There are no official fitness guidelines for older adults, but the basic exercises for seniors are the same at every age.
The average 65-year-old can expect to reach her 85th birthday, and the average 75-year-old will live to age 87. How we'll celebrate those birthdays has a lot to do with how we spend our time today. Although none of us can be certain that we'll be spared debilitating disorders that could rob us of our mobility, there's no doubt that regular exercise will help improve our ability to function at almost any age or level of fitness.
Why exercises for seniors are essential
During the 1970s, several studies of healthy older people indicated that strength, stamina, and flexibility drop significantly after age 55. For example, the Framingham Disability Study found that 62% of women ages 75 to 85 had difficulty kneeling or stooping; 66% couldn't lift more than 10 pounds, and 42% were unable to stand for more than 15 minutes.
These declines were once considered an inevitable consequence of aging. But a landmark study published in 1994 by Harvard and Tufts researchers showed that many functional losses could be reversed, even in the frailest and oldest women. In that study, 100 nursing-home residents, ages 72 to 98, performed resistance exercises three times a week for 10 weeks. At the end of that time, the exercise group could lift significantly more weight, climb more stairs, and walk faster and farther than their sedentary counterparts, who continued to lose strength and muscle mass. Concurrently, researchers with the MacArthur Study of Aging in America, a 10-year investigation of healthy aging, were finding that people in their 70s and 80s could become more physically fit, even if they had never exercised before.
In the years since other researchers have substantiated the value of exercise for the oldest and most vulnerable populations. Their collective message: If you can move a muscle, you should. It may help you live longer and better.
How to do it
There is no single group of exercises for seniors, probably because there isn't a fitness standard specifically for people over age 70. As the American Society of Geriatrics explains in its statement on screening tests for older people, "individuals age at different rates. There is a considerable variation...even at an advanced age."
Exercise physiologist Evelyn O'Neill, at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Boston, agrees that the older you are, the less reliable age is as an indicator of fitness. "It really is just a number," she says. O'Neill, who was on the team that conducted the 1994 research, designs exercise routines for people who are close to age 100. Some have disabilities like arthritis, osteoporosis, or cardiovascular disease. Others have a few minor complaints but are generally fit and want to stay that way.
O'Neill took this range of abilities into account in designing "Get Up and Go," her exercise program for people over 60. The program is designed to improve cardiovascular conditioning, balance, strength, and flexibility. Participants are evaluated by an exercise physiologist before each biweekly, 30-minute session. Then each participant is assigned the most challenging exercises she can do without risking injury. Individual routines range from weight training to line dancing and include many of the exercises illustrated in this article.
According to O'Neill, the very frail tend to do better if they begin with weight machines, which provide stability, then move to free weights and floor exercises once they've become stronger.
Examples of strength training exercises
Overhead press. Start with your upper arms close to your sides, elbows bent, and forearms perpendicular to the floor. Your palms should face forward and weights should be at shoulder level. Slowly press the weights upward until your arms are extended (don't lock your elbows). Weights should be slightly forward, not directly overhead. Pause. Slowly return to the starting position. Do 8–15 repetitions. Rest. Repeat the set.
Hip extension. Stand 12 inches behind a chair, and hold on to the back for support. Lean the upper body forward 45 degrees and slowly raise one leg straight back behind you. Lift it as high as you can without bending your knee. Pause. Slowly lower your leg. Do 8–15 repetitions, and then repeat with the other leg. When you're ready for more, add ankle weights. When you can do this comfortably, add a second set of repetitions.
Side leg raise. Hold on to a chair back for support. Keeping the knee straight and the back upright, slowly lift one leg to the side 6–12 inches. Pause. Slowly lower the leg. Repeat 8–15 times on each leg. When you're ready for more, add ankle weights. When you can do this comfortably, add a second set of repetitions.
Curl up. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Put your hands beneath the small of your back. Slowly raise your head and shoulders a few inches off the floor, pause, then slowly lower them. Aim for 8–15 repetitions. Rest. Repeat the set.
Bridge. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Put your hands next to your hips with palms flat on the floor. Keeping the back straight (do not allow it to arch), slowly lift your buttocks as high as you can off the mat, using your hands for balance only. Pause. Lower your buttocks without touching the mat, then lift again. Do 8–15 repetitions. Rest. Repeat the set.
