By Dr. Mercola
If you're a senior, perhaps one of the best exercise recommendations for you to take to heart is to make sure you're incorporating resistance exercises to strengthen your muscles.
This will help you maintain healthy bone mass and prevent age-related muscle loss.
Strength training will also increase your muscle elasticity and strengthen your connective tissues, tendons, and ligaments, which, from a biomechanical perspective, help hold your body in the upright position.
In short, strength training will allow you to perform everyday activities like climbing stairs and getting out of a chair with greater ease, and with less risk of falling, and this freedom of movement can have a considerable impact on your quality of life.
Strength training also produces a number of beneficial changes at the molecular, enzymatic, hormonal, and chemical levels in your body, helping to slow down and even reverse many of the diseases caused by a sedentary lifestyle, including type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's, osteoporosis, and heart disease.
Find Exercises That Match Your Current Fitness Level...
I recently published a basic guide of simple balance and coordination exercises for the elderly and infirm. It has a video of my mother performing the exercises. If you're too weak or incapacitated to perform the strength exercises reviewed in this article, I suggest you go back and start with those.
In time, you may be able to work your way up to the beginner's level strength training exercises demonstrated in this article.
On the other hand, if you find the following exercises are too basic for your current level of fitness, check out my previous strength training for older adults article.
It demonstrates strength training exercises for seniors using basic gym equipment, and goes into higher intensity strength training as well. That said, the following exercises are suitable for many seniors who are just starting out with strength training.
Knee Extensions, with or Without Weights
Knee extension exercises will help strengthen your knees, which will improve your balance and reduce your risk of falling. Strengthening your knees will also allow you to walk and climb stairs with greater ease and comfort.
- Sit on a chair with your back straight and knees bent
- Slowly extend your right leg out in front of you and hold for a few seconds before lowering it back to starting position
- Repeat with your left leg
- Do 10 repetitions on each leg
For a more advanced version, strap an ankle weight around each ankle. Aim for a weight that is heavy enough to where you cannot do more than 15 repetitions per leg. As you get stronger, you can add more weight to keep it challenging.
Partial Squat, and Half-Squat Against a Wall
Squatting exercises increase hip flexibility and strengthen your hip flexors and quadriceps, which will improve both your walking ability and your ability to stand up from a seated position.
It also improves your overall balance and stability, reducing your risk of falling. For the beginner's version, stand up using a chair for support, and perform a standing partial squat as demonstrated in the ElderGym video above.
Remember to push your buttocks out as you bend to maintain a straight back posture, and do not bend your knees past your toes.
Once you're comfortable with that, try doing a half squat against a wall. This can be a more challenging move — especially if you get all the way into a seated position — so you may want to make sure you have someone there to assist you.
- Stand with your back leaning lightly against a wall, with your legs slightly wider than shoulder width apart
- Bend your knees, sliding your buttocks down the wall. Keep your knee cap in line with the middle toe of your foot, and do not bend your knee past your toes
- If your strength allows, place your feet a bit further out from the wall and lower yourself down into a seated position, as if you're sitting on an invisible chair. Hold this position for a few seconds before raising yourself back up
- Repeat 10 to 20 times
Once you can do 20 repetitions, you can increase the difficulty even further by holding a dumbbell in each hand.
For the bicep curl, make sure you're using a weight that is appropriate for your current level of strength. If you're just starting out, a five-pound dumbbell in each hand may be appropriate. You want the weight to be heavy enough that by the time you complete 10 to 12 reps, you feel like you can't keep going.
- Sit with good posture in a chair (remember to engage your core by imagining your sternum moving back towards your spine, to stabilize your posture); one dumbbell in each hand, palms facing forward, shoulders relaxed, and elbows close to your body
- Focusing on your bicep muscle, bend your arm at the elbows and lift the weights about ¾ of the way toward your shoulders. Avoid rotating your shoulders forward, and keep your elbows fixed at your side
- Breathe out as you lift the weight, and breathe in as you lower them
- Do 10 to 12 repetitions
Two Tricep Exercises
While the bicep curl above strengthens the muscle on the front of your arm, tricep exercises focus on the backside of your upper arm — an area that tends to get flabby with age and lack of use.
