Meet Sylvia, Janice, Harold, and Carl. They connect every afternoon to take a brisk walk, then play some shuffleboard, ping pong, or a game of cards. They laugh, talk, tease, and sometimes even sing a few of their favorite songs! They look forward to every day and can’t wait to tell the latest joke or funny story about a grandchild. For them, getting together is a great way to exercise for seniors.

Then, there’s Edward, Julia, and Dorothy. Every morning, Edward and Julia get out of bed and feel stiff, achy, and slow. It takes about 30 minutes to “loosen up” their joints. Dorothy gets winded whenever she washes her hair. Just holding her arms up to shampoo wears her out. None of these three are particularly active and prefer to sit and watch television. Frankly, most of the time, they feel lousy and tired.

Exercise Plan for Seniors Makes All the Difference

What’s the difference between these two groups? Exercise! Staying physically and mentally active has endless benefits, even for those seniors in their eighties and nineties. It helps with pain reduction and can also help people ease off some of their medications. Exercise assists with balance, fall reduction and can help combat depression. It can ward off diseases like dementia, heart disease, diabetes, and other serious health issues. Even doing a handful of simple exercises a few times every week can improve your life. Fortunately, no matter your age, it’s never too late to start an exercise program. Especially if you choose something fun to do with a group of people, it won’t feel like exercise at all!

There are Many Safe Exercises for Seniors

Why wouldn’t you want to exercise? Unfortunately, some seniors think that exercise isn’t safe for them and so they are afraid to try. They worry about overtaxing themselves or breaking a bone if they fall.

Yes, getting injured is a possibility, but by taking a few precautions, the potential for injury is much less likely. Additionally, by exercising regularly, your muscles will get stronger, your balance will get better, and the likelihood of a pulled muscle or twisted ankle is reduced even more.

The key to exercising without injury is to be careful and be aware of any physical limitations that might impact the selection of what exercises you do. 

exercising seniors

Talk to Your Physician First

Before starting any exercise program, talk with your doctor and get a complete physical. Discuss what your short- and long-term goals are, what physical restrictions you might have, specific information regarding your ability to exercise safely, and what you should – and should not – do to remain injury-free.

Your doctor may connect you with a physical therapist or trainer to help you put together an easy and fun exercise routine. Inform this professional of any medical conditions or physical restrictions you have for them to serve you better. After a physical assessment with your trainer, you’ll begin with a low-intensity workout program designed for your specific needs, then progress to a higher intensity program very gradually over the coming months.

Whenever you start a new exercise program, be very careful, because chronic health conditions can make activities more difficult. Especially in the beginning, avoid high-intensity exercises or those involving lots of repetitions. These may aggravate joints. If you have arthritis, only repeat a motion up to 10 times. Additionally, multiple session formats (a few short sessions per day, rather than one long session) or a circuit program is best if you have osteoarthritis.

How Often Should You Exercise?

With your mental and physical health in mind, exercise routines should be done according to your doctor’s plans. Most programs recommend working out with 30 to 45 minutes of movement at least three days a week. For senior adults, include rest days where you refrain from any exercise, yet continue to stay active most days. For example, on day one, do an hour of stretching, the next day just rest, the third day do some light weightlifting, then on day four take a leisurely walk, and so forth. Rest days allow your muscles to heal themselves for improved ability over time. Some programs may require multiple rest days, so let yourself do the exercises slowly and take breaks whenever you need it.

senior exercising

Make Exercise A Habit

To make any permanent changes to your health and muscle strength, it’s essential to do some type of physical activity every week. Since these weekly exercises are crucial, choose a physical task or two that you enjoy doing (dancing, walking, yoga, swimming, etc.) and stick to a routine. Doing this exercise with a group of friends is even better! You can all encourage each other and make the time more enjoyable.

According to several studies, it generally takes at least three weeks for something to become a habit. The best way to create one is to think of the Nike slogan: Just Do It! You may have to force yourself to exercise for a few weeks until your brain makes these activities an automatic behavior. But soon, your body will begin to enjoy the movement, and you might even start to look forward to it!

Although some people might be able to force themselves into a new habit despite not wanting to exercise, other people may prefer to use rewards, distractions, or encouragement to get into the routine. Of course, one of the best ways of guaranteeing a habit will stick is to find a neighbor, friend, or family member to exercise with you. Or make a deal with your exercise partner that you’ll get a special treat, go shopping, or buy some flowers after working out.

Exercising with home items

Exercise With Things In Your Own Home

If you have the opportunity and the space to exercise in your own home or room, it can make it easier to get into the habit of working out more frequently. Your own place is more convenient than having to go to the gym.

Here are a few everyday objects that you can turn into equipment to help you exercise. For example:

Walls: Standing about two feet away, place your palms against the wall, lean forward, and do ten standing pushups. For stretches, use a doorway as a brace. Hold on to the door jam and lean forward, then back. Another good move is to lean against the wall and, while keeping your back against it, “walk” out a step or two. Roll your shoulders back and try to touch them to the wall. This is a perfect exercise to strengthen shoulder muscles and improve your posture. Ask your physical therapist what other fitness activities you can do.

Groceries: Yes – groceries! By holding a can of soup in each hand (or any other canned good), the weight will offer some resistance. Begin with arms at your sides, palms up (and the can in your hand). Then bend arms at the elbow until your hand touches your shoulder. Move one arm at a time.

Another good exercise – while sitting in a chair, hold a can between your feet and extend your legs. This works not only your inner thigh muscles but your stomach area too (also known as your core). As these exercises get more manageable, find heavier groceries to use!

