your weight on your left foot. Move your left hip forward and up, then back and down with your weight on your right foot. Imagine a horizontal figure eight with its center in your belly.
Keep your belly tight, and keep moving your hips in a continuous flow. “Your hips should be moving, but your shoulders shouldn’t,” she notes. “Experiment with raising your arms to the side, in front of you, or above your head. Also experiment with lowering your head or throwing it back a little.
“Your belly is your powerhouse, your energy center,” she says. “When you do this move, you activate, refresh, and restore this energy center.”