If either of these exercises hurt your elbows, then don't do them. As the triceps tend to be weaker than the biceps, you may want to use a lighter weight to start; maybe as light as two pounds instead of five. For the first tricep exercise:
- Sit with good posture in a chair, holding a dumbbell in your right hand
- Raise the dumbbell above your head, and stabilize your right arm by placing your left hand on your right elbow
- Slowly bend your right elbow, lowering the dumbbell down behind your head
- From that starting position, raise the weight toward the ceiling, and then gently lower it back down behind your head
- Repeat 10 times, then switch arms
Rotate your shoulders a few times to loosen any tension, then move on to the tricep kickback exercise:
- Lean forward in your chair. Keep your back straight, and brace yourself by placing your right arm across your lap, as demonstrated in the video. Hold the dumbbell in your left hand; arm outstretched toward the floor. Then pull your elbow up until the weight is at waist height
- From that starting position, press the dumbbell backward by straightening your arm, then return to starting position
- Do 12 reps, and repeat on the other side
Two Shoulder Exercises
By strengthening your shoulders, you will improve your ability to perform most other arm movements, whether it's to pass a bowl of food across the table, or lift a suitcase. It can also help relieve shoulder pain. Following are two examples of exercises that target your shoulders. To perform an overhead dumbbell press:
- Sit with good posture; one dumbbell in each hand, with your elbows bent so the dumbbells are up by your shoulders, palms facing forward
- From this starting position, press the dumbbells toward the ceiling and then lower back down to shoulder height. Breathe out as you raise the weights, and in as you lower them
- Repeat 10 to 12 times
For the diagonal outward shoulder raise:
- Sit with good posture, with a dumbbell in your right hand. Cross your right arm in front of you, so that the dumbbell is positioned by your left hip, palm facing inward toward your body
- From this starting position, keeping your arm straight, lift your arm up and across your body in a diagonal swing. At the end of the movement, your palm will be facing outward. Return your arm to starting position
- Repeat 10 times, then switch sides
Upright Front Row
Upright rows will increase strength in both your back and upper arms, and help improve mobility in your shoulders and elbow joints, allowing you to lift heavier objects.
- Stand with good posture, feet shoulder-width apart, buttocks out and knees slightly bent (so-called "happy dog" posture, as described in my interview with posture expert Kathleen Porter). Hold one dumbbell in each hand in front of your hips, palms facing inward toward your body
- Lift the weights upward, toward your chin. Remember to engage your core, and avoid arching your back or pulling your shoulders up toward your ears. Then return to starting position
- Repeat 10 times
Sit-backs will strengthen your core muscles, which will allow you greater mobility for everyday tasks such as getting out of bed or rising from chair. This exercise will be done on the floor. You may want to use a yoga mat if you don't have a rug.
- Begin sitting on the floor with knees bent and your arms crossed in front of your chest, as if you're giving yourself a hug
- Slowly sit back as far as is comfortable (this doesn't have to be a very big movement). The key is to remember to engage your core, and avoid rounding your back. It can be helpful to have someone sitting by your feet, to prevent your feet from lifting off the floor. Return to the starting position
- Repeat 10 times
It's Never Too Late to Start Strength Training
Remember, you are never too old to start exercising, and strength training in particular only becomes more important with age. My mom is an excellent example of this. She didn't take up strength training until the age of 74! Now, several years later, she's a testament to the fact that you can gain significant improvements in strength, range of motion, balance, bone density, and mental clarity, even if you get a late start.
Many of life's limitations we place on ourselves, and we can lift those limitations at any time. If you have any doubt about this, take a look at Willie Murphy, the powerlifting granny who at 77 years old can deadlift 215 pounds. Best of all, she can lift her grandchildren, shovel her own snow, and carry her own groceries with ease — and that's what it's really all about. Strength gives you the freedom to keep living life the way you want to live it, without physical limitations. As Willie says, "It's about life. L-I-F-E!"