Chairs: A hardbacked wooden chair will give older adults with poor balance or limited mobility the capability to exercise. Sitting on a chair will take the pressure off certain parts of the body and isolate other parts. This will give you the freedom to strengthen and exercise one area of your body at a time. Sitting down will let you move your arms and upper body first, then work on your legs. Holding the back of the chair while doing standing exercises will offer better balance and safety. Many workouts use nothing more than a sturdy chair and your body weight.

Stairs: A flight of stairs or even just two or three steps are perfect for exercising your cardiovascular system. Stepping up and down is an ideal way to improve blood flow, increase your heart rate, and work your hips and legs. Instead of working out on an elliptical machine (which was invented to reproduce the action of climbing stairs), stay with what you have. Just remember to hold onto the handrails!

Swimming Pool: If you are lucky enough to live somewhere with a swimming pool, you can safely work your joints and muscles while floating in the water. Swimming can take the strain off joints while strengthening muscles and raising your heart rate. Perfect for cardiovascular activity, too!

No Equipment: There are many functional strengthening and stretching exercises that can be done with no equipment at all. By using your body weight, simple sit-ups, leg lifts, arm extensions, pushups, etc., can offer as much – if not more – benefit than using machines in a gym. Frankly, one of the best things you can do for yourself using no equipment is to take a walk.

Bottom line – don’t worry about what kind of equipment you have. The secret to a healthier and stronger body is consistency and the right level of intensity in your weekly exercise routine.

Every time you exercise, you must remember to breathe normally throughout the workout. Be sure to use proper form and control; if necessary, ask for professional guidance and a demonstration of the movement.  

Senior Exercising with Bands

Exercise vs. Physical Activity

Any movement that requires the energy of the skeletal muscles to perform is considered physical activity. It can include workouts, but also general body movements that happen with daily routines. Physical tasks such as walking, getting out of bed, brushing your teeth or your hair, changing a light bulb, and even playing cards or bingo, can offer some of the same benefits as exercise. You are stretching, moving muscles, and using your balance to do these activities every day, although it is less strenuous than regular exercise.

On the other hand, exercise is a physical activity that has the aim of maintaining or improving physical fitness and is most often repetitive and structured. People exercise to strengthen one of the five aspects of physical fitness: Cardio-respiratory fitness, body composition, endurance, flexibility, and muscular strength. Most senior citizens tend to live a less active lifestyle as they get older and lose these abilities as they age. Exercise is the only way to regain what they have lost.

Both physical activity and exercise can build health. Frankly, many seniors who live a consistently active lifestyle can often maintain their physical fitness just through action and movement. However, some of those seniors may still need to do individualized exercise routines to address issues such as arthritis or heart disease. In another example, a senior who recently had hip replacement surgery will still need physical therapy to build flexibility and strength, no matter how active their lifestyle is or in how excellent physical shape they are.

Recent research recommends that, for a truly healthy life, seniors should engage in both physical activity and exercise. Lazy lifestyles are the reason that even daily exercise routines are not as effective as they can be. A senior citizen will have trouble staying fit if they exercise intensely for an hour but then sit down for the rest of the day.

Ways to Help Yourself Get Fit

It’s essential to exercise regularly and to also engage in physical activity throughout the day. Stand when you talk on the phone. Whenever possible, take the stairs instead of the elevator. Join a choir for deep breathing exercises (plus, it’s fun!). Take a walk with your neighbor. Turn on the radio and dance to the next three songs. You can turn almost any activity into exercise if you do it often enough and intensely enough.

Here are a few more suggestions:

  • Add weights while you walk: Many weights are small and easy to carry in your hands. Or hold a bottle of water in each hand as you walk. Swing your arms with each step.
  • Turn a daily activity into an exercise: Do you enjoy being outdoors? Tai Chi classes, for instance, are usually held outside. Or try your hand at gardening or yoga.
  • Watch less television – or do some leg lifts and stretches during the commercials. Get up from your chair and walk around the room for the duration of the breaks.

Track Your Progress

As mentioned earlier, it is crucial to start slowly and follow the exercise routine recommended by your physical therapist or doctor. Don’t push yourself too quickly! Light stretching, pedaling a recumbent bike, walking on a treadmill, and easy strength-training exercises with light weights are the safest exercises for seniors to begin with.

So, how can you tell if you’re making progress? While there are many ways to measure the benefits of an exercise routine, what you track depends on the type of results you’re expecting. For example, a muscle-strengthening program is measured differently than a weight loss program.

Here are common ways to track progress:

Muscular strength: These programs measure success by the fortification of nerves and muscles that are used to lift objects. While building muscle strength, keep track of the number of repetitions you can do, or the total weight lifted during each exercise.

Cardiovascular health: Have your blood pressure measured regularly. A low pulse rate preserves cardiac function and arteries and signifies that the heart is not having to work too hard to pump the blood. Having an appropriate body mass index (BMI) ensures that you are better able to fight off disease and are not overweight. A low BMI also helps to guarantee that joints are not overloaded by carrying extra weight. You are also less likely to have diabetes and other ailments.

Ease of daily routine: How effortless is it for you to live your everyday life? Can you put your groceries away? Are you able to get dressed or comb your hair without assistance? Many people are only looking to perform day-to-day tasks without help. A few simple exercises a few times a week can help you reach your goal.

You can thank your new exercise routine if you are having fewer physical challenges, and your days are getting easier. So, get out there and have some fun while you exercise!

About Villa St. Francis

Villa St Francis is an assisted living community in Milwaukee with a mission to continue the ministry of Jesus by providing person-centered services to meet the contemporary needs of aging individuals and their families.