Staying active can keep you feeling and looking your best — at every stage of your life. An active lifestyle is especially important for senior health because regular exercise can help prevent heart disease, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer, and it can also reduce pain associated with arthritis. By improving balance, flexibility, endurance, and strength, older adults can stay healthier longer. The National Institute on Aging is a great resource for learning more about the exercise benefits for seniors. Just remember to check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise program.
Aerobic activity helps older adults burn off calories, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, maintain joint movement, improve heart health, and increase energy levels overall. Building endurance may take some time, depending on your health and activity level. Try starting with 5-minute cardio sessions a few days a week to raise your heart rate. From there, work toward eventually completing 30 minutes of aerobic activity on most days. Moderate endurance exercise for seniors includes walking briskly, tennis, and swimming; more intense aerobic activities include hiking and running.
The process of building muscle takes time, but the benefits are enormous for your health as a senior. Strength training requires good form to reap full benefit. Start with some basic, low-impact exercises: You can promote lower body strength by squatting in front of a sturdy chair. Keep your arms in front of you and be sure not to extend your knees past your toes as you bend to an almost-sitting position. Hold the position for a few moments, then raise yourself back to a standing position, take a breather, and repeat for two sets of 10 reps. Hold onto the sides of the chair or place a few pillows on the chair if the exercise is too challenging.
Adding resistance with light weights or elastic bands helps develop muscle mass and upper body strength. Sit (or stand) with feet flat on the floor and hold weights at shoulder height with palms facing forward, then lift the weights above your head. Other beneficial exercises for upper body strength include side arm raises — hold weights at your sides, palms inward, and raise your arms out to the sides — and front arm raises — hold weights at your sides, palms down, and raise arms to shoulder height. Aim for two sets of at least 10 reps for each of these three exercises.
Lifting everyday objects like a suitcase or a gallon-size jug of water can become more difficult as you age. Arm curls will strengthen the muscles involved with these movements. Either seated or standing, hold hand weights down at your sides with palms facing up and elbows tucked in, then bend your elbows and lift the weights toward your chest. Hold each repetition for about 1 second, then slowly lower the arms; do a set of 10 reps, rest, and repeat another set.
Traditional push-ups are a great way to work muscles in the arms, shoulders, and chest; however, they can be difficult to complete correctly. You can modify this exercise and still get health benefits by doing wall push-ups. Face a blank wall while standing about arm’s length away, lean forward, and press your palms flat against the wall. Bend your arms and slowly bring your upper body toward the wall, hold for a moment, and push yourself back until your arms are straight again. Do a set of 10 reps, rest, and repeat another set.
Not only do leg raises help strengthen the thigh, hip, buttocks, and lower back muscles, this type of exercise benefits balance as well. For side leg raises, stand behind a chair and hold on for better balance. Lift one leg out to the side, keeping it completely aligned from heel to hip, while maintaining a straight back and a slight bend in the supporting leg, then slowly lower the leg. For back leg raises, use the same chair for balance and slowly lift one leg behind you (without leaning forward), hold for a moment, and lower the leg. Do not bend the lifted leg or point the toes, and keep the standing leg slightly bent. For each exercise, complete two sets of at least 10 reps for each leg, alternating legs between sets.
Building muscle mass and focusing on better balance can help reduce the risk of falls and broken bones. A good balance exercise for older adults is the chair stand: Start in a seated position in an arm-less chair. Keeping your back and shoulders straight, extend your arms parallel to the ground and slowly stand up, without using your hands. Sit down and repeat the move 10 to 15 times, rest, and then complete another set of 10 to 15 reps. You can further improve your balance with the toe stand: Stand behind the chair — use it only for support — and slowly raise up on your tiptoes. After holding the position for a moment, slowly lower your heels back to the floor; repeat two sets of 10 to 15 reps.
To stretch your quadriceps, start by standing behind a chair and grabbing it with your right hand. Bend your left leg behind you and grab your foot with your left hand, making sure to keep the thigh as close to perpendicular to the floor as possible. Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds or long enough that you feel the stretch in front of the bent thigh. Release the foot and repeat on the other side. The National Institute on Aging Web site features other great stretches for the lower body, including the hamstring and calf muscles.
Flexibility is important if you want to get the most benefit out of your exercise program. Focus on arm and chest muscles by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms at your sides, then bring both arms behind your back and grasp hands. With your shoulders pulled back, hold the move for about 30 seconds, release, and repeat.
Another helpful stretch starts in the same standing position, but this time, clasp your hands in front. Turn your hands so the palms face the ground and bring your arms up to shoulder height. Press your palms outward, away from the body, and hold the move for about 30 seconds, release, and repeat. This exercise benefits the muscles of the neck, shoulders, and upper back.
Factors like limited mobility and pain can make a difference in the types of exercises you’re are able to do . Low-impact exercises allow for less strain on the body while still providing a means of staying physically active. Also, low-impact exercises can help older adults ease into a new workout program. Exercising in the water, whether swimming or doing water aerobics, is a good option, as are gentle forms of yoga, Pilates, tai chi, stretching, and light weight training. Remember that many exercises can be modified to accommodate low-impact needs — ask your physician or fitness expert about ways to adapt these activities.
Exercise benefits much more than just the body — you can also improve your mental and emotional health by maintaining an active life. And if you have fun while you’re being active, chances are you’ll want to continue participating in that activity. Join a walking group so you can exercise and socialize at the same time, listen to music while you garden or work outside, call a friend and take a water aerobics class together, or join an organized club or sport. Stay active, stay involved, and you’ll stay healthy!