Examples of stretching exercises
Upper-body stretch. Stand facing a corner with your arms raised, hands flat against the walls, elbows at shoulder height. Place one foot 12 inches ahead of the other. Bend the front knee and lean your body toward the corner. Keep your back straight (don't bend at the waist) and your chest and head up. Hold this position for 30 seconds. Repeat with the other leg forward. This exercise also stretches the back calf.
Hip and lower backstretch. Lie on your back with both legs extended. Look down toward your chest without lifting your neck off the floor. Bring one knee up to your chest, pulling it in with your hands. Relax and then repeat before switching to the other side. As you improve, you can bring both knees up together.
Shoulder stretch. Holding the end of a dishtowel in one hand, drop the towel down behind your back and grasp the lower end with the other hand. Slowly pull up on your lower arm, gently stretching your shoulder. Relax and repeat two or three times. Do the stretch again with the arm positions reversed.
Toe stand. Stand straight, holding on to a chair back. Slowly lift up on your toes as high as possible. Pause, then slowly lower your heels to the ground. Repeat 8–15 times. Add modifications: Hold the chair with one hand, then one fingertip, then no hands. Finally, try this exercise with your eyes closed.
Heel-toe walk. Practice heel-to-toe walking as if you were on a tightrope, placing the heel of one foot just in front of the toes of the opposite foot each time you take a step. (Hold your arms out at your sides for balance if you need to.) Walk the length of a long hallway, then turn around and walk back.
Anytime, anywhere. Stand on one leg, then on the other, while waiting in line at the grocery store or bus stop. At home, practice standing on one leg, then on the other, with your eyes closed.
Restarting your engine
Whether you've been sedentary all your life or become inactive because of injury or illness, programs, like Get Up and Go, are an ideal way to turn things around. Check with your hospital, health plan, "Y," or senior center for programs that are supervised by exercise professionals and incorporate individual physical evaluations.
Before you undertake any exercise program, begin with a checkup by your primary care provider or rehabilitation specialist. If you have a condition such as congestive heart failure, lung disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis, or a joint replacement, you'll need guidance on developing a safe exercise routine. If you're crafting your own program, you'll want to build it on the four cornerstones of fitness: cardiovascular conditioning, strength, balance, and flexibility.
The heart, like other muscles, becomes deconditioned when a sedentary lifestyle reduces the demands we make on it. As a result, its contractions become weaker and it pumps less blood with each beat. But some cardiovascular loss can be reversed through regular exercise.
Walking, cycling, swimming, and other aerobic exercises boost energy and endurance by increasing cardiovascular capacity. They also reduce the risk of developing conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and depression. Studies have shown that 30 minutes of daily moderate cardiovascular exercise, even in 10-minute increments, can increase fitness and substantially reduce disease risk. Walking is one of the best aerobic exercises because it also helps maintain bone. You might want to start with 10-minute sessions, walking at the fastest pace that allows you to sustain a conversation. The only equipment you'll need is a pair of comfortable shoes with resilient soles. Select a safe, well-lighted spot with a level surface. Dress in loose-fitting clothes that you can shed in layers as you warm up.
Maintaining your strength is one of the most important ways to ensure that you will retain your independence. Whether your goal is to lift a child from the crib or to open the pickle jar, strength training (also called resistance exercise) will help you to reach it. You can buy ankle and hand weights from a sporting goods store.
To build muscle, the exercises must be challenging, but they shouldn't be stressful. The idea is to lift a weight you can comfortably manage for eight repetitions and try to keep going until you reach 15 repetitions. Take three seconds to lift the weight; hold it for one second; then take another three seconds to lower it. Breathe in as you lift the weight and out as you lower it. Rest, then do a second set of repetitions. If you can easily lift the weight more than 15 times, try adding another pound. Take a day off between sessions for each muscle group, or exercise your upper body one day and your lower body the next.
Loss of flexibility can be a mere annoyance or a real impediment, affecting your ability to back into a parking place or even to trim your toenails. Because you should do stretching exercises only when your muscles are warm, you might want to add 15 minutes of stretches at the end of your aerobic or weightlifting sessions.
Stretching shouldn't hurt; at most, you should feel a slight tugging or pulling. Repeat each stretch three to five times. As you gain flexibility, you'll find yourself stretching farther each session.
If you've taken a couple of tumbles recently or just feel unsteady on your feet, you may want to start with balance exercises, even before you begin your aerobic program. All you need is a pair of comfortable, low-heeled shoes. Because balance exercises don't stress muscles, you can do them as often as you like.